By JESSICA TOLEDANO

Staff Reporter

The ice cream business is hot these days just take a peek inside Fosselman's Ice Cream, the 79-year-old shop and factory in Alhambra where more than 500 customers flock each weekend for the creamy hand-made confection.

"It's been an incredible summer for ice cream," said John Fosselman, who co-owns the business with his brother Chris. "It is pretty darn close to the best summer we have ever had."

That's an accomplishment, considering that when John and Chris took over in 1990, Fosselman's was on death's door the result of focusing too much on the retail side and not enough on the lucrative wholesale trade.

"It was, we buy out the business or we are out of business," recalled John.

The two brothers mapped out a new strategy maintaining just the one Alhambra shop and knocking on restaurant and retail doors.

Today, the company makes the bulk of its money from delivering hundreds of gallons of ice cream each week to its more than 75 wholesale clients, which include the Daily Grill, Bristol Farms, Occidental College and Country Star Restaurant.

Landing and retaining wholesale clients is no easy feat in the fiercely competitive ice cream world, where tiny Fosselman's competes against such premium behemoths as Haagen Dazs, Dryers and Ben & Jerry's.

"Their biggest problem is money," Michael Alvarez, warehouse manager for dairy products distributor Adohr Farms, said of Fosselman's. "They don't have the money to get their name out. They can't really compete with a Ben & Jerry's or a Haagen Dazs because they don't have any brand name. Fosselman's has to get their name out by word of mouth."

Besides ad campaigns, companies like Haagen Dazs pay big bucks to restaurants that put their names on the menu and carry their products exclusively. But being small and local also has its advantages.

Hem Shah, spokesman for Alta Dena Certified Dairy in City of Industry, said many smaller wholesale customers prefer to deal with local suppliers. And some customers may have longstanding loyalties to a local supplier.

"The niche (Fosselman's) has is being a family-owned business and the quality of their product," said Alvarez. "They make it by hand. There is a difference in the taste."

One part of Fosselman's strategy has been to offer special flavors tailored to the tastes of its wholesale customers.

For example, green tea ice cream is sold to sushi bars, Macapuno (a coconut-flavored ice cream) for Filipino restaurants and date-flavored ice cream for stores in the San Bernardino Valley, where date-growing has deep roots.

Wholesale customers are ardent fans.

"I don't use anything else and would never use anything else," said Kevin McCafferty, who owns a 1930s-style soda fountain in Pasadena named Soda Jerks. "I have people come here especially for Fosselman's Ice Cream."

Other wholesale customers said they like the mom-and-pop aspect of the Fosselman legacy.

"They are kind of like the hometown favorite my father used to buy Fosselman's," said Bob Spivak, chief executive of the Daily Grill, which uses the ice cream in eight of its restaurants in Los Angeles. "Our customers like the ice cream, especially the specialty flavors. People will come in just for their peach ice cream. It has worked out great for us."

The family business started in 1919 when Christian Fosselman, the grandfather of John and Chris, opened a small ice cream operation in Waverly, Iowa. The family patriarch moved his family and business to Pasadena in 1924 distributing milk, butter, cream and ice cream with more than 20 trucks. In the 1940s, he expanded the company into four retail ice cream shops in Pasadena, Huntington Park, Alhambra and Glendale.

Christian's two sons took over the business and implemented their ill-fated retail focus. By the late 1970s, three of the four stores were closed and business at the lone Alhambra store was lagging. Only 10 wholesale customers remained.

Chris and John then took the reins from their father and uncle and guided the business back from the brink.

The Fosselman brothers pride themselves on personally making every batch of ice cream. The brothers trade off tasks working one day in the factory and the next driving one of the company's two delivery trucks. (The other truck is often driven by their 80-year-old uncle.)

"It gets tiring," John Fosselman said over the loud hum of the ice cream machines, sporting rubber boots, shorts and a Fosselman's T-shirt. "But we are used to it, we have been working here since we were little kids."

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