Richard Graeter ’86, president and CEO of the family business, shares “dirty secret” about ice cream.
BY DONNA BOEN ’83, MTSC ’96, MIAMIAN EDITOR
I scream, you scream, we all scream for black raspberry chocolate chip. Or at least there’s a good chance you do if you indulge in Graeter’s. If you know Graeter’s — the family-owned ice cream business in Cincinnati — you’re likely not surprised that this is its top-selling flavor.
Richard Graeter ’86 is fairly certain his family’s business is the second largest consumer of black raspberries in the U.S. He thinks the only company that possibly uses more is Smucker’s, another family-owned operation in Ohio headed by a Miami alum.
Graeter’s dad, Dick, is the one credited with concocting the flavor.
Always experimenting, Dick created a small batch of plain black raspberry, something he’d tasted as a kid while traveling with his family. In Dick’s day, customers came into the back room while he packed their purchases in dry ice. One such visitor suggested adding chocolate chips.
“So he did, much to his regret because it took off like wildfire, and he had to stop making the plain black raspberry, which he liked,” Richard says.
No surprise there. Almost every Graeter born into the family prefers plain. Richard, who opts for vanilla and chocolate, explains their taste.
“Our wives and people who marry into the family like the chocolate chips – 80 percent of our production is with chocolate chips. That’s what most of our customers like. But for those of us behind the scenes, we know how much goes into making the ice cream, and that’s what we truly like the best.”
Great-grandfather Louis started the business in 1868, selling at neighborhood street markets. After he married Regina Berger, they bought a store, making their product in the back room.
When Louis died, Regina took over and saved the business as mass-produced, cheaper ice creams flooded the market. Stubborn, she stuck with her labor-intensive, old-world French pot freezers and eventually opened 20 parlors.
“She built the business in an era when women were not businessmen,” Richard says. “She is why we’re here today.”
Each era has its struggles. Richard and his partners, cousins Chip and Bob, are the fourth generation and have gone through difficult growing pains.
“Transitioning a family business is extremely difficult. It’s not just legal and accounting stuff. There are a lot of emotions and relationships tied up in the transition, especially when you go from brothers to cousins. The fact that we had challenges is not unique. What is unique is we solved those challenges and moved on to another generation of success. I think only 1, 2 percent of family businesses ever make it to the fourth generation.”
Corporations are another challenge, trying to crowd out craft brands, Richard says. Graeter’s isn’t exactly the cheapest in the grocery store, where its competition is Ben & Jerry’s and Talenti, both owned by Unilever, and Nestle’s Häagen-Dazs.
Richard says the “dirty secret” about ice cream is it’s sold by volume because many manufacturers pump air into it. By law, ice cream can be 50 percent air.
“The big boys like to sell it by volume because if you put a pint of cheap ice cream on the shelf next to a pint of Graeter’s, they look the same. Now, if you pick ’em up, you don’t even need a scale to tell that the cheap ice cream is missing something because it is so much lighter. If you go ounce by ounce, put it on a gram scale, the price is much closer.
“But nobody, and I mean nobody literally anywhere in the world, supplies ice cream at the scale we do manufacturing it at 2 and a half gallons at a time.”
Food & Wine in its list of “Best Ice Cream Spots in the U.S.” awarded Graeter’s the Ohio title, crediting the company’s technique for making an extra dense and creamy dessert. Its French recipe calls for an egg custard base unlike American ice cream, which is made without eggs.
Graeter’s opened a store in Oxford in July 2015 and four this summer in Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Chicago. In total, it has 55 scoop shops in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
As a teenager, Richard spent summers learning the business. He worked up front in a retail store as well as behind the scenes on maintenance, in the bakery too near the hot ovens for the season and alongside his dad and grandpa in the factory his great-grandmother bought in the Depression.
He and his grandpa were particularly messy with the bittersweet and the syrup. By the end of the day, they looked like they’d been dipped in chocolate.
As for Richard’s current relationship with the sweet treat?
“I try to eat a little bit every day. People say, ‘Oh, you must be sick of ice cream,’ and I’m, ‘Are you crazy? I love it!’ ”