Cedar Crest is 'craft beer' of ice cream industry
MANITOWOC - A warm and sunny day in mid-June brought a steady stream of customers to the Cedar Crest ice cream parlor on the city’s southeast side.
Small children stopped to say “hi” to Bernice, the large cow statue in front of the building, and then stood on tippy toes with noses pressed against the counter’s window for a better look at tubs holding bright Blue Moon ice cream and tempting chocolate and vanilla.
The smiles of kids brings a smile to Ken Kohlwey, president of Cedar Crest Specialties. He started the business decades ago with his brothers Bill, Robert and Tim.
“You never get sick of seeing how happy the customers are,” he said. “And I’ve never gotten sick of ice cream. Every time I think I have found my all-time favorite flavor, we come out with a new one that knocks the old one out of its place.”
Cedar Crest is part of what makes this community special, with both Manitowoc residents and tourists stopping to see what the latest flavors might be. The company produces more than 100 flavors of the creamy treat, along with frozen yogurt, sherbet and even gelato. The company’s headquarters are in Cedarburg.
The ice cream parlor is a popular place, but it wasn’t always part of the setup. The Kohlwey brothers initially manufactured their ice cream at a small shop they bought in Oshkosh. They bought the larger plant from Land O'Lakes in 1988.
“When we first came in, they had a big desk in that area, with sort of a horseshoe desk with one lady sitting there,” Kohlwey said. “There were chairs set up, sort of like a lounge for sales people to wait. We were much too small for anything like that. When we moved from Oshkosh, we were cleaning up and found an old soda fountain in the garage. I said ‘Why don’t we start an ice cream parlor in Manitowoc?’”
And they did.
Landmark Bernice came with the place. Folklore has it that the plant manager back in the day named the bovine after his mother-in-law, Kohlwey said with a laugh.
Cedar Crest produces about 15,000 to 16,000 gallons of ice cream each day. It’s considered a regional business, meaning it distributes mostly to stores and ice cream shops in Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and about 40 miles into Illinois. They also have a distributor in St. Louis and will ship ice cream throughout the country for people looking for a taste of Wisconsin elsewhere.
The Manitowoc plant employs about 50, and Cedar Crest has about 100 workers overall.
Dairy is in the Kohlwey blood. Their father bottled milk in Cedarburg, but there wasn’t much money in milk in the 1970s, so the boys branched into ice cream.
They bought Oak Brand Ice Cream in Milwaukee and delivered the dessert with its two trucks. But the distributor closed down a few months later, and they scrambled to find a manufacturer, eventually buying Smith Ice Cream in Oshkosh before growing into the Manitowoc business.
The boys came up with the name Cedar Crest way back in the 1970s when they made and sold caramel apples.
“At one time, we had a little crown and a robe, trying to show it was a premium product, and reflect the idea of the crest.” Kohlwey said. Today’s logo shows a covered bridge, to reflect the landmark in Cedarburg, the last covered bridge in Wisconsin.
The company has about 30 standard flavors sold in stores and around 70 available for ice cream parlors, as well as monthly featured flavors.
“It can be hard coming up with flavors,” Kohlwey said. The company runs a contest with the help of 4-H to develop featured flavors and taste-tests new flavors among staff.
In fact, Kohlwey said Cedar Crest launched the “tracks” trend in ice cream flavors. They held a contest in Oshkosh asking for a new name and flavor of ice cream, offering the winner a free year’s supply of ice cream.
The girl dreamed up a flavor called “elephant tracks,” with peanut butter cups and chocolate ice cream that became a hit. Kohlwey said the person he bought candy from to make the ice cream asked what it was for and then said “that’s a great idea,” and went on to develop “moose tracks” and other “tracks” ice cream.
“My brothers don’t think too much about it, but I do sometimes,” he said. “I don’t blame the guy. He saw a good idea and he ran with it.”Today, Cedar Crest trademarks many of its ice cream flavor names.
In addition, the Kohlwey brothers launched Cedar Crest at about the same time Ben & Jerry’s came into business, but Ken Kohlwey has no regrets. The company used only family money to grow the business and never went public.
“We’re local,” he said. “The cream that we use is local cream. We work a lot with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, which works with local farmers. We take pride in our quality and customer service.”
Cedar Crest is seeing double-digit growth this year and is turning down business because it can’t keep up with demand. They may build a bigger freezer in their distribution plant in Cedarburg to keep up
“People love ice cream,” Kohlwey said. “We’re seeing a lot of people buying the pints of ice cream in stores now. People are more health-conscious, or maybe you and your spouse have different favorite flavors, and this is the right size. I think our niche is coming up with really good flavors that other people don’t have.”
The company does a lot of research and development.
Managers toyed with the idea of gelato for several years before moving forward, Kohlwey said.
“We thought it might be a fad,” he said. “But then we saw it was here to stay.”
Quality Assurance Manager Mark Borowski had the tough job of visiting Italy to taste authentic gelato and learn ways to make premium gelato.
He watches for overall trends in the ice cream business. Sea salt caramel is big, Kohlwey said.
“Millennials like certain things,” Borowski said. “They like regional things, very specific things. Here in Wisconsin, we’re doing a hibiscus flavor or a sriracha caramel. Things like bourbon ripple or a stout beer flavor.”
The relative smallness of the Cedar Crest plant allows them to make smaller batches of a variety of the cold dessert.
“You know how people like craft beers,” Kohlwey said. “Well, we’re the 'craft beer’ of the ice cream industry.”