What is Gifford’s Ice Cream?

Update January 2017: We All Scream, a memoir about the rise and fall of Gifford’s Ice cream and the family behind it, is now available. Order it here. 

I wrote this article several years ago, and have now updated it with all of the new research and discoveries I’ve made. My hope is that it’ll help demystify the convoluted story of Gifford’s Ice Cream, which continues even today after everyone involved has died.

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Gifford’s Ice Cream is a strange story to write about. One of Washington’s most iconic businesses for over 70 years, Gifford’s was consistently associated with nothing but pleasure for Washingtonians, their families, and visitors from every corner of the nation.

But few knew of the byzantine intrigue and betrayals rooted in the company from its modest beginnings – dark influences that would destroy not just the business itself but the family who founded it.

Writing about my family, and about Gifford’s Ice Cream, has presented many challenges. It took me a long time before I even recognized some of these challenges.  It’s a story about suicide, greed, loss, power, corruption, and a shattered family whose shadow falls over us all.

So, I’ll tell you a little bit about Gifford’s Ice Cream…

Silver Spring, MD, 1938. My grandfather, John Nash Gifford, comes to DC and starts an ice cream parlor. He had been the vice-president of Franklin ice Cream since at least 1930 (the date varies, and recent research places him as a VP for Franklin in 1921) in Franklin, OH and, eventually, ran their processing plant in New Jersey. Perhaps fed up with Franklin Ice Cream, he headhunted their best minds — John Tillotson, who patented a method to mass produce high fat ice cream, Leslie Daley who was a front of house man, and George Milroy who ran Franklin’s factory and knew the ins and outs of how to make the ice cream. John was the money man, and the face of the company.

Gifford's

Silver Spring, 1938

John’s wife, Mary Frances, was a Silver Spring native. Her mother and sister put the down payment on an old feed store on Georgia Avenue. This would become a 100 seat parlor with a manufacturing plant in back, and space for making the sauces and candies. From right out of the gate, Gifford’s was a hit. Two years after the Silver Spring store opened, a second location opened on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. By 1956, there were three other locations.

In 1940, the population of Montgomery County, MD was around 83,000 people. The largest density appears to be Rockville, MD, with only 2000 people listed in the 1940 census. John and his partners were making a strange gamble. Between all of them, they invested the 2016 equivalent of half a million dollars. In 1938, a giant store seems like an unsound investment to me. But the demand, by 1940, was out of this world. By 1946, Gifford’s was producing around 70-90 thousand gallons of ice cream per week. So that’s around one gallon a week for every Montgomery County resident. Though, of course, people were coming from far and wide to have a scoop of Gifford’s ice cream.

EPSON MFP image

Bethesda, June 1940

By the 1950s, Gifford’s had several high-profile private accounts. They were the exclusive ice cream in the White House’s kitchen, and the kitchens serving Walter Reed Hospital and the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Jackie Kennedy’s events would feature Gifford’s Ice Cream, and she would come to the store with her ballgowns and ask my grandfather to develop an exclusive flavor that would match or complement the color of those gowns. Mamie Eisenhower was a regular at Bethesda’s counter, always picking up her own ice cream.

In the early 1970s, John Gifford began an ambitious program to remodel the whole concept of Gifford’s. The stores would shut down, except for the Silver Spring store, and Gifford’s would move to a fleet of ice cream trucks — like Good Humor. He wanted to get ice cream onto the shelves of major supermarkets around the country, and had entered into deals with several of the chains by 1974. But then something happened. John became reclusive, angry, unpredictable. People started to fear him. At home, he brandished a gun at the neighbors, he attacked a child’s mother, he began to be plagued by hallucinations. A great darkness fell over him and, by 1976, he was dead. johngifford

The company fell into the hands of Mary Frances, his wife. But her presidency only lasted six months. In 1977, she had a debilitating stroke. From then until her death in 1980, George Milroy stood as president of the company.

Nothing happened. Nothing changed. John’s plans to reorganize Gifford’s were thrown out. It was status quo only. But it was a good status quo. In 1980, the plant at Silver Spring was producing and selling 200,000 gallons a month. That’s 2.4 million gallons per year. In comparison, in 1995, Ben and Jerry’s cranked out 10.1 million gallons a year. But they were distributed widely and globally. Giffords only had four outlets, and no distribution or presence in the supermarkets. 2.4 million gallons is an extraordinary amount of ice cream for an otherwise small organization. The profits were soaring, even as the infrastructure and politics were collapsing at an alarming rate.

Always in the background was John’s son, Robert Gifford, my father. Robert was a chameleon. He’s a man without a history. He rarely paid taxes, he rarely collected a salary. With an MBA from Harvard, he volunteered for Vietnam and worked under shadowy circumstances in Berlin instead. He never held a credit card, and he seems to have had few friends. On the walls of the basement in the Gifford family home in Kensington, MD, there were signs of terror. The hiding places my dad found as a child, and that I rediscovered decades later, were marked with dire warnings. The rumors were always there – dad’s childhood was scarred by pain, isolation, and abuse.momanddad

In 1980, he became president of Gifford’s. His first act was to develop a convoluted franchise scheme that bilked countless investors of $200,000 a pop. He downgraded the butterfat content of the ice cream, laid off most of the administrative staff, and began the willful destruction of the company. 38 months later, Gifford’s was bankrupt, and Robert had vanished with anywhere from two to ten million dollars. By May, 1985, Gifford’s Ice Cream was no more. Silver Spring, 1987

There would be no trace of Robert or the money until 2000. But that’s a story for the memoir.

But this wasn’t the end of Gifford’s Ice Cream. With the family shattered, or missing, the name, the logo, and an alleged set of the recipes went up for sale in 1986. They were purchased by Dolly Hunt for $1500. She and her son James revived the company with a store in Bethesda. In the late 1990s, Hunt sold her ownership of the company to her employees, Sergio and Marcelo Ramagem. Around 2002, Sergio sold his share to Neal Leiberman. Gifford’s was enjoying a second heyday. By 2006, a large factory was opened as the company split into two parts – retail storefronts and a wholesale distribution center. In 2010, Lieberman teamed up with Luke Cooper. Cooper was to run the wholesale side of things. But it was soon discovered that these two sides were not working together and, in fact, the ice cream being served at the retail outlets was Hood’s Ice Cream – a low quality, generic ice cream used at institutions and schools. Later in 2010, Neal Lieberman sued Luke Cooper. Into the fray came the coincidentally named Gifford’s of Maine.

Gifford’s of Maine had been making ice cream since the early 80s. They are not related to my family (“Gifford” is a fairly common name, as a good Scotsman will tell you), and there had been no involvement with Gifford’s of DC until Maine decided to expand beyond their state’s borders in 2009-2010. Maine sued for the rights to the name and trademarks and, in the legal mess as Gifford’s of DC fell apart, they won their lawsuit. Since then, they’ve engaged in multiple attempts to bring their product to the DC area.

Meanwhile, the “spirit of Gifford’s” is strong. In 2016, Mark Shutz partnered with Dolly Hunt who, once again, brought her skills to the ice cream business. Though they can’t legally call their ice cream Gifford’s, they claim kinship.

Everything falls to the mystery of the recipes. If you have the recipes, then you can make Gifford’s. Or, so, most people thought. I had a set of recipes but the “reboot” people, from 1989-2010, claimed they had the authentic recipes. In 2013, I finally sat down and decided to research the truth behind the recipes. I worked through newspaper articles, interviewed people who made the ice cream, and searched far and wide for evidence of authenticity. What I found was fascinating. The Gifford’s Base Mix is not only very simple, it’s been publicly used and available since the 1950s. It was manufactured and delivered by Shenandoah’s Pride, a now defunct dairy farm. The recipe cards are merely instructions for adding flavoring to the mix so you get your various styles of ice cream.

In fact, the idea of “Secret Family Recipes” was created by Robert in order to run the franchise scheme. The first mention of recipes is in a 1981 article in Regardies.

But the proof is in the pudding, I suppose. The reboot era saw success. Yet almost everyone involved has said that it’s not about the recipes.

Benny Fisher, who sold the recipes to Dolly Hunt in 1986, said:
“[The recipes are] outdated, simple to produce, and wouldn’t hold a candle to the modern expectations from ice cream companies like Ben & Jerry’s.”

Bethesda Magazine said of Dolly Hunt: Hunt said making each batch of ice cream is a little different; it’s not dependent on some “secret” recipe.

Neal Lieberman, who ran the company up til 2010, had an interesting complaint about his “authentic” set of recipes in a Washington Post article: Neal said they have changed some ingredients to try to make the ice cream all natural. For example, the Peppermint Stick flavor no longer uses Starlight mints. They contained red dye No. 5, he said.

Yet here’s the recipe card I have for the ice cream peppermint (click for the large size). Gifford023 I recall well the sheets of drying peppermint waiting to be broken up and added to the ice cream. The flavoring? Well, that came from John Gifford, whose New Jersey roots with Franklin Ice Cream meant he had worked with a chemical company. Even vanilla was flavored. John used the same technique that made fast food chains popular. Flavoring. Gifford’s always tasted like Gifford’s, even if you messed with the formula.

Mark Schutz, working with Dolly Hunt in 2016, says in response to the recipe question that “Certain things have changed: equipment, and pasteurization rules.” He’s absolutely right there. The old equipment is gone, outdated. The rules from the FDA have changed everything – even the boil point for the mix. In short, it’s impossible to recreate Gifford’s Ice Cream, unless you’re doing it for private consumption. The memoir will tell you how, but we’ll never be able to bring the original, authentic taste back to the public.

Benny Fisher is also correct when he says the old recipes won’t hold a candle to modern expectations. You can get high quality, high fat gourmet ice cream anywhere. It’s on the shelves, it’s on the roadside at dairy farms, it’s in farmer’s markets. Mark and Dolly will absolutely make a product that can knock your socks off. It’ll be fantastic ice cream. But it won’t be Gifford’s…and nor should it, in my opinion. Mark Shutz has also said:
“As you know it was a dream and goal of mine to recreate the real recipes, to really make Gifford’s original ice cream again… Anything else is just not Gifford’s.”

“Anything else is just not Gifford’s.” I worry about the obsession with the name. Finally, as of 2016, the cult of the recipes is starting to fade. It’s been replaced, though, by the idea that John and Robert Gifford were mentored by a now deceased professor at the University of Maryland who, in turn, mentored individuals from the Reboot Era. My own research comes up with nothing on that angle and it doesn’t add up with the family history. John made the same ice cream for Franklin Ice Cream company in the 1920s and 1930s. When he left Franklin, he took all their brains with his three partners. George Milroy was the master behind Gifford’s Ice Cream, and he was around till 1980. He trained the people who would make the ice cream for the final years while my father hid away in his office. Besides, for most of the history, the mix was being made by a third party and not in-house.

So what other reason could there be to create a link to the name and legacy but to simply drive up the prices and get the attention of the local media? And is that fair to the millions of Washingtonians who remember and love Gifford’s?

Gifford’s Ice Cream closed down in 1985. It ended. And it never came back, and it never will come back. No one will ever be able to recreate the circumstances, the equipment, and the political climate that allowed for something like Gifford’s Ice Cream to exist. And the people working to reboot it again are the first ones to tell you that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make truly unique and outstanding ice cream. The modern ice cream chef can make a product that’s superior to Gifford’s in every way. So why wake the dead? Why bring John and Robert back from the grave?

12 Comments

  1. Paul Gifford

    Just doing genealogy, trying to identify a Robert Nash Gifford, born 5 Feb. l938, died 5 Jan. 2007, who had served as a 1st Lieutenant in Vietnam. Is this your father?

    • admin

      Yes! That is my father. And we’re currently trying to find out about his Vietnam record for the memoir — We didn’t know about it till 2007. You can contact me at admin(at)sfwp.com.

  2. Michael Shaw

    Just saw your post on the Ktown FB page. Did your Family or relations live on W. Bexhill or there abouts (Stanhope?) in Kensington? I grew up there and always thought that the “famous” Giffords live up the street.

  3. Curt Remington

    Infinite joy found at any Gifford’s’ in the late 60’s early 70’s. I had so many insane sundaes there and the place was always packed. It was really a classy place. Nothing on earth even came close. One thing that keeps popping in my head but I cannot figure it out is ice water. Looking forward to your book Andrew.

    • admin

      It’s because you were force-fed ice water by the waitresses! The fountain and all the glasses were, weirdly, out on the floor by the windows at the SS store… And Bethesda had a bizarre one, as well. The orders were to slam the ice water down in front of you before you ordered… John Gifford’s orders, to “cleanse the palate.”

  4. Harry Reiter

    I was a 1954 graduate of Washington-Lee HS and went to Giffords on Lee Highway often. It had the finest ice crean I ever tasted. Their 5 scope sodas were to die for.

  5. Bob Canham W & L '54

    I worked for Giffords as their Controller in November 1962 for two weeks. Then Mr. Gifford learned my Brother was Controller for Briggs in Maryland, so I was invited to leave employment.

  6. admin

    Bob — the documentary folks would like to talk with you (as would I) — drop me an email. http://www.sfwp.com/contact-sfwp

  7. Dman

    Could you post a copy of the old menu please? Would love to see it again if you have a copy!

  8. Linda snyder

    i loved the Swiss chocolate…my parents took us there often.. Loved gif fords ice cream!!

  9. Jessica

    Ice cream and Easter have never been the same. Growing up we lived a short ride to the Silver Spring store. It was a real treat to go there and have ice cream. Growing up, I had the best, most unique Easter candy in my basket. Nothing you could buy in grocery or drug store. I looke forward every year to see what new creation I would find. I have tried farmer’s markets for my own kids through the years but nothing comes close.