Made In The Berkshires: Experimenting with flavors at SoCo Creamery
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GREAT BARRINGTON — Granola and cranberry swirl. Chocolate and citrus. Interesting flavor combinations. Imagine them in ice cream.
Those who can are the target audience that SoCo Creamery is trying to attract with the ice cream that it makes from all natural flavors.
Experimenting with offbeat ideas — SoCo recently mixed granola and cranberry swirl to create a new Mockingjay ice cream inspired by the heroine of the Hunger Games movie series — has been a trademark of the Great Barrington-based company since its inception in the late 1980s.
"We've never really been a strictly vanilla, chocolate and coffee kind of place," said SoCo's flavor master, Matt Scott, who has been with the company for seven years.
In conjunction with this month's release of the new Star Wars movie, SoCo is planning to release two other new ice creams: Flan Solo (flan is a French custard); and a Storm Trooper flavor that incudes marshmallows and chocolate chips.
The company has also made special ice creams based on the Sherlock Holmes and James Bond movies.
"I think there's just always been some kind of creative force behind the product of pushing the envelope and experimenting always," Scott said.
In August, SoCo Creamery was recognized as the "Best Ice Cream Store in Western Massachusetts" by Masslive.com, the online version of the Springfield Republican.
But experimentation has to be mixed with sound business principles in order for a company to succeed, and SoCo has certainly undergone its share of growing pains.
SoCo originally began in the late 1980s as Bev's, a small ice cream shop in Lenox run by mother Beverly Mazursky and her sons.
When Mazursky retired, her son Danny took over the business and renamed it SoCo (for South County) Creamery. The company opened a retail shop on Railroad Street in Great Barrington in 2005.
But the company went through growing pains as it continued to expand and ran into several financial difficulties.
The Berkshire Opportunity Fund, a group made up of local private investors, took control of SoCo's assets two years ago after the company's previous ownership group defaulted on their payments.
After the first person the investment group brought in to run SoCo left, BOF partner Erik Bruun was tasked with finding a replacement, but he decided to take the position himself last December. SoCo has had anywhere from 12 to 25 employees, depending on the season. Danny Mazursky is now SoCo's lead sales person.
The fund is the majority owner among SoCo's six current investors. Although SoCo's sales were $1.3 million last year, higher than in both 2012 and 2013, Bruun said the company is looking for additional investors.
"This is sort of a start-over," he said, referring to previous management's financial difficulties.
SoCo is currently in the midst of a two-year reorganization plan in which the company hopes to solidify its brand and become more of a presence in the superpremium ice cream market, an industry standard set by the International Dairy Foods Association. Ice cream in the superpremium category has very low overrun, a high fat content, and is manufactured with the highest quality ingredients, according to the IDFA.
"If you're going to go super premium with the quality of the dairy you want to have the equivalent in terms of the ingredients," Bruun said.
"It's everything in a product," he said, regarding SoCo's brand. "We want to be identified by a certain set of qualities. Authenticity, purity, transparency, distinctive great taste.
"Getting to that place has been a journey because SoCo previously had some financial troubles and they had to do some shortcuts to make it," he said.
"We have to overcome that," Bruun said. "And we have to be significantly better than others to have that kind of reputation for outstanding quality."
SoCo has always made its own ice cream at a production facility that it operates on South Main Street in Great Barrington, that has four employees. But SoCo began farming out some of those duties to a co-packer in Connecticut a few years ago. According to Scott, 30 percent of SoCo's ice cream is made in Great Barrington, depending on the season. The company also mixes its flavors there.
Now, SoCo is planning to solidify all of its production at a new facility on Westview Drive in Pittsfield near the Pittsfield Municipal Airport. The company currently shares a 4,000-square-foot storage space on Westview Drive with Crescent Creamery.
"It's an efficiency issue," Scott said. "We want to have control over every aspect of our product. It's much more efficient and cost effective to make it where we ship it out of."
SoCo will continue to make its offbeat and quirky flavors when production begins in Pittsfield, which is expected to occur in four months.
Besides the movie-themed ice creams, SoCo has formed partnerships with several other Berkshire-based businesses, including No. 6 Depot in West Stockbridge, Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Taft Farms in Housatonic, and Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Sheffield to make ice creams featuring their ingredients.
In conjunction with No. 6 Depot, SoCo has created a collection of single-origin coffee ice creams. SoCo's blueberry ice cream features hand-picked blueberries from Windy Hill Farm. The company has combined harvest mint from Taft Farms' herb garden with Italian chocolate chips into its harvest mint chip blend. The partnership with Berkshire Mountain Distillers resulted in a Rum Raisin Eggnog flavor.
"We're trying to have three or four Berkshire collaboration ice creams on an ongoing basis," Bruun said.
Mixing and matching flavors will continue to be an ongoing process at SoCo.
"We have a real good time," Scott said.