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Gifford’s ice cream is a longtime Maine tradition

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Top: Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream stand in Skowhegan, Maine.
Top: Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream stand in Skowhegan, Maine.

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — When Lindsay Skilling was growing up, she used to help her father, John Gifford, staple papers for meetings and make "special deliveries" for Gifford's Famous Ice Cream, the family business he co-owns with his brother, Roger. With her siblings, John Charles Jr. ("JC") and Samantha Gifford, she helped her mother at the miniature golf course connected to the company's flagship ice cream stand here. Now she and her siblings run the whole operation with their cousin, Ryan Porter. If one of them ever thought of working anyplace else, the thought was short lived.

Sitting on a slightly dusty road, the pale yellow clapboard structure that houses the Gifford's factory sits inconspicuously in its largely residential neighborhood. Built in the 1930s, it used to be a holding station for milk that was shipped to Boston from local farms. Today it is the heart of an operation that churns 2,000,000 gallons of delicious, premium-quality ice cream per year and sends them to stands, restaurants, and retailers in 19 states. Many employees have been with Gifford's for two or more decades. John Gifford says, "They're like family."

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The company's roots go back to late 1800s Connecticut, when Nathaniel Main started a home-delivery milk and ice cream business. About a half-century later Main's granddaughter, Audrey, married Randall Gifford, from Portland, Maine. Gifford moved his wife and four children to his home state in the 1970s and bought a dairy in Farmington, followed by another in Skowhegan.

In 1980, John and Roger Gifford started making ice cream in a corner of the Skowhegan dairy, which is now Gifford's headquarters. They built their first stand, two miles from the factory, that year, and a second one, in Farmington, two years later. The company was making about 10,000 gallons of ice cream a year and had the sixth-largest fluid milk business in the state. When Oakhurst Dairy, in Portland, offered to buy the milk business, the brothers decided to sell and focus on ice cream. It was a big risk, but, notes Roger Gifford, "we knew we had a good product, using old family recipes."

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Gifford's still relies on those family recipes, largely unchanged since the 1940s. Even the cocoa powder blend for chocolate ice cream is proprietary. The company makes 90 percent of the bases for its more than 100 flavors, as opposed to buying mixes, which is common practice.

Flavors rotate seasonally, according to Skilling. A flavor committee meets frequently to talk about changes in the repertoire based on input from employees, customers (via e-mail, phone, and social media), and sales reps. "Sometimes we come up with flavor names before we know what the flavor is going to be," Skilling says.

One of her favorite examples is Maine Lobster Tracks, vanilla ice cream with lobster-colored white chocolate cups filled with caramel, and an eclair crunch swirl. "One day my father said, 'We need a Maine lobster something flavor,'" she recalls. Figuring it should be similar to the company's beloved Moose Tracks — vanilla ice cream with fudge swirl and miniature peanut butter cups — the elder Giffords said they needed chocolate candies the color of lobster and asked Skilling to "buy a lobster and cook it and take the Pantone colors home to match the lobster exactly to the color. I thought they were kidding," she says. But she did it. They had the candy custom-made, and the flavor is a big hit.

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Gifford's uses as many local ingredients as possible in its ice cream. All dairy comes from Oakhurst. Blueberries and maple syrup are from Maine. In addition to the bases, the company makes almost all of its own ripples, and most of the toppings at its five stands in Maine. "That's another way that sets us apart and raises the bar for premium ice cream," Skilling notes.

Ice cream is churned in three Cherry-Burrell freezers, which, like the recipes, date back to the 1940s. "Our dad learned to make ice cream on those," John Gifford notes. The ice cream makers in the family like them because they have two barrels, so the custard has more contact with the freezing surface. On the plant floor, JC Gifford explains, "We could get one freezer to replace all of those, but it would change the quality" of the ice cream.

Roger Gifford collects the freezers and other equipment at auctions. "When we buy them we rebuild them to bring them up to today's standards," he says. In addition to the three freezers in active use, he has four in reserve. "We buy them whenever we find them," he says. Two batch pasteurizing tanks in the plant came from the auction held when Brigham's went out of business.

In the spring, Gifford's expanded the plant by 3,810 square feet and installed new packaging equipment, doubling the company's production capacity. "The building has changed a bit," says JC Gifford. "Strangely enough, a lot of the faces haven't."

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Gifford's ice cream is available at 910 Minot Ave., Auburn, Maine, 207-784-1260; 1109 Broadway, Bangor, Maine, 207-947-7848; 293 Main St., Farmington, Maine, 207-778-3617; 307 Madison Ave., Skowhegan, Maine, 207-474-2257; and 170 Silver St., Waterville, Maine, 207-872-6631. Quarts are available at several markets in Massachusetts; go to www.giffordsicecream.com.


Andrea Pyenson can be reached at apyenson@gmail.com.