The old adage says, "Life is short. Eat dessert first." That's a pretty good theme for Southern Craft Creamery, where longtime dairy producers took the plunge into one of the tastiest, albeit difficult, ways to add value to their homegrown commodity -- gourmet ice cream. It wasn't all about markets, however, for the Eade family.
"We were pulled toward a value-added product so we could talk to consumers about where food comes from," Dale Eade says. It's a message that goes down a lot easier with a scoop of ice cream.
"We wanted that personal interaction," he adds.
"We've had children, and even adults, tell us they had no idea how milk was produced before they toured the farm," Dale's wife, Cindy, says.
With a 300-cow Jersey, Jersey-Holstein dairy, the Eades were fighting an uphill battle in the commodity milk market. The Pensacola natives met in high school, dated throughout college and married after graduation. They started Cindale Dairy, out of Marianna, Florida, in 1994.
Dale says early on, people in the community would ask where they could buy Cindale Dairy milk. But, until they started selling ice cream directly to the public, all the milk they produced was being sold on the commodity market.
"We couldn't tell them where to buy Cindale Dairy milk, but this (ice cream business) has always been in the back of our minds," he says.
In 2010, the Eades were visiting daughter Lauren in Georgia when she told them about a food show she attended as part of her job as a wine salesman. She met an entrepreneur in Atlanta who made and sold ice cream. He was having trouble sourcing local milk, so she asked her parents if they could help.
"The light bulb went off," Cindy says.
"We didn't sleep that night," Dale adds. The next day, they asked Lauren and her husband, Zach O'Bryan, if they wanted to move to Florida and help the family start an ice cream business. "That night, they were the ones who didn't sleep," he laughs.
ICE CREAM SHORT COURSE
The O'Bryans started their research and development of an ice cream business in a converted peanut warehouse. They enrolled in the University of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania State University (PSU) ice cream short courses. Their instructors were hardly encouraging.
When Zach had to back out at the last minute from the PSU course, Cindy went with Lauren. "They thought we were crazy," she recalls of the instructors' reaction to their business idea.
Their plan was to make ice cream with nonhomogenized milk. That's the "old-fashioned milk" where the cream literally rises to the top.
But, it comes with challenges. "With nonhomogenized milk, the fat levels are usually pretty high," says Robert Roberts, professor of food science at PSU. "If there is too much fat, or you freeze it wrong, it is greasy. We call it buttering out."
Dale jokes, "We had really tasty butter for six months." They stuck with their plan though.
They insisted on making their own base rather than buying it using real, locally sourced flavors. It was on a flavor-hunting trip that the family got a real break for their Southern Craft Creamery. Lauren and Zach were visiting a coffee roaster in Panama City when the owner, so impressed with their mission, gave them his customer list.
The family continued to refine and test its ice cream recipe. After about eight months, even Lauren and Zach, who the Eades describe as perfectionists, felt the ice cream was right and ready to sell.
COMING HOME TO THE FARM
The value-added business brought new streams of income to the farm but also a lot of work. Enter daughter Meghan, a veterinarian, and her husband, Brad Austin, a Ph.D. in beef cattle nutrition and reproduction. The couple took over management of the dairy, freeing up Dale and Cindy to grow the ice cream business.
With the coffee-supplier's customer list in hand, the Eades soon had pints, quarts and 5-liter pans delivered up and down famed Florida Scenic Highway 30A.
The scoop shops, grocery stores and restaurants that carry their ice cream range from down-home to upscale. But, Southern Craft Creamery's buyers all had one thing in common -- they are all locally owned.
Dale says this is important because "then the owner can take an interest in us, and we can take an interest in them.
"One of our early decisions was to deliver everything ourselves," he continues. "We have two trucks, and we keep the ice cream at -15 to -20ºF. If there is a quality issue, we know where to look. Ninety percent of the time, we stock the shelves ourselves. We want to present our product to the customers in the best way possible."
DIRECT CUSTOMER SALES
In 2017, the family started renovating a former hardware store turned hair salon into an ice cream shop. They officially opened in February 2018. Dale says the business has been self-supporting since Day 1, but they're waiting on a normal year to fully judge.
In October 2018, Hurricane Michael ripped through the Panhandle. Southern Craft Creamery, which had a generator, ended up being an air-conditioned sleep space and kitchen for the family, as well as for volunteers and first responders who came to help.
They had to clear a road so the milk truck could get to the milk parlor. It took months of cleanup and fence-building to get things back to normal. Then, the pandemic hit.
"We were only closed for one week," Dale says. Their wholesale business dropped 65%, but it has come back, and the ice cream shop continues to thrive.
Southern Craft Creamery has 10 to 12 signature flavors selected from 85 total. Main attractions include the Zucchini and Bay Laurel flavors.
Whether a guest walks into the shop to see one of the Eades or an employee, they can talk to someone who can answer any questions about the dairy or the ice cream.
"We work at it," Dale says. Employees spend a day at the dairy to learn about milk production and the care of the herd.
Expansion is something the ice cream entrepreneurs are considering, but for now, they are happy their shop has helped them invest in the community, which was what this was all about to begin with.
Jackson County Chamber of Commerce executive director Tiffany Garling says, "The creamery draws a lot of tourists, as well as provides a fun place for families and friends to gather downtown."
Located about four miles from Florida Caverns State Park and 60 miles from Panama City, Southern Craft Creamery has served visitors from all but three or four states, as well as 35 countries.
Some 45,000 pints of Cindale milk are sold annually through the ice cream shop or wholesale business. At customer request, they've added bottled milk as well as forage-fed and grain-finished beef -- all from Cindale.
The family may make its retail and wholesale enterprises look effortless, but don't be fooled.
Brad emphasizes, "This isn't farming." And, Meghan adds, it's important to "develop the skill set you need or find people who can do it for you. Have an overall vision, but be flexible."
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
-- Pennsylvania State University (PSU) holds a seven-day Ice Cream Short Course every January and has since 1925. More than 20 workshops cover everything from flavor to freezing. Attendees range from manufacturers to merchandisers. Sponsored by PSU's food science department, the next course will be January 2022. foodscience.psu.edu/workshops/ice-cream-short-course
-- Southern Craft Creamery and Cindale Farms: www.southerncraftcreamery.com
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