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Tuesday, Jun 6, 2023


It’s 11 a.m. on a dazzling Saturday morning in June, and a crowd already is forming under the tents and balloons in the parking lot of Applegate Farm, a 150-year-old dairy farm in Montclair, N.J. that has been a landmark attraction for ice cream lovers for more than 50 years.

With the famous ice cream manufactured on its premises, Applegate Farm doesn’t need a contest or a festival to draw a crowd. With pricing specials pulled from days gone by to celebrate its anniversary think 25-cent ice cream cones there is a standing-room-only crowd any night of the week at the farm (which has no connection to columnist Jane Applegate).

But owner Jason Street turns his family business into party central on a regular basis with a schedule of events commemorating the farm’s history in the community.

“To be in business for 150 years, and to do well, is something,” said Street, who took over the business from his aunt, Betty Niles, in 1994.

“I think it’s very important to give back to the community,” said Street, who runs programs in the schools and on site for local children. “Without the loyalty and patronage of our customers, we wouldn’t be here.”

The heart of bustling Montclair is not the first place you’d expect to find a farm. Applegate’s candy-apple-red, three-acre complex a dairy bar, cow barn, farmhouse that provided sanctuary for escaping slaves during the Civil War, and an authentic tile silo that was one of only three built in New Jersey in 1919 shadows its neighborhood of suburban homes like a friendly ghost from a distant time. According to its owners, it is.

“Applegate is alive; it has a heartbeat of its own,” said Betty Niles, who bought the business in 1980. “It becomes a lifeblood. You just start to live it.”

Applegate had grown from a full-service dairy farm to its current incarnation as an ice cream retailer and wholesaler under the aegis of just four families when Betty Niles stumbled onto the tradition while looking for a new house in 1980. About to become a single mother and already the sole support of two infants, Niles leased the land, moved into the farmhouse and negotiated a deal to buy the ice cream business.

“I thought, ‘I can raise kids here and earn an income,’ ” said Niles, who knew nothing about the dairy business at the time. But she knew how to eat ice cream, and found that tasting fresh batches right off the pump was one of the top perks of the job.

But the business and the property had deteriorated under the neglectful watch of a brief, interim owner. From faulty equipment to bad blood with the neighbors, Niles walked into a hornet’s nest of hidden troubles.

Four months after purchasing the business, the freezer failed, and Niles had to transfer her entire stock to a refrigeration truck while a $20,000, brand-new freezer was constructed. Her second year in business, torrential rains covered New Jersey for 16 summer weekends.

Niles also battled the gender issues of the times. “People in the dairy business looked at me and said, ‘A woman in the dairy business? Do you think you’re going to make it?’ I was a laugh,” she said. “Customers would want to speak to a manager and not accept that the manager was a woman. When I would say that I was the manager, they would ask if they could speak with my husband,” she said.

Meanwhile, the homeowners in her neighborhood began a campaign to have the farm closed, and the town responded by instituting tight trade restrictions on the farm, taking away its ability to sell Christmas trees, T-shirts and all items other than ice cream, pumpkins and soda.

“The first three years were awful. There was a lot of adversity,” recalls Niles, adding that Applegate Farm still operates under those same trade restrictions.

But adversity toughened Niles, and as business began to improve in the fourth year, she realized she was in it for the long haul. She bought the land outright and concentrated on building retail sales and making peace with her neighbors by hosting ice cream parties at the schools and bringing local schoolchildren in for tours of the ice cream freezer.

“Sales just kept going up,” said Niles, noting that the challenges of single motherhood often distracted her from the full weight of her professional responsibilities. “I don’t know how we did it, but we made it.”

Today, Applegate Farm is moving rapidly into the modern world, with a Web site (www.applegatefarm.com) and a community-based marketing campaign. It produces an average of 60,000 gallons of ice cream a year, and on a typical summer Sunday sells 3,000 cones and serves about 5,000 customers.

Applegate’s 150th anniversary carnival last spring attracted 8,000 people, reflecting a degree of popularity that is reinvigorating the company’s wholesale business.

“I have many customers who come once a month or even once a year, and they want the ice cream closer,” said Street, explaining that many of his customers have moved away from the area. “It’s difficult for them to take that 20-minute or 45-minute drive. We get calls from people every day asking us if we sell in stores near them.”

Niles said the farm is already open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week, including Christmas and New Year’s. “There is no more room for parking; we can’t be open any more hours. The only room for growth now is wholesale.”

Niles attributed the success to the product. Only two staff members are ever charged with the task of making the ice cream, and it’s a permanent position that does not rotate.

Also critical, said Niles, is the staff of young people who work the takeout bar. Applegate Farm requires a staff of more than 20 people on a weekend summer night, and Niles estimates that she and Street have employed a total of more than 1,500 young people.

She also credits her nephew, Street, who entered Niles’ life when she married his uncle in 1991. Niles gained not just a new husband, but in Street, she found someone who would share her passion for the farm.

After working his college summers at Applegate, he joined the business full time after graduation. Street was able to take over many of the maintenance, repair and landscaping duties for which Niles previously had been forced to hire contractors, a cost savings that allowed him to bring the farm back into top shape.

This, and his talent for community relations and outreach, helped repair the farm’s relations with its neighbors. In 1994, when a medical condition in Niles’ leg brought her ice cream career to an abrupt end, Street was ready to continue the family tradition.

“I didn’t want builders coming in or people who would run it down,” said Niles, whose children were only teen-agers at the time. “We are so proud of Jason and the tremendous job he has done.”

She worked out a plan for her nephew to eventually purchase the business. Niles retired to Maine, and Street now calls the bright-red farmhouse home.

“People come here with a smile on their face,” said Street. “Every day is different. I fell in love with what I do for work.”

This column was written by Robin Wallace. Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and author of “201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business.” For more resources, visit jane@janeapplegate.com.

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