Old dairy vs. new dairy: McConnell’s finds its footing through facility transition

By Beth Newhart

- Last updated on GMT

"When you’re in the food business, you’re really not in the food business. You’re in the food safety business.”
"When you’re in the food business, you’re really not in the food business. You’re in the food safety business.”

Related tags Ice cream Seasonal Flavor Ice cream maker

McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams of Santa Barbara, California, brings local flavors into its summer release with honey, olive oil, almonds and clover. The seven-decade ice cream brand moved into its ‘new dairy’ location last year with eyes on expansion.

As one of the oldest independent ice cream brands in the US, McConnell’s celebrates its 70th year in business in 2019. Santa Barbara was traditionally rich in dairy farms, dairy processing and agriculture in the mid-twentieth century before much of it made room for residential development.

McConnell’s committed fully to dairy processing in the late 1960s, and has always made its ice cream flavors and their ingredients in-house. According to CEO and owner Michael Palmer, nearly all of McConnell’s competition in the high-end, artisan ice cream category uses co-packers, and McConnell’s even co-packs for several national brands.

Out with the old

Palmer and his wife took over the business almost seven years ago, and quickly realized they would need to make a change if McConnell’s was to continue growing. Their old dairy facilities were built in 1934 and weren’t up to the challenge of expansion, forcing them to decide between a switch to co-packing or the complete rebuild.

“That building was not built for what we were asking it to do, and that was to create a national brand. It just didn’t have the capacity. But the bigger issue was: when you’re in the food business, you’re really not in the food business. You’re in the food safety business,”​ he told DairyReporter.

The existing space and equipment weren’t up to the high standards of a national ice cream brand, so they spent two years constructing new facilities just outside of Santa Barbara. McConnell’s officially moved into the new dairy one year ago, where it has ten times the capacity of the old dairy.

Palmer said they now have a full-time pastry chef, lab technician, quality assurance staff and kitchen and dairy production personnel. Jet-like engines allow the ice cream to stay cool at -40F, and a custom commercial kitchen is equipped to test new products and produce inclusion ingredients.

McConnell’s ice cream is highly perishable, according to Palmer, because they do not use any stabilizers common in the industry. Shipping their products nationwide has been a challenge, as well as remaining independent.

mcconnells 1

“For a company like us, there’s no end to the challenges,”​ Palmer said.

In with the seasonal

This summer, McConnell’s added to its seasonal range with three flavors featuring ingredients local to the southern California area. The company always tries to work with in-season foods, and Palmer said, “with this launch, it was as much looking at our 70th year as it was defining who we are as a brand.”

The team looked to Santa Barbara and the central California coast to inspire the flavors. Honey & Cornbread Cookies uses honey from the local San Marcos Farms, blended with their own cornbread cookies in sweet cream ice cream.

Olive Oil & Salted Almonds sources from a friend’s family farm, Vincent Enzo Olive Oils, which has grown olives and almonds for 100 years. And the Wild Sweet Clover flavor incorporates a favorite snack of the dairy cow, thanks to a partnership with Regalis Foods, a local supplier of rare ingredients.

“We thought those three flavors really talked a lot about our history, where we are located, and really evoked summer,”​ Palmer said.

The flavors have landed in McConnell’s seven scoop shops in California and are available for nationwide shipping this summer.

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