Sunday, August 21, 2011

U. Delaware joins schools with their own ice cream

University of Delaware students can study 125 different subjects, but now there's an unofficial new major students can pursue: ice cream.

Ice cream is serious work for students at the university, which has an agriculture school and its own herd of dairy cows. The school opened a campus ice cream store earlier this year, and students are now involved in nearly every part of the production process, from milking the cows to developing flavors and scooping ice cream.

"I've literally seen the milk from cow to cone," said Rebecca Sheahan, a junior who milks the school's cows and is business manager of the new UDairy Creamery.

Sheahan said she probably puts about as much time into ice cream as into her two majors: agriculture education and agriculture & natural resources. She isn't the only one devoting serious scholarly time to the dessert. Animal and food sciences major Meghan Thompson wants to eventually sell ice cream cakes at the store. And sophomore Katie Williams, a food sciences major, dreams of creating new flavors like peanut butter and jelly with pieces of chocolate-covered potato chips.

The University of Delaware is hardly the first school to have a creamery, the more technical name for the ice cream store since it produces its own product on site. Penn State opened a creamery in 1865 and sells some 750,000 scoops a year. About two dozen other universities from the University of Connecticut to the University of Wisconsin also have creamery operations, producing ice cream or other dairy products such as yogurt and cheese.

But Delaware's decision to open a new creamery is unusual, said Thomas Palchak, the creamery manager at Penn State since 1986. Palchak said that at one time, 50 universities had creameries, but they began closing from the 1950s through the 1970s because of the cost of modernizing them even as fewer students pursued dairy industry careers.

Tom Sims, one of the people who pushed for the University of Delaware creamery, said its creation has been talked about for 25 years at the school's College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, which has about 800 undergraduate and graduate students studying everything from agriculture to wildlife conservation.

"Everyone has always said, 'Why don't we start a creamery?'" said Sims, the college's deputy dean who helped get a $400,000 grant to start the creamery.

The university actually sold its first batch of ice cream in 2008. At the time, however, the school's only involvement was providing milk from its cows to a dairy, which turned it into ice cream.

Now, the creamery's 25 student employees do much of the ice cream making. Students help milk the school's 100 dairy cows twice a day. A tanker truck picks up the milk and transports it to a dairy. It returns as ice cream base, a sweetened liquid about the thickness of buttermilk. That's when students take over.

Students add flavorings to make the shop's 20 varieties. They mix in some ingredients by hand, like cookies for cookies and cream or pieces of crunch for the shop's Cinnamon Toast Crunchie. The store's most popular flavor is its Delaware River Mud Pie, which is a cookies-and-cream blend with fudge. Corn on the Cone, a novelty flavor with corn kernels, is one of its newest.

Students make hundreds of pounds of ice cream daily and sell some 18,000 scoops a month.

That may sound like a lot, but university officials say they aren't looking to be a mass producer.

"We're not going to be the next Cold Stone or Dairy Queen. World domination is not in the long-term plan," said Katy O'Connell, a spokeswoman for the university's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Instead, the university's goal when it built the creamery was for it to be another way for students to learn, whether to gain experience running a business or developing a product. Already, half a dozen professors have asked to bring classes to the creamery, including a dairy production professor and an engineering professor who wants students to study the equipment. Students studying food science may eventually develop products for the store.

Students who don't use the creamery as a classroom won't be left out. Starting in the fall, the school's ice cream will be available at a campus dining hall, the bookstore and three campus convenience stores. There's also talk of new fall flavors, including pumpkin and apple pie. And the creation of a signature university flavor is also not far off.

Creamery manager Melinda Litvinas, the store's only non-student employee, said someday she hopes to buy equipment that would let students make ice cream base on site, as well as yogurt and cheese. She also wants an ice cream truck.

"I don't know any colleges that have an ice cream truck, and I'd like to be the first," Litvinas said.

Litvinas and other school officials hope that the creamery will cover its operating expenses within the next year. Any money it makes after paying the student employees and covering other costs will go back to the college to pay for things like additional research opportunities and improvements on the dairy farm.

Customers, meanwhile, say the creamery is off to a good start. Mary Ann Hilbeck, the mother of a University of Delaware student, liked the mint chocolate chip flavor she tried on a recent weekday. It was her first taste of the ice cream, which costs $1.75 for a single scoop. But repeat customer Bert Jicha, who was at the store picking up a Holy Fluffernutter ice cream shake for his daughter, said his family is split. Some think the ice cream is too rich; others say it is just right.

University of Delaware student Leeah Fayson, an athletic training major, already has a favorite flavor: Black Raspberry. "It tastes real," she said as she finished a cup of the ice cream and licked her spoon, "like somebody took the time to make it."


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