Ice cream shops gear up for the summer season

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From the two 400-foot tube slides on the hill to the miniature golf course with fluorescent blue water near the road, everything at Kerber’s Dairy is there to sell ice cream.

“Every single one of those kids out there is coming in here for ice cream,” owner Tom Kerber Sr. said as he watched children shrieking with delight fly backwards down the tube slide on a sunny Wednesday morning. “Ice cream is a big part of our business.”

The Irwin business, which at one time was a dairy farm, opened in 1965 and since then has added attractions to help draw customers in. There’s the petting zoo and the hayrides. The golf course was added three years ago. The tube slide, Kerber’s newest attraction, opened just a few weeks ago.

“We do a packaged deal,” Mr. Kerber said. “Most of the people within the golf tickets and the tube tickets, they all end up — about 95 percent of them — getting ice cream. It’s attracting a lot of people now already that probably weren't here previously.”

Summer is ice cream’s biggest season, but it’s not just a matter of stocking the cases and throwing open the serving windows. As the weather warms, ice cream businesses begin the hunt for seasonal workers they may not have needed or been able to afford during the winter season. Some, like Kerber’s, add outside activities to bring in more customers and boost revenue. And they whip up lots of different flavors to make a visit fun for their customers.

This is a key time to make money to get through the rest of the year.

“All ice cream stores have higher sales in the summer months than winter months. It seems once school begins in the fall, ice cream sales plummet,” said Lynda Utterback, executive director of the National Ice Cream Retail Association. The trade organization has 300 members.

“When the kids start back to school, they have homework, football practice, other kinds of activities they’re involved in,” she said. “They don’t have the time, as a family, to go to the ice cream store for a treat.”

Marta Sauret-Greca, who manages the Bruster’s Real Ice Cream franchise in Ingomar with her twin, Marco Sauret, agreed that her budget planning depends heavily on a good summer season. Typically, profits rise about 1,000 percent during the warm months, she said.

“What we make in the summer is what’s going to get me through the winter. You have to stick to budget. I joke around when I say I’m like a hamster with finances because I have to store them and see where they go,” she said.

A job at the ice cream shop

Getting prepared for the summer rush means finding extra employees. Kerber’s has 22 employees but hires about four to six extra workers during the summer. Bruster’s hires around 10 seasonal employees each year.

“A lot of them are high school kids, college kids, kids that go to local colleges but are still living at home,” Mr. Kerber said of his seasonal employees. “We do have some adults here working, too. So far we’ve had pretty good luck with it. We get a lot of kids that have friends, so if they recommend it then we go on their recommendation.”

Brr-Kee’s Ice Cream in Oakmont also tends to hire seasonal employees based on recommendations — they hired 11 for the 2014 summer season.

It’s no problem getting applicants, said owners Tim and Terry Lutz.

“I used to print 100 applications and I stopped that because I’d still be getting names and phone numbers,” said Ms. Lutz. “Now I do 50.”

Just like Mama used to make

Getting customers to get in their cars and head out for ice cream — rather than just reaching for the box in the freezer — means offering a product that is made fresh in the store and comes in lots of flavors. Brr-Kee’s has about 80 flavors, Kerber’s offers about 95 and Bruster’s has more than 100.

Behind the kitchen in the back of Kerber’s Dairy storefront, Tom Kerber Jr. — wearing a plastic hairnet, rubber gloves and an apron — adds ice cream mix to a shiny silver ice cream maker. A similar machine is tucked behind the service windows at Brr-Kee’s, adjacent to a dry-erase board covered with ice cream flavor requests.

Ms. Utterback said many of her organization’s members serve their own ice cream, which is better and fresher than store-bought ice cream. “The ice cream you get in a store is produced in January. If you’re buying ice cream today, it’s already 6 months old,” she said.

Kerber’s does offer options such as frozen yogurt, which is brought in from an outside supplier, and soft-serve ice cream. Brr-Kee’s doesn’t offer soft-serve but does have some gelato options.

“Every once in awhile people will order that, but for the most part they want ice cream,” Mr. Lutz said. “We sell way more ice cream than we sell gelato.”

Tom. Kerber Sr. agreed. “I know yogurt may be better nutritional wise — but people who come here want what tastes good. I don’t know how to say it without being negative or derogatory about it. The bottom line is, eventually people buy what they like, what tastes good,” he said.

Kerber’s clientele is mainly families and a lot of the marketing strategies are aimed toward children, and that means thinking about more than just what the product tastes like.

“Most kids you saw out there, they don’t care what flavor the ice cream is — they care what color the ice cream is,” Tom Kerber Jr. said as his machine mixed ingredients for a blue-vanilla ice cream called Dinosaur Crunch. “We have cute names. Anything that sounds really goofy or fun, they like that.”

His father pointed out an additional marketing trick. “This is sort of hidden, this is an older case,” Tom Kerber Sr. explained, gesturing to a metal display case that came up to his waist then to another next to it that came up to midknee. “The newer styles, the kids that are small can look right in there.”

While Mr. Sauret at Bruster’s agreed that colors and flavor sell ice cream, his sister had a different perspective. “I think it’s more of a novelty thing, the experience of coming to the ice cream shop rather than going to the grocery store and getting a quart,” she said.

More than just ice cream

Still, sometimes it takes more than ice cream in cups and cones to bring in the crowds, so the shops try offering services or miniature golf or other differentiating policies.

The Bruster’s in Ingomar caters weddings and birthday parties and offers a cake decorating workshop, in addition to hosting activities like Easter egg hunts and costume contests.

On July 20 — National Ice Cream Day — they’re planning to host an ice cream eating contest to benefit the North Hills Community Outreach, an organization that helps struggling families and individuals.

“Like many businesses, we get hit up a lot for donations,” Ms. Sauret-Greca said. “This is a way we can bring in a crowd and donate to local nonprofits by using the sources we do have.”

Brr-Kee’s gets a lot of business from fundraisers and church functions, the Lutzes said.

And then there’s the policy that brings in pet lovers. Brr-Kee’s doesn’t just serve human customers. It also gives free ice cream to dogs, cats and birds.

“We have a lot of people that come down because ’the dog’ wants ice cream,” Mr. Lutz said. “I don’t know if it increases the amount of business we would normally do, but it does for the dog.”

Open season

Though busiest during their summer months, some smaller ice cream businesses stay open year-round to compete with chains like Dairy Queen. Others simply cannot afford to take the season off. On a typical winter day, Bruster’s can make between $200 and $400, Ms. Sauret-Greca said.

Winter, too, offers opportunities for seasonal flavors. The Kerbers said they entice customers in with offerings such as Egg Nog and Rum Raisin.

Meanwhile, the Lutzes report some loyal customers have braved snow storms for their ice cream.

“We have some real faithful people,” said Ms. Lutz.

Madasyn Czebiniak: or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak.

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