Velvet celebrates 100 years of ice cream


April 4, 2014

Utica-based Velvet Ice Cream is celebrating 100 years on the lids of every one of its 1.75-quart containers this year and creating a line of all-natural ice cream for the occasion.

And for Luconda, Joanne and Andre Dager — the fourth-generation sisters running the Licking County company — making ice cream is all about family.

“Growing up, we always worked in the business,” said Luconda Dager, president. “Dad started us working young when we were ... ”

“Thirteen,” Andre Dager contributed. (She’s vice president and runs the restaurant, gift shop and tour operations at Velvet’s plant.)

“So we sat around the dinner table listening to our uncles talking about marketing and distribution and logistics,” Luconda continued. “We were exposed to all this so early on and probably took it for granted.”

One thing the Dagers couldn’t take for granted was that the public would continue to buy their product during the recent recession. Consumers bought less ice cream or more-affordable brands, according to a December report by market-research firm IBISWorld.

As a result, U.S. ice-cream revenue fell an annualized 1.2 percent to $8 billion over the five years that ended in 2013, IBISWorld said. The industry is likely to grow at an annual rate of 1.2 percent through 2018, the research firm said.

Yet Velvet’s sales increased an average of 5 percent per year throughout the recession, largely because of its “very aggressive sales team,” Luconda Dager said. “We’re always talking to them about new business.”

Instead of cutting back on Velvet ice cream, customers switched to the company’s economy line, she said.

The sisters’ great-grandfather, Joseph Dager, immigrated from Lebanon with his family and started making vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream in the basement of a Utica candy store in 1914.

He probably named the ice cream Velvet because of the word’s association with the smooth, luxurious fabric, Andre Dager said.

About half of the company’s ice-cream sales are made to consumers through grocery and convenience stores.

Englefield Oil Co.’s 123 Duchess Shoppes in Ohio have carried Velvet novelties — mostly cups, pints, ice-cream bars and orange-sherbet pops — for more than 50 years, said John Tomlinson, purchasing and merchandising director for the stores.

Another 40 percent of sales come from food-service customers, such as institutions and restaurants. Joanne Dager is vice president in charge of food-service operations.

“We’ve been doing business with Velvet for 35 years,” said David Eisel, head chef for Bob Evans Farms’ 563 restaurants in 19 states, including Ohio.

New Albany-based Bob Evans has sold 35 percent more Velvet ice cream since May 2012, when it created $9.99, three-course meals, which include dessert.

Finally, private label — making ice cream for other companies — accounts for about 10 to 12 percent of sales, Luconda Dager said.

Through the years, the Dagers have faced healthy competition. Ohio hosts two dozen regional ice-cream-makers, from Pierre’s in Cleveland to United Dairy Farmers in Cincinnati.

“Why does everybody want to be in the ice-cream business?” Luconda Dager asked, laughing.

After college, she and her sisters worked at unrelated businesses for at least three years before rejoining Velvet, Luconda Dager said. A fourth sister is not part of the business.

Each woman brought a different strength to the company. Luconda: business and financial leadership; Joanne: advertising and restaurant management; and Andre, a gift for serving customers.

“It’s in our blood,” Andre Dager said. “Dad never thought that we would come back to the business. But when you’re raised around it ...”

“It’s just part of us,” Luconda said, finishing her sister’s sentence.

Joe Dager became chairman in 2009 when his three daughters stepped up to lead the company, which employs 125 full-time workers.

For its 100th year in business, Velvet is launching a line of four “all-natural” ice creams — vanilla, half vanilla and half chocolate chip, salted chocolate and bourbon butter pecan — which should be in stores by May.

“There’s a trend going on in our industry of 100 percent, all-natural,” Luconda Dager said. “We thought it would be perfect ... for our 100th anniversary. We’re taking it back to the way great-grandpa used to make it.”