I Scream You Scream

The DeConna family has been in the business of providing icy treats to area residents (young and old alike) and beyond since 1947. And the tradition continues.

The change in temperature is overwhelming when I walk through the first huge door. But it’s nothing compared to what lies beyond the second massive portal.

A haze of ice crystals glistens on the floor. I catch my breath and pull the thick parka tighter around me. A moment later I flip the fleece-lined hood up over my head. It’s minus 20 degrees, and I can feel it to the bone. Oh, yes, and I’m in Florida. In the summer.

No, I’m not at some new arctic adventure theme park attraction. I’m standing deep within the vast freezer at DeConna Ice Cream surrounded, floor to ceiling, by thousands of gallons of ice cream and novelties. The outer room is a nippy 45 degrees, but here, inside the 10,000-square-foot warehouse, it’s minus 15 to 20 and, despite the heavy parka, within 10 minutes, I’m ready to hit the door.

One of the things I love about my work is making new discoveries. In the countless times I’ve driven past the DeConna Ice Cream sign at their 33-acre operation on Highway 318 between Ocala and Gainesville, I had no idea of the history behind this longtime, family-owned business.

When I make an appointment to visit, I’m warmly welcomed by Vince DeConna, the company’s present owner, whose father, Don, started the business 67 years ago. This fits perfectly with the findings of a recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), which found that the majority of ice cream manufacturers in the United States have been in business for over 50 years and many remain family-owned businesses.

After our quick venture into the depths of the massive freezer, I follow Vince upstairs to his office to learn more about DeConna Ice Cream.

I’m a bit doubtful that Vince, trim and fit as he appears, actually indulges in the products the company sells, but he sets me straight right away.

“Ice cream can be part of a healthy diet. My family has always eaten ice cream, and no one is overweight,” says Vince, passing me the August 2002 issue of Prevention magazine with a cover story promoting, yes, “The Ice Cream Diet.”

“Everybody has the same conception of ice cream, that if you’re watching your weight you can’t eat it, but like anything else, in moderation it’s fine,” he notes. “You can eat a serving and it has a satisfying effect. A lot of people like to eat ice cream in the evening and the calcium can help you sleep.”

(OK, so I’m already feeling vindicated about my own habit of a little ice cream before bed, but I don’t mention this to Vince.)

Turns out Vince’s family grew up eating ice cream, and that’s been his business ever since he started working. All thanks to a father who decided ice cream made for a happier career option than toiling in the steel mill.

When Pennsylvania native Don DeConna returned to Pittsburg after World War II, he did what many men in that region did: took employment in a steel mill. In the summer, however, he drove a vending truck around the neighborhood selling ice cream treats.

Dairy products were rationed during the war, but once this ended, the United States celebrated by eating one of their favorite treats, with the average American eating more than 20 quarts of ice cream in 1946. (Maybe it’s a sign of continued patriotism, but today, more ice cream is consumed per person in America than in any other country.)

It didn’t take Don long to realize he’d much rather deal with ice cream than work in the hot, dangerous steel industry. Figuring that he’d sell more ice cream in a warm climate, he moved to Miami in 1947 and started DeConna Ice Cream.

Initially, the company handled every aspect of the business, from manufacturing the products—many of which Don invented—to marketing and selling. In the 1980s, the actual production was transferred to a dairy manufacturing operation in Nebraska, where the vast majority of DeConna Ice Cream continues to be made to their precise specifications.

Vince, a Florida native, worked with his father and then purchased the business from him in 1995. Don died in 2010, and Vince is proud to carry on the family tradition.

A true Sunshine State creation, DeConna Ice Cream is sold all over Florida and into Georgia as far north as Macon. Actually, most ice cream is marketed regionally. Only 16 percent of manufacturers market nationally, and the international market is just 10 percent.

Today, DeConna Ice Cream sells an amazing 650 different products, including a huge variety of novelties and about three dozen ice cream flavors, covering everything from good-old, plain vanilla to the ever-popular Moose Tracks.

Products from the Highway 318 warehouse are delivered all over North Florida. There’s a second warehouse in Tampa that covers Brooksville down to Naples and a third warehouse in Palm Bay from which products are sent out all along the state’s east coast and down to Miami.

DeConna drivers come to the freezer warehouse on a daily basis, load their trucks—it must have been one of their parkas I borrowed—and head out for deliveries. Also loading trucks are some independent mobile street vendors. You know, the neighborhood ice cream man! Mobile vendors also make appearances at festivals, ball parks and businesses. DeConna provides signage for the trucks to help promote specific novelties.

Amazingly enough, DeConna’s enormous freezer doesn’t have generator backup.

“If the electricity goes out, the freezer will hold for five days without power if we don’t open the doors,” says Vince. “This has only happened once since we’ve been here since 1987. That was when the hurricanes went through in 2004. We were out of power for three days, and the freezer never got above zero.”

Whew. I can only imagine how nerve-wracking those three days were to the owner of an ice cream warehouse stacked with 1,000 pallets of frozen treats.

About 70 percent of DeConna Ice Creamis sold in convenience stores, as half-gallons, pints and novelties. The rest is sold in schools, food service and through the vending business. Three-gallon containers are sold to “dipping shops,” where ice cream is sold by the scoop. Novelties make up a huge portion of the hundreds of DeConna products, many of which are sold in chest freezers at gas stations, flea markets, snack bars and schools, in addition to convenience stores.

Despite the great variety of novelties, two perennial best sellers are classics that have been around for decades. The No. 1 best-selling novelty is the six-ounce Mega Ice Cream Sandwich (vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate wafers) followed closely by the Everyday Sundae Cone (a scoop of vanilla topped with chocolate and chopped peanuts nestled in a sugar cone, the inside of which is coated with chocolate).

“We sell approximately one million ice cream sandwiches a year,” says Vince. “Back in the 1990s, a lot of the schools went to low-fat and no-sugar-added. We still sell that, but our biggest seller is real ice cream.”

He explains that in order to be labeled “ice cream,” it must contain milk and cream and have at least 10 percent butter fat, which is something to remember when you’re shopping. If that’s not the case, according to federal guidelines, the label can’t use the words “ice cream.” Instead, it may say “frozen dairy dessert” or “lite” ice cream.

When ice cream is made, it’s pumped from a large tank into a continuous freezer that holds a minimum of 100 gallons. The whole milk and cream mixture freezes during the process and comes out the other end of the freezer directly into a packaging machine. Flavoring and “inclusions” (think nuts, fudge swirls, chopped candy, etc.) are added during the packaging process.

For those individually packaged treats known as novelties, the manufacturing and packaging process is specific to each novelty. And no, there isn’t a production line of white-coated workers wearing gloves whipping up each treat by hand. It’s all done in an automated process.

Because the company has such a long history, I’m curious how they develop new flavors and name them. Vince says they often get suggestions from sales people.

“Sometimes we just sit and brainstorm, especially when we name something,” he says. “Friends and family often get involved in naming a new product.”

The two newest flavors in pints are Micanopy Mud (chocolate ice cream with chocolate-covered almonds and caramel swirls) and Caramel Pecan Delight (vanilla ice cream with candied pecans and caramel swirls). Both hit the market in 2010. The most recent novelty invention is the Typhoon, an Italian ice product featuring blue raspberry and lemonade swirled together in a five-ounce cone cup.

On occasion, an item is discontinued, such as the Triple Fudge Bar, which featured three layers of chocolate and just proved to be too intensely chocolate. (Who knew that was even possible?!)

“Products have to meet certain volumes to justify the packaging and processing, and the numbers are high,” Vince explains. “In order to keep an item, it has to do very good volume.”

Vince doesn’t have one personal favorite.

“I switch around,” he confesses with a smile. “Vanilla and butter pecan are my two favorite ice cream flavors, and for novelties, I go back and forth between the Everyday Sundae Cone and the Chip Around (vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies).”

In a world where economic challenges abound, ice cream continues to sell well.

“Ice cream is pretty recession proof; it’s an affordable treat,” says Vince. “Our sales are more sensitive to weather. When it’s cold and rainy, we don’t sell as much. Florida has a high consumption of ice cream, and part of the reason is because Northerners move here and bring their ice cream-eating habits with them.”

The ice cream business is, overall, a happy one, Vince notes. He likes working with customers and wholesale business people, but he also enjoys the product itself.

“I do eat ice cream every day, usually in the afternoon and often again at home in the evening. There’s always ice cream in our freezer,” he says.

Before I head out, Vince graciously sets me up with a box of frozen goodness: pints of Micanopy Mud and Caramel Pecan Delight and several novelty items, including the ever popular Everyday Sundae Cone. (Hmmm, I wonder if they named it that to subconsciously inspire daily consumption.)

I haven’t made it out the driveway of DeConna Ice Cream before I’ve torn open the wrapper on an Everyday Sundae Cone. I’m taking Vince DeConna’s words to heart. It only makes sense to take the advice of an expert: a serving of ice cream every day can be part of a healthy diet. That’s the kind of advice I can live with!

Posted in Ocala Style Features

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