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AT 75: Yarnell's Ice Cream is alive and well.
  • AT 75: Yarnell's Ice Cream is alive and well.

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.



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