One of Santa Barbara’s most high-profile companies is not a high-tech company, an alternative energy firm, or a “green” business; it’s McConnell’s Ice Cream. Founded in 1949, McConnell’s ice cream is now available nationwide in hundreds of markets, select restaurants, and ice cream shops. In this week’s column, I will explore the history of this local phenomenon, review their current business operations, and discuss their future with owner Jim McCoy.
As stated above, McConnell’s was founded in 1949. Gordon "Mac" McConnell and his wife Ernestine established the first McConnell’s on the corner of State and Mission streets, on the former lot of the famous Flying A Movie Studios, makers of hundreds of silent movies from 1915 to 1929. McConnell developed his now famous ice cream recipes and production methods after sampling the great ice creams of Europe during his tour as an air force pilot during WWII. He created recipes which called for nothing but the most select ingredients available.
McConnell may have been the first in the United States to import the then cutting-edge "French Pot" method of quality, commercial ice cream production. In fact, to this day, McConnell's keeps as a highly guarded trade secret their one-of-a-kind French Pot hybrid, continuous freezer machine that is a direct descendent of the original French pot machines that "Mac" McConnell brought over to America in 1949.
McConnell's Ice Cream (then just the corner store) was purchased in 1963 by Jim McCoy, who had worked for Shell Oil after serving in the infantry. After a degree from Claremont McKenna College he worked for Ringling Brothers Circus until he reported for duty as a Lieutenant in the infantry. In 1980 their Master Ice Cream Maker, Mike Vierra, joined the firm.
In 1987 the retail store moved two blocks to Mission and De La Vina. It is still there; owned and operated by Bob and Jean Moss since 2003. The corporate headquarters and the plant have been located about 2 miles away, at the corner of Canon Perdido and Milpas, since 1975. Ice cream was first made at the new plant on July 4, 1976, on the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The multi-colored cow on the roof has been painted and repainted by Santa Barbara High and the opposing football teams for over 40 years.
Jim McCoy turned the day-to-day management of the company over to Jimmy Young, his stepson, in 1999. Among Jimmy's accomplishments were redesigning their “pint” line, increasing overall sales, and adding the European or "gelateria" style of packaging to their bulk products. In 2009 Jimmy built their first retail shop in many decades by opening and running McConnell's Fine Ice Cream & Yogurt in Ventura. They are also working to develop a new Super Premium ice cream/yogurt concept. McConnell’s offers pint containers, 3-gallon bulk, as well as private label products.
What Makes McConnell's So Special?
When choosing their raw ingredients, from local fresh cream to Bourbon vanilla beans, Guittard chocolates, Hawaiian macadamia nuts, Pacific Northwest fruit and blended coffees from Columbia, price is not a significant factor. McConnell's uses only the most select ingredients for all grades of their ice creams, and they do not use any artificial ingredients or stabilizers in their products. Their top quality Bourdon vanilla beans, (Vanilla planifolia), are the most popular variety of vanilla beans commercially available in the United States. One of the main flavor components in Bourbon vanilla is vanillin, which imparts the bean with its distinctive vanilla flavor. Guittard Chocolate Company, the oldest family owned and operated chocolate company is the U.S., is one of the world's most respected purveyors of Premium chocolate. McConnell’s uses their chocolates exclusively.
McConnell’s trademark Super Premium ice cream is called "The densest in town!" A 3-gallon tub weighs 24 pounds, while a comparable competitor's brand can weigh as little as 13 pounds. The relative density of ice cream is described in terms of "overrun," which is a percent measurement of air that enters ice cream during the manufacturing process. McConnell's Super Premium ice creams are held to only 15% overrun, making them the creamiest available. If a lighter brand is what you prefer, then McConnell's uses the same hand-picked ingredients and expertise to produce their select Santa Barbara Ice Cream line.
McConnell’s has 38 permanent flavors that are available in their stores and through distributors, restaurants, ice cream shops, and markets. In addition, they are constantly working on new flavors. They also offer specialty flavors at certain times of the year, like their avocado flavor for the Avocado Festival, and their Russian Nesslerode—an Italian fruit ice cream with brandy and rum, Cranberry Sorbet, Pumpkin, and Egg Nog flavors for Christmas time. McCoy says that, if he decides he wants a new flavor, he just hits the number five on his intercom, which connects him directly with Mike Vierra, his Master Ice Cream Maker, and tells Mike what he wants. That sounds like my kind of job!
While all of their flavors sound delicious, (and I am trying to sample them all), some of the ones that sound particularly tasty include: Bordeaux Strawberry, Brazilian Coffee Chip, Chocolate Raspberry Truffle, Vermont Blueberry, and Strawberry Cheesecake.
The Future for McConnell’s looks sweet
McConnell’s and the Berryman have just signed an agreement this week to have Berryman carry McConnell’s ice cream in all of their trucks, The Berryman’s familiar blue trucks will start carrying McConnell’s ice creams right away.
Jim McCoy relates that, despite the economy, he is very optimistic about the future prospects for McConnell’s. Judging by the pace of their growth, and the new contracts they have signed recently, his optimism appears well founded. McConnell’s ice creams can now be found in 100% Gelson’s, 100% of Whole Foods Markets, 100% of Bristol Farms, 82 Ralph’s locations (their order process takes time, and based on existing and expected orders this number should increase significantly in the short-term), select Vons (all local locations), select Albertson’s (all local locations), and major independents like Montecito Village Market, Lazy Acres, and Nielson Brother’s market and El Rancho Market, (both in Solvang).
McCoy relates that in the first year of operations after he bought the company in 1963, revenues totaled $18,000. Today, revenues are well into the seven figure range, and his expectations are for even stronger growth to come. McCoy sees strong demand for his ice cream and the opportunity for expanding into new stores and new markets across the country. He also states that McConnell’s is on the verge of signing a new contract with El Torito restaurants, which has 400 to 500 restaurants nationwide.
As a business model, ice cream is one of those rare products that just seem to do better each year, regardless of the economy, trends, tastes, new products, etc. The product is inexpensive enough that even when times are tough, customers will still buy it. In fact, when times are really tough, ice cream sales will likely increase, because it is one of the few things that can make people feel good and that doesn’t cost a lot, (and that isn’t really bad for you, although you might gain a few pounds if you really get crazy with it).
There are many premium and specialty ice cream brands out there, but few like McConnell’s with national appeal. McConnell’s has been mentioned on several television shows, including Frasier, The Rosie O’Donnell show (when she interviewed Barbra Streisand—Barbra had some in her freezer), and even on Fox News Los Angeles, when they did a segment entitled; “One of the Best Jobs in the World!”
McConnell’s is a private company, so we can’t buy their stock, but if the company was publicly-traded, I’m certain it would be trading at a premium to match the premium quality of their ice cream. Now if I can just talk Jim into giving me some free samples!