Philly’s Favorite Frozen Asset

By Carolyn Wyman

Originally published in Philadelphia City Paper July 2011

When the Bassett family first began selling ice cream in Philadelphia, Abraham Lincoln was president.

“There are only two ice cream makers in this country that date back to the 1800s and are still run by the same families,” says Ellen Brown, who surveyed creameries around the country for her new book, Scoop . “One is Graeter’s of Cincinnati. The other is Bassetts — and Bassetts is older.”

The company might have been first on the local ice cream scene — showing up the year the Civil War started — but that didn’t last long. By the turn of the last century, Philadelphia was the ice cream capital of America, with Bassetts facing competition from Breyers, Abbotts, Dolly Madison, Supplee’s and dozens of other brands. They are all now either defunct or made differently elsewhere.

Bassetts is the last ice cream brand standing in Philly and the first in the country to mark a 150-year anniversary, which happens this Saturday with a celebration at Reading Terminal Market. The company still makes an authentic Philly-style vanilla with specks of vanilla bean. It carries on with old-fashioned flavors like rum raisin, egg nog and Champagne (sorbet). Their Reading Terminal stand didn’t offer cones until 1970, 66 years after their invention. Sundaes came on permanently in the early ’90s, but currently account for less than 10 percent of sales to Bassetts’ consumers, clearly a tradition-loving bunch. Banana splits have never been an option and likely never will be.

What accounts for this longevity? Simply put, it’s all in the cold stuff. Bassetts stands out because it “continues the tradition of quality ice-cream-making that once distinguished Philadelphia,” according to Brown. That quality carries through to “every single ingredient. The cherries in their cherry vanilla, for instance, are big, super-ripe and delicious.”

James Beard Award-winning GQ food critic and former Philadelphia resident Alan Richman once called Bassetts “the only commercial ice cream worth eating.” “I still think it’s wonderful,” he enthuses, “up there among the best foods you can get in Philly.”

Ask fans of the Reading Terminal stand and the word you hear most often is “creamy.” Like Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s, Bassetts is high in butterfat (it has 16.5 percent, or pretty much the max). But Bassetts has more air than its national super-premium competitors. In fact, Bassetts contains more than twice the air as Haagen-Dazs, which is therefore denser.

“Some people say that heavier ice cream is always better. Wrong!” says Roger Bassett, a fifth-generation family member who manages the Reading Terminal stand. “I remember my grandfather used to tell us, ‘Don’t push down too hard when you’re packing. You’ll push the life out of it.'”

In fact, Arun Kilara of Penn State University’s famous one-week ice-cream-making course once told the Inquirer that extra air is the reason that “Bassetts instantly hits the tongue and starts to melt, while releasing a very fresh, creamy taste.”

Some have been savoring that taste for decades, such as Bob Becker, 88, who was introduced to the brand on boyhood train trips to Philadelphia from his family’s New York home, a perk of his father’s job with the Reading Railroad. “At that time a big dish of ice cream, with two scoops, was 12 cents,” Becker says, “and the gentlemen behind the counter would sling them down the marble counter right to where you were sitting like barkeeps used to do with pints of beer.”

Having moved here in the 1940s, Becker is now the three-times-a-week regular known as “Irish Coffee Bob” at the Bassetts stand because of his flavor preference, made with real Jameson Whiskey. But much to Becker’s chagrin, the Irish coffee flavor has just gone on indefinite hiatus. “They tell me Guatemalan ripple [a chocolate-coffee flavor] is similar,” he says, without conviction.

Bassetts started as a summer business for a Salem, N.J., schoolteacher with some dairy cows and a mule to pull the crank on his backyard ice-cream-making machine. The first of a number of Bassetts named Lewis, he sold the results at several Philly locations before setting up behind the marble counter in 1893 in the then-brand-new Reading Terminal Market.

Lewis’ son, also named Lewis, died young, but in a move unusual for the time, his wife ran the stand until her son, Lewis Lafayette Jr. (aka L.L. Jr.), was old enough to take over. He is the person current family members credit with perfecting the company’s all-natural base, as well as many of its best-loved and wackiest flavors. “He used to wander the aisles of the market for ingredients,” recalls his daughter Ann, resulting in the short-lived kiwi, yellow tomato, papaya and borscht (to wow a visiting Nikita Khrushchev). Ann says her father created Becker’s beloved Irish coffee flavor as a peace offering after a fight with her whiskey-loving mother.

Ann came into the business in 1974, and within two volatile years — “I quit almost as many times as my father fired me,” she says — became president. She was able to expand Bassetts’ restaurant and scoop shop business from 10 to 100, including New York, Chicago and Florida accounts, and packed Bassetts in pints for the first time — growth made possible, in part, by the 1973 move of Bassetts production out of Reading Terminal’s basement to a much-larger facility in Fairmount. But her plans to expand the brand West literally blew up — covers on pints popped off when trucks got to high-altitude Colorado. (More than half of Bassetts is still sold within a 50-mile radius of Center City Philadelphia.)

The company has had its share of dips, so to speak. Shortly after Ann’s son, Michael Strange, took over, making the former accountant the company’s fifth-generation successor on the wholesale side, two of its biggest distributors, representing almost 80 percent of its business, went under. It was a week before Christmas 1983, and in a scene right out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the bank called to say they were pulling Bassetts’ credit line. “We were able to pull out of it without declaring bankruptcy,” Michael says, but it took years.

Since then, the company has introduced only a few new products, including one developed in 2006 with WMMR radio hosts Preston and Steve known as Gadzooks! — popular with customers but not with the stand’s employees, who spend much of their day reciting its ingredients (chocolate ice cream, peanut butter brownies, chocolate chunks, caramel swirl).

The company’s other new flavors — green tea, pomegranate blueberry crunch and mango — were created for Bassetts’ fast-growing Chinese export business. “The fact that we’re America’s oldest commercial ice-cream-maker is actually a bigger selling point there than it is here,” says Michael. But new flavors can mean the end of not-as-popular old ones, about which Michael gets endless grief. Judging by complaints, choco orange flake (orange ice cream with chocolate flakes) is the most-missed flavor, although, Michael says, “I don’t know that we’ve ever had a flavor that wasn’t someone’s favorite,” before citing the man who argued for the return of lemon ice cream because of his childhood bicycle rides into Center City from the Far Northeast to get it.

Though Bassetts is now made far from Philadelphia (at Galliker’s Dairy in Johnstown since 1989), Michael is still the one to pull the trigger on production runs. Wait too long to discontinue a flavor and he’s not only throwing away good ice cream but paying for the privilege, because, as he practically screams, “Believe it or not, it’s considered hazardous waste!” Switch to a new flavor too early and the phones will go crazy with customers wondering why there are cherries in the mint chocolate chip.

As the president and CEO of a small company (at its summer peak, Bassetts employs only about 20), Michael is where the buck stops in any crisis, which, in his business, usually involves melting ice cream — like one 90-degree day in late May when a Bassetts truck on its way to a Brooklyn distributor broke down on the Verrazano Bridge. After dozens of frantic phone calls, and one towing charge estimate of $1,500, Michael was able to get the disabled truck out to Brooklyn; Michael ended that day picking up his driver at 30th Street Station.

Despite days like this and Michael’s original reluctance to join the family business, his love for the job is obvious. The company’s modest ’70s-era paneled office on Chestnut Street is filled with company memorabilia which the 52-year-old delights in showing off, including a recently acquired Bassetts milk jug bearing a four-digit phone number. “Before I got this I didn’t even know we ever sold milk,” he exclaims.

The company might be notable for its long history, but Roger Bassett points out the here-and-now joys of being in the ice cream business: “People rarely walk up to an ice cream counter frowning. You get a lot of positive feedback. I can’t wait to get in here every day.”

As for the next 150 years: Michael doesn’t have kids, but nephew Alex Bassett Strange, 19, of Minneapolis has spent the past month overseeing production of an ice cream novelty for Bassetts’ Chinese client. And Roger’s son Eric, 17, has worked the Reading Terminal stand for the past three summers, achieving rock-star status with his Jersey classmates for annually handing out free Bassetts ice cream sandwiches on the last day of school.