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October 11, 2017

Maine Food Insider: Gifford's heats up as ice cream season cools down

Courtesy / Gifford's Famous Ice Cream
Courtesy / Gifford's Famous Ice Cream
Lindsay Skilling, CEO of Gifford's Famous Ice Cream, has good reason to smile: The Skowhegan company took home some gold in the yearly World Dairy Expo contest winners. Gifford's Old Fashioned Vanilla won in the traditional vanilla category and the company's orange sherbet was the open sherbet winner.
Courtesy / Gifford's Famous Ice Cream
Gifford's Old Fashioned Vanilla took first place in this year's World Dairy Expo competition.

It probably didn't surprise many who follow ice cream news that when the World Dairy Expo announced its yearly contest winners last week, Gifford's Famous Ice Cream brought home some gold.

The Skowhegan company's Old Fashioned Vanilla won in the traditional vanilla category and the company's orange sherbet was the open sherbet winner, just the latest in a long line of winners in what's considered the cream of the dairy contest crop.

The expo this year had 1,489 entries in 79 dairy categories from cheese to whey, including 14 ice cream categories.

"It's a tremendous honor to see our ice cream recognized," CEO Lindsay Skilling said.

From 2009 to 2014, the company's World's Best Chocolate not only came in first in the chocolate category, but was named ice cream Grand Champion. At the time, no other company had won that title twice in a row.

This year, the chocolate was shut out, but Skilling takes it in stride.

"It's a blind taste test, there are different judges every year," she said Tuesday. "It all depends on what appeals to them."

And, no, Gifford's is not going to change the name of World's Best Chocolate.

"Even though it didn't win at the competition, we still feel as though it's a winner," she said.

Chocolate is only one of more than 100 other flavors that are winners for the company. This year, Gifford's served more than 1 million cones from its five stands, just a small portion of the 2.2 million gallons it sells a year, as far south as the Carolinas and west to Nevada.

New flavors, big hits

The company has come a long way from when Skilling's grandparents Randall and Audrey Gifford made coffee and berry ice cream from family recipes in the kitchen of their dairy farm.

The Gifford family, which owned dairies in Farmington and Skowhegan, opened its first stand in Skowhegan in 1980.

In the early 1980s, the company employed six and produced 10,000 gallons of ice cream a year. Now it employs 42 year-round, 120 when its seasonal stands in Farmington, Bangor, Waterville, Auburn and Skowhegan are open.

A recent news release from the company, besides announcing the contest winners, reported on how this year's new flavors did — Blueberry Oat Crumble Frozen Yogurt, Power Play Fudge and Chocolate Peanut Butter were the big hits. Gifford's also raised more than $7,000 for the Travis Mills Foundation at its stands, created new products and celebrated the Farmington stand's 35 anniversary.

At the other end of the spectrum are partnerships and branding that is getting the company recognition outside Maine. For instance, Gifford's is beginning the second year of a three-year partnership with the Boston Bruins that includes donating 5% of Power Play Fudge sales to the Boston Bruins Foundation, which helps support programs for children. The flavor is being sold in grocery stores throughout New England.

"It's really fun," Skilling said, of the relationship with the National Hockey League team.

Local sourcing

The company's roots, though, are still firmly local.

Gifford's still operates its sole plant in Skowhegan, where the family dairy first began making ice cream, though it has expanded the site by 3,810 square feet. The ice cream is slow-churned by antique Cherry Burrell freezers.

Skilling said local sourcing has always been a company philosophy.

"As a small Maine business, we're trying to support other local businesses," she said. "It's something we're looking at all the time. We try to support those who will turn into lifetime supporters of us as well."

Milk and cream come from Oakhurst Dairy, the maple syrup in Gifford's is the real Maine product, and its Maine Wild Blueberry ice cream has been a favorite for years.

Skilling said the local focus and the care the company puts into its products are part of what makes it successful in a health-conscious world where ice cream may not be the go-to it once was.

"We feel, and what's shown in our sales, is that people still want a quality treat," she said. "Maybe they're health conscious, maybe they're on a diet, but if they believe in the quality of a product, they'll still buy it.

Skilling said many of its employees have worked for the company for decades. "We couldn't do it without them," she said.

The stands are closing as the weather cools. The Skowhegan stand closed Sunday, the ones in Waterville and Auburn close Oct. 22 and in Bangor and Farmington on Oct. 29. Before they open next spring, the company's flavor committee will review sales and retire some flavors to make way for new ones.

There are some surprises — the black raspberry chocolate chip frozen yogurt, which won first place at last year's dairy expo, is the fourth best seller and continues to climb in popularity. Chocolate and vanilla are always popular, Skilling said.

The company has been entering its ice cream in the dairy expo contest for a decade, and plans to keep doing it. But the palates Gifford's is really focused on are the ones who make the biggest difference: Its customers.

The most exciting time at the company?

"When we launch the new flavors in the spring," Skilling said.

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