Food in Canada | By Carolyn Cooper | February 23, 2009
I swear the ice cream gets in your bloodstream," laughs PennyChapman, president of Markdale, Ont.-based Chapman's Ice Cream. "Cut me and it'll be vanillaon one side and chocolate on the other!" Chapman's passion for theice cream business is something that hasn't changed in the past 35years since the time when she and husband David first bought thesmall creamery in northern Ontario, armed with the dream ofoffering an affordable, high-quality product that the entire familycould share. Today, as Canada's largest independent ice creammanufacturer and a perennial family favourite with Canadians acrossthe country, Chapman's continues to live that vision.
From a staff of just six - two of which, says Chapman, quit onthe business' opening weekend - Chapman's Ice Cream today employsapproximately 350 people during their peak production periods, andoccupies an entire block in Markdale. With a 100,000-sq.-ftproduction plant producing approximately 80 million litres of icecream each year, Chapman's sells its products in conveniencestores, grocery chains and foodservice operations in every provinceof the country, distributed direct to store from distributioncentres in Markdale and Hampton, N.B. The company now boasts morethan 10 separate brands, including products catering to consumerswith allergies and other dietary concerns, and dozens of unique anddelicious flavours. For more than a decade Chapman's has also beenproducing private label products for Loblaws, a major step in thecompany's evolution.
Chapman admits that the company's humble beginnings were oftenchallenging. After working in the ice cream business in New Zealandand England, David met Penny while the two were working at theMaple Leaf Dairy Bar in Toronto's east end. Wanting the chance toown their own business, the Chapmans bought the 150-year-oldMarkdale creamery in order to obtain a plant license. "At the startof the business we did everything," recalls Chapman. "We put theanswering machine on then made the mixes, made the ice cream byhand, filled it by hand, loaded the trucks, then David would go outand find sales. We just did everything, and it worked."
The dairy business in the 1970s was a very different landscapethan it is today, with numerous small- to mid-size players thathave since been bought up. To differentiate themselves from thecompetition Chapman's began with what was then a huge variety offlavours - 20 - packaged in a distinctive black, two-litrecontainer. Besides standing out in the freezer aisle, the packagefeatured two children sharing an ice cream cone, an image that hasbecome a well-recognized symbol with Canadian families. "That'swhat it's all about - family and affordability," says Chapman. "Atthe time, there were four flavours commonly on the market: Vanilla,Chocolate, Neapolitan and Butterscotch. But even then we thought,it's not enough, people want to have choices. So the first year wecame out with flavours like Rum and Raisin, Orange Pineapple, andMint Chip."
The desire to offer ice cream that consumers of all ages andstages could enjoy led the company to make its two-litre ice creamline peanut and nut-free, something that has endeared it toparents, schools and day cares over the years. And althoughinstituting the necessary operational changes, and educating andtraining employees and suppliers was difficult, Chapman says it wasworth it. "We like to lead and not follow, so if we can dosomething first we will. About 25 years ago we started hearing frompeople who had children who'd never had cake and ice cream becausethey had allergies," recalls Chapman. "There are all these magicmoments you have ice cream at, and these people couldn't partake,especially kids. So that made us focus on the fact that there's amarket out there that nobody's serving - people with specialdietary needs. That's how the peanut/nut-free started, that's howsorbet started, and how lactose-free started. It's a small market,but these people are so grateful, so emotional, and it really doesaffect their lives." In 2003 the company, which now offersapproximately 50 SKUs that are peanut/and nut-free, was recognizedfor its commitment to allergy awareness with the receipt of theSusan Daglish Award for Food Manufacturing by AnaphylaxisCanada.
While the two-litre ice cream is still the company's number-1line - comprising approximately 25 per cent of sales - products nowinclude novelties, premium ice creams, low-fat, sugar- andlactose-free brands and a line of frozen yogurt that is Canada'stop-selling frozen yogurt brand, with 75 per cent of the market.Just last year the company expanded its family of products with theintroduction of Yogurt Plus, naturally flavoured frozen yogurtcontaining active probiotic cultures Lactobacillus Acidophilus andBifidobacterium Lactis, as well as prebiotic fibre inulin. Theinnovative new frozen yogurt is a first in Canada. "I'd beenworking with my management team on something for baby boomers forthe last five years, but I couldn't pin down what they reallywanted," explains Chapman. "These people don't only want regularice cream in smaller containers. Finally we pinned down the reasonsthey would buy it - because it's better for you, because it's lowfat, because of the probiotics and prebiotics, and because it justtastes damn good. That's the biggest point - it had to be reallygood. And the price is still very reasonable, even though it's asuper-premium yogurt."
Maintaining that close focus on listening to and then exceedingconsumer expectations is something Chapman believes has kept thecompany successful over the years. "Because we're an independent,and there are so few independent family firms left, we have to becheaper and the product has to be of better quality. We also haveto control it better and give customers top-notch distribution,"she says. "Everything we touch has to be better than what [thelarge companies] do. Everything we do we get very involved with andpassionate about. If you want your product to be the best, you justhave to go full force." That commitment to customers and communitygot a boost in the arm last year when the couple's son, Ashley,joined the business, bringing fresh ideas and a younger perspectiveto the company. "That was a key thing for the year," says Chapman."We will never sell out. We are the mainstay of Markdale, of thelocal community; we want to be here. So now as another generationcomes into the business the community can see how there's going tobe continuation as we go on. We've got people who've been here fromthe very start, for 35 years. It's exciting that it's carried on,and we've kept so many good people who care. We're the littlecompany that cares."
Not content to rest on their laurels, this year the company willintroduce two new Yogurt Plus flavours, Crème Caramel and BlackJack Cherry, to "tweak the imagination of Canadians," says Chapman.This spring will also see the launch of Chapman's Premium CanadianCollection, a line of "indulgent but family affordable" productsfeaturing delicious premium-quality ice cream sandwiched betweentwo cookies and dipped in dark chocolate.
The latter innovation is the result of expansion in thecompany's Markdale facilities, as well as an investment in a newextrusion line. "We search the world for the best equipment. We goand see the equipment working, we see how the consumers respond tothat product. And then you learn how to use it and how to change itto do different things that maybe weren't done before," explainsChapman. The need for greater efficiency and a desire for goodenvironmental practices prompted Chapman's to construct its ownwaste treatment plant over 10 years ago. "Everything that goes downour drain, effluent, ice cream, mix, we treat it all and then itgoes back into the town system. Some things are sort of simple tous - it's the right thing to do."
Today, says Chapman, one of the biggest challenges facing theindustry is the trend toward the use of vegetable oil rather thanmore expensive butter fat. "[Some of the bigger companies] havetaken out the butter fat and put in vegetable oil. I think they'retrying to pull a fast one on consumers, and I find it very tragic,and worse, look what it's doing to the Canadian farmer. It'sdevastating, and consumers don't realize it. Vegetable oil costsnothing compared to butter fat, yet they're charging the sameprices and higher." As a result, Chapman's was an early adopter ofthe Dairy Farmers of Canada's new branding program that adds a"100% Canadian Milk" image to packaging. "All of the dairy in ourproduct will be 100-per-cent Canadian and we're proud of it," saysChapman. "We are Canadian and we sell to Canadians, we don't sellto the States or anywhere else."
So after 35 years in the business, does Chapman still eat icecream? "Yes, I do," she laughs, adding that her new favouriteflavour is the Yogurt Plus Crème Caramel. "But do I eat it verymuch? No. Do I take it home? Not very often. It's also why we'renot slim anymore!" But, she says, "Every day at 4 o'clock we bringmaybe three or four different products into our lunchroom and trythem. And we critique the heck out of them. Nobody is moreself-critical than us. So I do still enjoy it, all of it, and Ilove the new products."
ED. Note: Chapman's Ice Cream in Markdale, ON (producer ofmany yummy treats) is an EMC Member and Safety Groupmember.