Gifford’s heir talks ice cream and empire

Photo of old Gifford’s menus courtesy Andrew Gifford.

Andrew Gifford, grandson of founder John Gifford, will discuss his memoir “We All Scream: The Fall of Gifford’s Ice Cream Empire” at the Silver Spring Library at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19.

The project began in 2013 as a hunt for the authentic Gifford’s recipes.

“I sat down with a guy who was trying to reboot the effort,” Gifford said. “He was hunting the recipes and trying to find where’s the recipes, how to make them, what’s the actual source?

“I have all the old recipe cards, and I have a base mix that I put up in the book,” he continued. “But we couldn’t find how to actually make the ice cream.”

In the end, he said the prospective entrepreneur decided, “You know what, it doesn’t matter. As long as I say it’s Gifford’s Swiss Chocolate Sauce in the cup, people will pay me anything I ask.”

That’s when Gifford realized that people were willing to prey on the nostalgia of those who remember when the company thrived. So he started to research the recipes to see if reviving them and with them, a company, could actually be viable.

“What I found out is sort of what fuels the book—the recipes did not exist before my dad started a franchise scheme in the 80s, and the base mix and all of that itself is just simple,” Gifford said. “I’ve talked to people who made it throughout the years and it’s the same base mix that anybody would make. If you’re making ice cream on your stove at home tonight, it’ll be that.”

The hunt for the recipes turned into an effort to try to understand his family and who they were, as he was just 11 when the company fell apart.

At the time, his father Robert was running Gifford’s. Founder John had died in 1976 and his partner, George Milroy, ran the business in Mary Gifford’s name until she died in 1980.

Robert took over at that point.

“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,” Andrew wrote in a blog post for the Santa Fe Writer’s Project in 2014 (more on that later).

Key developments since then, excerpted from the blog:

  • 1986—Name, logo and alleged recipes purchased by Dorothy Hunt for $1,500
  • Late 1990s—Hunt sold her ownership to employees Sergio and Marcelo Ramagem
  • 2002—Sergio sells his share to Neal Lieberman
  • 2006—New factory opened as the company split into two parts, retail storefronts and a wholesale distribution center
  • 2010—Luke Cooper brought in to run wholesale business
    • Cooper found to be selling inferior generic ice cream under Gifford’s name
    • Lieberman sues Cooper

Later, the owners of Gifford’s of Maine, an unrelated ice cream company, sued Gifford’s for the name and trademark, said Gifford. They won and purchased the D.C. company in October, 2011.

One of the most fascinating things about his research for the book was learning about his grandparents, about whom he knew virtually nothing.

He heard some shocking stories about his grandfather, including how he attacked a female neighbor in front of her 10-year-old son, traumatizing the boy to the point that when he was in his 50s and relating the story to Gifford, he broke down sobbing in the middle of a crowded Bethesda bar.

“It’s things like that that was like, oh, that’s who these people are,” Gifford said.

But he also heard stories about how great a guy his grandfather was, with acts such as putting a man through college and helping him out in other ways.

“There’s a ton of those stories,” Gifford said, making it hard to reconcile the bad with the good.
“It was either this guy was an absolute monster, or the most amazing man on earth,” he said.

When Gifford relates stories like these in reading, he’s gotten reactions from readers asking him, in effect, how dare he ruin their memories of Gifford’s?

While some of the stories are just that, stories, others are documented in court records, such as his mother Barbara being in on his father’s schemes and getting Gifford money from Robert while he was supposedly out of the picture.

In the meantime, Andrew had other issues he was dealing with, especially trigeminal neuralgia.

The condition is an issue with a major nerve in the face typically caused by a blood vessel wrapping itself around the nerve, creating an extremely painful situation that is nearly impossible to treat.

“It started in 1995 and in 1998, I went out to Santa Fe to kill myself,” Gifford said. “I have family out there, so my uncle sort of stepped in and intervened, just kind of showed me Santa Fe and took me out and got me normal again.

“He said to me, you love publishing, you love writing, why don’t you pursue that instead of walking off into the desert to die?” he continued.

The result was the founding in 1998 of the Santa Fe Writer’s Project, “an independent press dedicated to the craft of writing,” as described on the company’s website.

“Then it was sort of a proof of life just to show I could do it,” Gifford said.

He still sought treatment for the trigeminal neuralagia, mostly consisting of various pain medications that proved to be largely ineffective. He went from one doctor to another until in 2007, he was referred to Dr. Ben Carson, the world-famous neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins (and current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development). Carson was able to perform a complex surgery that cured Gifford of his condition.

These stories and more are in the book, which Gifford will discuss Thursday with Bethanne Patrick, a writer, critic, and author, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life,” in a format Gifford described as welcome change from the typical book reading.

A book signing will follow with coffee served by Kefa Café. Books can also be purchased through Gifford’s website.

The recipe for Gifford’s Swiss Chocolate Sauce, photo courtesy Andrew Gifford.

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