In 1914, Joseph Dager started making ice cream in the basement of a confectionary in Utica with the hope of finding “the American dream.” He started with only three flavors: chocolate, strawberry, and, of course, vanilla.
A Century Long Practice
Dager emigrated from Lebanon in 1903 when he was 15 years old. After arriving in America, he worked at Ritchey’s Confectionary and spoke no English. Customers liked his hand-cranked vanilla ice cream so much that he decided to share it with all of Licking County. Dager distributed his ice cream using a truck with the name “Velvet Ice Cream” on it. The truck featured what was then a modern, new coolerator that kept the ice cream refrigerated.
The second generation of Dagers continued what Joseph started. In the 1930s, his son Charles worked with other independent businesses to change city ordinances. This allowed Velvet and other companies to supply their product to cities like Columbus and other central Ohio markets. In 1937, Charles opened Velvet’s first distribution center in Bucyrus. In the 1950s, Charles’ sons, Joe and Mike, begin assisting in production and other parts of the business as children.
In 1960, Charles’ brother Edward moved Velvet’s manufacturing facility to Ye Olde Mill just a mile away from the original location. The original purpose of the mill, back in 1817, was a lumber mill. Velvet’s current president Luconda Dager says the mill, which is seen on Velvet’s ice cream containers, is a symbol of Velvet’s old fashioned quality. In 1965, Ye Olde Mill was renovated to become an ice cream destination, and in 1970 it was opened to the public.
In 1986, a fire destroyed the hard work that the Dagers put into the mill. The Dager family quickly rebuilt the local landmark and even used some of the original foundation. Today, the factory side of Velvet represents new innovations toward ice cream production, but the mill represents the same great taste and experiences the Dager family has offered for 100 years.
Today, in the fourth generation, the younger Joseph’s daughters, Luconda, Joanne, and Andre, are now on the executive board of Velvet Ice Cream. “In our gut, we knew that we would come back but we were never pressured to come back,” Joanne Dager, vice president of food service, says. Dager says that she, along with her siblings, were encouraged to go to college and start a career in something outside of the family business.
Their father Joseph had an unwritten rule that the kids had to spend five years working somewhere else before they could work at Velvet. “It’s in our blood,” vice president of guest relations Andre Dager says. “Dad never thought that we would come back to the business.” Joanne says the same guidelines are in effect for the fifth generation of Dagers, although that has not stopped their enthusiasm. “They see the truck driving down the road and say ‘I’m gonna work there some day,” Joanne says.
Staying Above the Competition
Eager to teach others about the process, Velvet Ice Cream is unique because it offers guests a free tour of the factory and grounds. Velvet sees more than 150,000 visitors every year and remains open spring, summer and fall. While other “ice cream destinations” such as Ben & Jerry’s and Turkey Hill charge guests for tours, Velvet does not. Marketing manager Nathan Arnold says that Velvet wants to share information to educate people about ice cream. “We call ourselves Ohio’s ice cream capital,” Arnold says. “Once people come here and experience Velvet Ice Cream, the tour, then they are more likely to buy it at the grocery store because they have a personal connection to it.”
Velvet has expanded far beyond a small parlor on Ohio State Route 13 now. In late March, Velvet added 500 new accounts and has extended to Kentucky markets including Louisville and Lexington. “That really couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” Luconda says. Velvet wants to keep expanding to other stores and food-service clients including colleges. In late October, CHAMPS Group Purchasing renewed its agreement with Velvet. Through CHAMPS, Velvet will expand to counties in Indiana, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
Each year, Velvet produces more than five million gallons of ice cream, with over 50 flavors available. The new generation of Dagers has added gluten-free flavors and a new “Velvet Churned” line. The Velvet Churned has less fat and calories but the same taste and texture as the Premium flavors. They have also added seasonal flavors such as Peppermint Stick, Peach Cobbler, and Pumpkin Pie. While nothing beats Olde Tyme Vanilla, Buckeye Classic is still a favorite for the Buckeye state.
Velvet supplies the Ohio State Fair, and instead of just choosing what flavors would be featured, Velvet held a contest on Facebook for ice cream lovers to create their own flavor. The winning flavor was Blueberry and Sweet Corn created by a woman in Columbus. As unusual as the flavor sounds, Velvet’s process for creating it was quite simple. “We softened some vanilla ice cream, we opened a can of corn, put in some blueberries, mixed it all together, and let it refreeze,” Arnold says. He says the contest approach to creating new flavors is a good way to generate consumer excitement. Some of the fan flavors are still in their lineup.
A Local Treat
Every year Velvet, in partnership with the Utica Sertoma Club, hosts the Utica Sertoma Ice Cream Festival. The festival takes place memorial weekend and starts with the 1.5 mile long ice cream parade through the town. There is also a Little Miss Ice Cream pageant, and of course an ice cream eating contest. Velvet offers festival goers dozens of flavors to sample from. The festival has become a tradition for both locals and travelers. Not only is the festival a weekend of fun, but it also supports Sertoma’s mission of supporting people with language, hearing and speech disorders. The Utica Sertoma Club chose an ice cream theme back in 1974 to emphasize the city’s title of “Ohio’s ice cream capital.”
While tradition is something that Velvet prides itself in, it is no longer using Great-Grandpa Joe’s hand-cranking method. Today, Velvet uses a unique freezing tunnel that gets the ice cream down to -120 degrees and freezes the core of the ice cream in less than four hours. Although it takes a lot of hard work to produce that much ice cream, plant manager Ken Harold says all of the employees are like a big family. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun too,” he says. Harold says the best part of his job is developing new flavors. “The end result always puts a smile on people’s faces, he says.”
While people buy Velvet Ice Cream for its delicious flavors, forging a personal commitment to a great product is how Velvet keeps customers coming back.