Behind Berkey Creamery
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On this episode of the Farm Credit AgVocates podcast, Jenny Kreisher interviews Jim Brown, the Assistant Manager of Creamery Operations at Penn State University’s Berkey Creamery. You’ll learn about the Creamery’s start, how it’s evolved over the years, and it’s place in Penn State’s culture today. And, for all you wondering, the most popular flavor is not Peachy Paterno!
Welcome back to the Farm Credit AgVocates podcast. I'm your host Jenny Kreisher, Director of Communications at Horizon Farm Credit. I'm excited about our guest today for a few reasons. One of which is because I'm a proud Penn State Alum and if you were to ask me what one of my favorite parts of Penn State was and still is, today's guest’s sure plays a critical role in my answer.
Jim Brown is the Assistant Manager of Operations at Penn State's Berkey Creamery, home of what I truly do believe is the best ice cream on the planet. Jim has a 33 year career in sales and the dairy industry and started at the Creamery in 2005.
Today, Jim oversees the retail, wholesale and e-commerce aspects of the Creamery, as well as the media and public relations, product development and packaging, and marketing and advertising of the Creamery and its products. Without further ado, let's dive right in and get the scoop. Welcome to the podcast Jim, thanks for joining me today.
You're welcome. Thank you for having me Jenny.
Could you tell our audience a little bit about yourself and maybe just walk us through your resume a little bit?
Sure. Well, you already presented some of the present things on my resume. Let’s start with I was born and raised in central Pennsylvania, so very close to Penn State. I've been a country boy all my life and have always been involved with hunting, fishing, agriculture, and the landscape around beautiful Pennsylvania.
I went to college here locally, studied business management and spent the first part of my career as an officer in the military. Then, as you said, I've worked the last 30 years in the retail and dairy business focusing on sales, marketing, customer relations and customer service. I've been doing that most of my life.
WHAT LED JIM TO THE CREAMERY
That's fascinating that you were in the military and came back and started working there.
What was it that brought you to the Creamery and how did you find out about that position? What made you pursue that career path when you returned?
I would have to say that when working in the local dairy industry, I worked in close partnership with the Creamery on many occasions supplying supplemental cream and other products. Over the years, I got to know the people here at the Creamery and at Penn State.
When the position came open, it was something that I've always thought about. I knew the creamer for many years and got to learn specifically what they wanted and how they wanted to drive forward and move the Creamery forward. It definitely looked like a possibility that would fit me perfectly.
THE CREAMERY'S HISTORY
For those who might be listening that haven't been to Penn State or is not an Alumni of Penn State, could you give us a little bit of background on the Creamery and the role it plays on campus today?
Sure. The Creamery is more than 156 years old. It started in 1865 out of a barn where present-day Old Main is. It wasn't until 1889 that they built this first standalone Creamery. In 1901, they moved to the Patterson building and in 1931 moved to Borland and the store was on the second floor. It wasn't until 1961 that we built a first floor store.
In 2006, we moved into what I still call the new Food Science building, even though it's 15 years old and that's where we have been ever since. We operate what everybody knows the Creamery as a store, but we also provide wholesale delivery all across campus to all of the Penn State eateries and the dining halls. We support athletics here on campus, and we're just a staple in the community.
That's for sure. I remember the move, I remember the smaller building you were in and the line would be wrapped around with students and faculty waiting to get their scoop. That’s a beautiful new building that you mentioned is not so new, but it's a beautiful building.
Well thank you. You remember Borland, the store itself was 1700 square feet. Now our building that we have right now is 3,700 square feet, so it's two and a half times the size of what it used to be in. As you said, because of the excitement and the amount of people that came around so often, we had to have a larger location to accommodate everybody.
THE CREAMERY AND COLLEGE OF AG
Oh yeah that line still wraps around. If it’s a football weekend, you’ll be waiting there for a while. Many people actually don't know that Penn State's a very prominent agriculture school. It actually was founded as the Farmers College.
How does the Creamery work with the College of Ag Science today?
Well, the creamery actually works directly with the Food Science department and the College of Ag. We do that by supporting the teaching research and outreach programs of both units by assisting in short courses and student classroom projects.
We help out with the pasteurization and sanitation workshops they have. They also have the Ice Cream Short course and the Frozen Dessert course. All of the courses that they offer at Penn State from an outreach standpoint for people that come from the industry, our location and our employees assist with them.
PENN STATE'S FOOD SCIENCE PROGRAM
That’s something I wish I knew when I was a student. That’s a class that I definitely wish I was able to take when I was there.
Would you mind elaborating a little bit on the Food Science program at Penn State? I know that they've been involved in several innovative projects over the years. If you could give our audience a little insight on the impact that they're making on the campus and even beyond that?
Oh, it's tremendous what the Food Science department educates students for. It promotes food safety and food quality for positions in labs, development, education, training, safety and quality. They basically work to promote and improve the food safety and food quality in our society. They do this not only through the developmental programs in the graduate and undergraduate programs, but also through outreach programs and short courses by training the industry.
PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT IN THE CREAMERY
Switching gears a little bit, one part of your job description that I have to ask you about is product development. I'm sure you get this question a lot with the Creamery having a ton of staple ice cream flavors and I know you’re always innovating and trying new combinations. The grilled stickies is one of my favorites.
How do you and your team go about exploring these flavors and what's that process like?
Well Jenny, we used to have 152 ice cream flavors. Over the years a lot of things have changed at the Creamery and a lot of things have changed in product development.
In the early years, it seemed like the Creamery was looking for new products and new flavors to develop. However, since we already have so many products and we've noticed that as we grew in popularity, our space is very limited, so our recent product development focuses more on the product we currently have and how to continually develop them into a higher quality product.
I think we've spent the last four years looking at our processes, ingredients and our procedures to improve the quality of the products that we currently make. However, when we are looking at making new flavors of ice cream, I think it comes from two different ways; someone comes to us with a name or a flavor idea.
If either of those are appealing or unique, then we look into that with our product development team. A lot of times our product development team involves graduate or undergraduate students that are studying in the Food Science department. We have a team that we put together and we start evaluating potential flavors or potential ingredients that would go into those.
What's the most popular flavor at the creamery?
Well I would say from a sales standpoint, it is Death by Chocolate. It's a chocolate ice cream, we call the triple chocolate.
Over the last five years, we've had a flavor madness contest trying to mirror the March Madness basketball tournament and in every year Death by Chocolate has won. Not only is it the most popular flavor by the amount of sales, but also the most popular vote online.
Oh, wow. That's fun that you guys do that. Aside from ice cream, the Creamery is also known for its cheese. Actually my coworker Johanna fell in love with the Nittany Cheddar.
When was this added to the creamery's product list?
Well, ironically cheddar cheese has been here as long as I can remember. I've been here 16 years and way before my time the cheddar cheese has been around.
However, recently in the last few years we've worked pretty diligently in the industry by asking many professionals to run our cheese through multiple tests to continue to improve the quality. We began closely evaluating the salt levels, moisture contents, and the aging process to try to obtain a more premium type of cheddar.
I think that these improvements have really changed our cheddar cheese and it's developed into a premium product and because of that, it was worth renaming. Actually just in the recent year and a half, we renamed our cheddar cheeses into the Nittany Cheddar line for a catchier name that correlates not only to the creamery, but to Penn State as well.
I love that and it makes a great holiday gift.
Are all the products made on campus?
All Creamery products are made on campus. When you talk about dairy products from our cheddar cheeses, cultured products to the fluid milk in fluid juices and teas, and of course our ice cream, yes, they're all made here at our facility
FACING COVID-19 CHALLENGES
Pre COVID, did you all offer tours to students and the public?
Yes, pre-COVID as we call it, and hopefully it will return to normal after COVID, physical tours were conducted. The crazy part is that our success has been measured in the amount of people that have come and visited here, and that has become our biggest challenge during COVID.
All those face-to-face customer relations and customer service interactions that we're very proud of, we've had to eliminate that. However, during COVID we found that we could adjust.
I think our biggest challenge was that if we can't do things face-to-face, then how can we bring the Creamery to the customers instead of the customers coming to us? That is what we ended up doing with the podcasts, webinars, and virtual speaking programs. With Zoom, anything's possible so we've transitioned lot of our physical tours into virtual tours.
MUST KNOW ABOUT THE CREAMERY
That's great. That's a great way to pivot, for lack of a better term, to meet that need.
I know the Creamery is out very prominently in the State College community, what are the most important aspects of the Creamery story that you want to make sure are told? What is it that you want people to know?
Well, I think that the Creamery is much more than a store, we're a diversified operation and we have a full manufacturing plant. We distribute our products on campus, we're a wholesaler, and we operate an e-commerce site. We provide academic support to the Food Science department of the College of Ag.
We do all of this while probably being one of the most iconic stops on campus. I think just over the years, we've become more than a store, we've become a meeting place for many generations. It's kind of crazy that I've been here long enough that students that used to work for me are now bringing their children here.
We've become a stop between classes, a study location, and a vacation destination. We've become a visitation spot to impress business colleagues if you work here. We have a little bit of everything that anybody could enjoy.
STAYING INVOLVED IN THE PENN STATE COMMUNITY
I can attest to that.
How do you all interact with those around the State College community? What kind of events do you partake in throughout the year? Do you work with students at State College High School? What kind of events and community outreach do you do?
I'll tell you that the Art Fest has always been tremendous and we missed it last year and this year, but we've done Arts Fest for many years. We provided a tent down there for the entire community.
I think our partnership begins with the many businesses on and off campus. You know how Penn State says “We are,” well here at the Creamery we believe that we all are Penn State. Not only the surrounding community and State College, but the businesses on campus too.
We try to partner with them and help them sell their products too. We sell eggs from on-campus, meats from the meats lab, honey and bagels from local businesses, and the popular State College grilled stickies. We sell items that are made from the Penn State bakery. We try to promote local businesses and local growing by partnering with them and getting everybody to know not only the Creamery, but all the businesses around the community.
Absolutely. You recently added the ability to purchase creamery ice cream at Beaver Stadium, which was fantastic news.
Where are you guys headed next?
It's not that we are heading anywhere next, but that we've already planted ourselves and put roots down in a lot of locations. We now provide ice cream to the local Commonwealth Campuses too.
Not only can you get creamery ice cream and products at University Park, but you can at the majority of the Penn State Community Commonwealth campuses and at the Bryce Jordan Center. When events come to the Bryce Jordan Center, you can get our ice cream.
Now we partner with the College of Agricultural Sciences Meats Lab. They have a store where they sell meat and other products that they developed and smoke. They now also sell our cheeses and in turn we sell their meats here on campus. We continue to expand on a lot of different Penn State entities.
That's great. I had no idea that you were in the satellite campuses now. That's fantastic. It's kind of along those same lines that Penn State does have Alumni all over the world. I believe at one time, if it's not still the largest alumni network in the country. As I mentioned before, on any given weekend, especially football weekends, that line is just out the door and around the building.
How much do you sell online? Where’s the furthest that you've shipped Creamery products?
Well, our e-commerce site services and ships to the 48 continental United States. We do not ship to Hawaii and Alaska. We have attempted to do so and we've done it successfully in the past. What we found is that since we have to rely on FedEx to get the shipments, we have to utilize dry ice. It is a hazardous material, and there's only so much dry ice that you can put in a shipment if we're using an airplane through FedEx rules, so we keep it to the 48 States.
The furthest we normally ship would be California. When you ask about our e-commerce business, since the pandemic it has increased threefold. We probably ship 20,000 to 50,000 half gallons a year and of course we ship a lot of other products.
We ship pints of ice cream, small minis, cheeses, coffees and a lot of different memorabilia items. We do e-cards and gift cards and soon to come, our famous ice cream cookie sandwiches where the cookies come from the bakery. We're partnering with them, so we'll be doing that pretty soon.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
Oh, that's great. I'll definitely keep an eye out for those, they sound delicious.
Jim, I have a couple of quick fire questions for you before we get to our final one today.
Out of these three, which do you prefer, a milkshake, cup or a cone?
Okay. What’s your go-to flavor?
Death by Chocolate of course.
Of course, you talked about that flavor before.
Do you have any new flavors or products on the horizon that you're willing to spill on this episode today?
We do not have any ice cream flavors, but we are looking at a different type of cheese curd. We have a cheddar cheese curd and we're looking at trying to develop a buffalo cheddar cheese curd.
We are looking into a non-dairy ice cream flavor to develop because we do have customers that are intolerant and can't actually consume dairy. We've been doing a lot of work with the natural ingredients to see if we can come up with a non-dairy option to satisfy those customers.
WHAT DO YOU ADVOCATE FOR IN AG?
That's great. Well, Jim, I really appreciate your time today.
The final question that we ask every guest that we have on this podcast, is what is it that you advocate for in agriculture?
I think one of the most important things is that being that I'm a country boy from Pennsylvania, everybody needs to realize what we have around us. We need to take care of our surroundings for generations and generations to come, to be able to enjoy the same thing, not only from the dairy aspect, but overall how beautiful everything is. I think I advocate to that fact and just have everybody enjoy their surroundings and keep everything natural.
I like that. Thank you so much Jim for your time today.
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