The Power Behind the Cones Is Leaving Town
New York Times, August 21, 2005
ON a neglected stretch of Inwood Avenue near 170th Street in the West Bronx, weeds spring from cracks in the sidewalk and boarded-up windows and curls of barbed wire appear as though in their natural habitats. A shabby construction site occupies nearly an entire block; tidy residential buildings and a few factories modestly claim the remaining space.
This motley, working-class neighborhood is the home of Emery Thompson, a small but influential manufacturer of batch freezers - ice cream-making equipment for small shops - that has been quietly prospering in the borough for a century.
Since World War II, the company has occupied a former Con Ed power plant less than a mile from Yankee Stadium. But nothing about the austere brick box that houses the company's headquarters hints at something as cheerful as ice cream. The tiny sign at the street entrance simply announces, "Emery Thompson Machine & Supply Company." Inside, the most visible implements are 40's-era lathes, mills and sheet-metal cutters, none of which suggest dessert.
The family-run business has been in the Bronx for a century, but at the end of this month, it will relocate to Brooksville, Fla., driven by rising oil costs and the desire of Steve Thompson, grandson of the founder, to live in a warmer climate.
"I'm going to miss New York terribly," Mr. Thompson said recently, glancing at an oversized map of Florida laid flat on his office floor. "But that's one reason I chose Brooksville, because it's one town over from Tampa, and I'll be able to catch the Yankees in spring training."
During its long run as a New York manufacturer, Emery Thompson has maintained an unusually low profile. According to Malcolm Stogo, author of "Ice Cream and Frozen Desserts: A Commercial Guide to Production and Marketing," 80 percent of the world's mom-and-pop ice cream shops use Emery Thompson machinery. But despite its pre-eminence in the world of frozen desserts, Emery Thompson is virtually unknown outside of the industry.
"Because their equipment is used in the back room, people don't know who they are," said Linda Utterback, executive director of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association. "You don't see the batch freezer when you walk into the ice cream store."
Companies including Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry's, Breyer's and Carvel, all of which went on to become giants of the ice cream world, bought their first ice cream making equipment from Emery Thompson, and its machines have been shipped to every corner of the world.
"In the shah of Iran's palace, we had two," Mr. Thompson said. "Our machines are on nuclear submarines, in aircraft carriers. I get letters from Afghanistan saying in broken English that they want to get into the ice cream business."
Mr. Thompson, 54, cuts an unthreatening figure. His unflinching smile, graying blond hair with a neat side part, crinkly blue eyes and ubiquitous golden retriever sidekick, Sadie, render him as disarming as a milkman.
The company is named for his grandfather, who left his job at a 14th Street soda fountain in 1903 to invent the modern-day version of the hand-crank rock salt ice cream maker. His innovation increased the capacity of the device, so instead of making one quart in 20 minutes, it could make 10 gallons in six minutes. Though the machine has been updated over the years, today's Emery Thompson product is essentially the same as the original.
Emery Thompson machines have a life span of 40 to 45 years; the average industrial batch freezer lasts about 12.
"Today we're using the same machine we bought 28 years ago," said Philip Seid, co-owner of the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in Manhattan. "I remember a story about Emery Thompson supplying machines to the military. They were dropped in parachutes from a plane, and when they hit the ground, they had to be able to work." GABRIELLA GERSHENSON