The efforts of Skowhegan-based Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream to make an impression in the nation’s capital got a boost Monday when the brand was served up at a “nonpartisan ice cream social” in the office of independent U.S. Sen. Angus King.
King and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins both attended the event, which was held to mark the official launch of Gifford’s publicity tour in the Washington, D.C., area.
The move, designed to help the ice cream company scoop out a niche against much bigger competitors in the mid-Atlantic region, was staunchly supported by the state’s top politicos, said Lindsay Gifford-Skilling, general manager.
“We reached out to our senators and our congressmen,” she said. “We were amazed at how supportive and welcoming they have been.”
The politicians offered ice cream-themed quips at the event.
King said the ice cream is “something even the most ardent Washington partisan can rally around,” while Collins said it could “even help melt some of the partisan gridlock.”
U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud of Maine did not attend in person but sent statements of support.
Gifford’s has maintained a relatively quiet presence in the Washington area for nearly three years, ever since it acquired the similarly named but unrelated Gifford’s Ice Cream & Candy Co.
Early this summer, the company announced plans for an aggressive two-pronged effort to penetrate the Virginia and Maryland markets.
In the first, largely out of the public’s eye, a sales force began knocking on the doors of ice cream distributors such as restaurants, ice cream stands and grocery stores.
That has paid off with freezer space in several retail locations, including Whole Foods Market and area grocery chains such as Balducci’s and Wawa.
The second has been a public push to make the region’s consumers aware of the brand, which includes Maine-themed flavors such as Mt. Katahdin Crunch, Maine Moose Tracks, Golden Pond Butter Brittle and Muddy Boots.
The two-month push in D.C. is designed to take market share away from larger national ice cream brands. The competition is more fierce there, because ice cream sells better in the South, with its year-round warm weather, than it does in Maine and other markets in cooler climates.
According to an ice cream market research report by IbisWorld, the ice cream market shrank by half a percent each year between 2009 and 2014, to an estimated $8.1 billion. Analysts said profits were hurt by rising costs for raw materials such as milk and sugar, while some consumers turned away from ice cream because of health concerns.
But a different market research report produced earlier this year by the research firm Canadean found that premium brands such as Gifford’s are poised to take advantage of a rebounding economy and a spreading urban culture.
As a premium product, Gifford’s can’t undercut the prices of competitors, so it relies on a base of customers who have tried the product and are loyal to it.
With that in mind, the company has worked hard for the past four weeks to put ice cream into the hands of as many D.C.-area consumers as possible.
On June 29, an ice cream truck began blitzing the region, handing out thousands of free samples and coupons at 70 locations, beginning with an L.L. Bean store in McLean, Va..
“We just like to share our love and passion to give them a taste of Maine,” Gifford-Skilling said.
Many Mainers take pride in Gifford’s as a homegrown business success story.
The Gifford family bought its first small dairy in 1971 in Farmington and bought a second in 1974 in Skowhegan, which remains the center of the company’s operations.
By 1987, the Giffords were running five ice cream stands in Maine and had begun selling their product across state lines. Today the company includes fifth-generation Giffords and moves 1.7 million gallons of ice cream a year to areas including New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan.
Company sales for the month of June were the highest in the company’s history, according to a statement released Monday.