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The machine to make an ice cream sandwich is, without a doubt, beautiful:its every surface gleaming stainless steel. About once a second, the one at Yarnell’s ice cream factory in Searcy performs a kind of mechanical ballet — a pair of hubcap-sized cogs ratcheting around to align two chocolate wafers for a measured squirt of vanilla ice cream between. A quick squish and a waxed wrapper finish the job.
Overhead, on a curving steel track, a seemingly endless line of empty half-gallon cartons march steadily toward their date with a nozzle dispensing a glutton’s helping of Homemade Vanilla. Another machine caps on the familiar gold-rimmed lid and then it’s off to the hardening room, where the wind chill is kept at 90 degrees below zero. If not for all the folks in hairnets busily moving to and fro, you might think it was some kind of kinetic art installation.
While transforming the tanker-truck loads of milk and cream that enter the back door at Yarnell’s every week into ice cream might look like something out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the folks at Yarnell’s Ice Cream have it down to a science. This year marks their 75th anniversary. Still located on the same patch of real estate in downtown Searcy, and with three generations of the namesake clan on staff, the company has weathered everything from incursions by out-of-state ice cream giants to the Great Depression. The secret to success, company officials say, is a commitment to the community — and an understanding of customers’ ever-changing taste buds.
Rogers Yarnell is chairman and CEO of Yarnell’s. Some of his earliest memories are of his grandfather, Ray Yarnell, who bought a bankrupt ice cream factory in 1932 and turned it into one of the great Arkansas companies. A pioneer in making, storing and shipping ice cream by way of mechanical refrigeration instead of salt and ice, Ray Yarnell walked down every night to give the factory a once-over.
“He would have dinner and then he’d listen to the radio for an hour or so, and then he’d say, ‘Well, it’s time to check the plant.’ ” Rogers Yarnell said. “He had this big, silver Rayovac flashlight … . I would follow behind him, and he would touch each of the ammonia compressors to make sure the ice cream was cold, and make sure the trucks were properly plugged in for the next day’s run.”
Though making ice cream remains largely the same, both the world and the ice cream business have gotten more complex. In 1950, 48 companies made ice cream in Arkansas. Today, Yarnell’s stands alone, one of only a handful of “super-regional” ice cream companies in the nation.
“The same thing happened — and is continuing to happen — that happened to the soft drink industry and the salty snack industry and the beer industry and other parts of the dairy industry,” Rogers Yarnell said. “As businesses mature, the profit margins become smaller and smaller.”
Yarnell said that his company has managed to survive where others couldn’t by keeping close, strategic relationships with its major customers, hiring top-notch talent, and making one thing instead of branching out into other facets of the often-volatile dairy industry.
Another reason — though one that he can’t talk much about because of confidentiality agreements — is the custom work Yarnell’s does for other companies. Custom confections, sold under other companies’ wrappers, account for around 50 percent of Yarnell’s yearly output.
“We’ve become known in the industry as the go-to place for something that’s complex and high-value-added,” he said.
In the end, Yarnell said, the biggest secret to his company’s staying power sounds simple, though it isn’t: Work hard, and stay humble.
“Some of our competitors, particularly some competitors from other states, have a little bit different or more arrogant attitude,” he said. “We tell our folks, ‘This isn’t going to be easy.’ ”
Though you might think he’s talking about Blue Bell — the Texas ice cream giant (roughly three times the size of Yarnell’s) that has been making steady inroads in the Arkansas ice cream market — Rogers Yarnell won’t talk smack about his neighbor to the Southwest.
“They’re another great, privately held ice cream company,” he said. “We have a healthy competition between the two of us, but we are and intend to be Arkansas’s number one ice cream.” (Though sales figures are closely held, the company is No. 1 in Arkansas market share, though there’s no doubt Blue Bell has taken a big part of the state market.)
Christina Yarnell is the fourth generation of the Yarnell’s family in the company business. Now 28, she worked her way up through a number of jobs — from shredding newspaper for packing to receptionist. Since graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2000, Christina has been in management and product development. Officially the company treasurer, she also manages the custom side of the business, and is helping sort out a computerized truck-routing system. The best part of her job, however, is helping add new flavors to Yarnell’s lineup.
“Someone may in passing say this might make a really good flavor, or I might eat a dessert that I think would be good for ice cream, or we may notice a national trend,” Christina Yarnell said. “We may fall in love with a particular ingredient that a vendor has sent in and make something around it. You get inspiration from all kinds of things.”
Not every idea is a sure-fire hit. Christina Yarnell admits that the company’s Vanilla Latte flavor — released three years ago, before Starbucks and other brands fielded coffee-flavored ice creams en masse — didn’t go over so well in Arkansas.
“Some flavors are ahead of their time,” she said. “Some are just in the wrong season.”
Though the fourth-generationYarnell said it took her some time to make sure she wanted to go into the family business, now she can’t imagine doing anything else. She was instrumental in the decision to dedicate the 75th anniversary of Yarnell’s to the fight against breast cancer. Under its “Pink Promise” campaign, Yarnell’s has produced three limited-edition ice cream flavors, with 5 cents of every carton sold going to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
“My mom is a breast cancer survivor,” Christina Yarnell said. “And from personal experience I wanted to do something to honor her, even though she’s doing great. There’s a lady who has been with us for 20 years, and she was diagnosed just when Susan G. [Komen] was coming out, so she is definitely one of the reasons we do this.”
For his part, Rogers Yarnell is still positive about the ice cream business. Though watching his calories like any 50-something, he still manages to eat a little ice cream every day. His favorite is plain vanilla, always the connoisseur’s choice because it’s hard to get something so simple just right. As for the company he leads, he doesn’t foresee it melting away anytime soon.
“There are no guarantees for any of us,” he said. “We’re in a mature business that’s consolidating, but I feel strongly that we’ll make 100 years. I feel comfortable that our management team and the customer base is one that will allow us to survive when others haven’t.”
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