Founded in 1918, Perry’s Ice Cream has grown from a hand-cranked churn on a kitchen stove to become the 26th largest ice cream brand in the U.S. In this interview, Chief Marketing Officer Gayle Perry Denning, a fourth-generation family member, provides insights into Perry’s history, branding, sustainability, and product development. OU Kosher certified since 1985, Perry’s continues to innovate while honoring its family traditions.
From flavor development to adapting to consumer health trends, Perry’s is a compelling example of balancing heritage with modernity. The insights shared by Gayle offer a glimpse into the world of a brand that has delighted ice cream lovers for over a century.
Gayle: My name is Gayle Perry Denning and I’m the Chief Marketing Officer for Perry’s Ice Cream. The company was founded by my great grandfather, making me the fourth generation in the business. In 1918, , H. Morton Perry, purchased a milk route which initially involved horse and buggy, bottles, and distributing milk within the village of Akron.
Several years later in 1932, Morton’s sister-in-law, who was working at the Akron school, asked him to make some ice cream for the kids using our family’s well known ice cream recipe. He made the first batch of ice cream that night on the kitchen stove using a hand-cranked churn. The next day, his son delivered it, making Akron Central School our first customer. From there, we started receiving more requests, leading to the growth of our business out of his home.
Over the years, Perry’s expanded east across New York State, acquiring other small dairies along the way. Later growth included south into Pennsylvania, and recently to Ohio. Today w are a Great Lakes brand, with over 100 flavors. Our business is structured around three main pillars: our Perry’s ice cream brand, contract manufacturing, and our frozen distribution network. We also distribute frozen pizzas, meals, and other frozen products.
OU Kosher: Do you do private label work?
Gayle: Yes, we do have both private label and major national brands.
OU Kosher: What’s the name of your Co-packing company or your service company?
Gayle: It’s all under Perry’s Ice Cream. Both the brand and the company use the same logo and mark. As of last year, we produce about 11 million gallons annually , with over 166 different flavors in our brand portfolio. Perry’s is the 26th largest ice cream brand in the country.
Perry’s is known for flavor innovation and variety. Our consumers enjoy trying something new and we try to meet these expectations by introducing new things every year. Our flavor innovation ideas come from various sources including consumer requests, team member suggestions, and trend recommendations from our flavor houses.
OU Kosher: Are you doing your own R&D or is your flavor house doing that for you?
Gayle: It’s a mix. Our R&D team is phenomenal and they handle most of our flavor development. However, when introducing a different type of product, like our Oats CreamTM, we may use outside resources.
Marcus: I’m Marcus Lovelace, the regulatory and labeling specialist here at Perry’s, and I also manage our kosher program. Our small but capable R&D team of four conducts most of our flavor development. They take a concept idea from the flavor houses and tweak it to fit into our product lineup. For very technical things, or when we’re working with something new like a non-dairy product, we’ll use experts in that particular area.
OU Kosher: Can you describe the workflow for developing new flavors and products? Do you have focus groups or an internal process for deciding what you’re going to go forward with?
Gayle: Our development process for new products starts about a year and a half in advance. For instance, we are currently starting our development for the 2025 product line. We begin by researching food, dairy, and dessert trends, consumer preferences, and evaluate our own product portfolio and our competitors’. We usually identify the flavors we plan to discontinue quite quickly.
Next, we meet with our vendors to discuss these trends and their recommendations. Our R&D team then takes the concept and runs with it. Once the flavors are finalized around May 1st of the previous year, we start working on nutritional information, labeling, packaging, photography, etc., to get ready for our selling season.
OU Kosher: Is there any consumer testing along that timeline?
Gayle: Sometimes we test concepts. For example, if we have a list of 8 flavor concepts but we’re only going to develop 4, we might send those concepts out to consumers and ask them to rank their favorites. However, we don’t typically conduct tasting or sampling with consumers; we use our own internal sampling program for that. A cross-functional team, including members from R&D, marketing, and operations, contributes to this process.
OU Kosher: Do you personally taste and give your opinion?
Gayle: Yes, I do. We also bring in sales and administrative personnel towards the end of the process when we’re finalizing our products. If we’re undecided or on the fence about something, we will even use our own team members for additional input.
Trends and Product Changes
OU Kosher: Can you talk about trends? Has the healthy food trend made its way into your products? And are you developing plant-based products?
Gayle: Yes, those are growing trends. However, it’s a very small base compared to the size of the ice cream categories. It seems like, from the research we’ve done and things that we’ve read and the data, people have good intentions. They want to eat healthier; they want to avoid this or that, they want to switch to plant based, but they really crave their indulgences. That indulgence still reigns. We have some yogurts, no sugar added, and dairy-free products in our line, but if you look at our set, it’s mostly ice cream because that’s what consumers want
OU Kosher: What about the ingredients? Have you made any significant changes to the ingredients as more consumers are reading labels?
Gayle: We’ve eliminated artificial colors and flavors where we can. We’ve also taken out partially hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrups over the years. We still have our list of what we’re targeting to change. Marcus, would you chime in and talk a little bit about the things that are on your radar?
Marcus: Something else that we’re looking at, more from a future perspective, is cocoa. We’re trying to find a naturally processed cocoa to replace our alkali or Dutch processed cocoa. The flavor difference is very distinct, so we’re trying to find a way to make the label more palatable by removing ‘processed with alkali’ from the label and still have the same flavor profile. Even with the removal of artificial colors, there are naturally sourced colors that we’d like to try to remove as well. These are starting to get put onto the ‘bad lists’ in certain areas.
OU Kosher: I imagine that there was a time when your products stayed the same for decades and it sounds like now it’s really an ongoing and very intensive process to stay new and fresh, and with all these other factors like ingredients, it must be complicated.
Gayle: Yes. We’re trying to find ways to stay new and fresh, yet balance change with our history and stay true to the original recipes .
OU Kosher: Can you tell me just a little bit about your branding? When was the last time your logo changed? Does this logo go back to the beginning?
Gayle: We started using the Perry’s crest logo in the 50s, I believe late 50s, early 60s. It has had about 3 or 4 iterations over the decades. The last time I believe was in early 2000. iIt has evolved to stay relevant and fresh, and a little bit more modern looking.
OU Kosher: So, you’re saying that you want to make that connection to your history?
Gayle: Yes. We’ve kept the color of course, but the Old English font that was originally used in the logo has been cleaned up for readability. We’ve added some elements like drop shadows and shading to give it a little more dimension, but it’s relatively close to what it was originally.
Managing and Improving Sustainability
OU Kosher: Gayle, can you talk about the sustainability efforts and how that’s affected your business?
Gayle: Yes, sustainability falls under my job description. I head up our sustainability steering team. Even though, like safety, sustainability is part of everyone’s job. Perry’s started our formal sustainability journey in 2010. I say that because, when we look back through our company history, it’s always been important to us to use natural resources wisely. We’ve always had a connection with people and the community, and we’ve been very environmentally aware. But with sustainability being brought more to the forefront, we’ve put more effort into monitoring some of the things that we do and making positive changes.
For example, we’ve had some miraculous improvements in our fuel efficiency over the years increasing our miles per gallon 48% to 7 miles per gallon since 2010. As we keep growing, we’re very conscious of our water use. While we don’t have water in our products, we use a lot of water for clean up and sanitation We closely monitor our water use per gallon produced and last year we made a significant stride in reducing it. We’ve always hovered around 2 gallons of water use per gallon of ice cream produced and we dropped it to 1.73 gallons.
We were very proud of that accomplishment and it is mostly attributed to our operations group making some changes in the way they schedule and being able to run more continuously and eliminating some washouts and running longer, larger runs instead of a lot of short ones with washes in between. We have very good metrics for our water usage that help us make improvements.
We’re now in the process of working on establishing some 2035 goals because in 2010, we set some goals and we’ve pretty much accomplished everything we’ve set out to do. So now it’s time to reach a little bit higher and see what more we can achieve. We’re going to look at CO2 as one of our goals and that’s something that’s big in scope.
And it’s new for us, but we’re going to start tackling that and we’ll continue with water and fuel and our community engagement.
OU Kosher: What are the signals from consumers about their interest in sustainability?
Gayle: The trends show that, yes, they’re aware, especially the younger generations: millennials and Gen Z.
When at the retail shelves, if all things are equal and I see my ice cream package has sustainably sourced packaging, I might go that way. Customers may pay slightly more, but they’re not going to pay exorbitantly more for something. So, kind of back to Marcus’s point too, on sourcing sustainably sourced cocoa, sustainably sourced vanilla. Our packaging is approved by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. We’re looking at all angles.
OU Kosher: Are there significant costs associated with those sustainability efforts for you and are there cost savings?
Gayle: Well, it’s interesting because what we have seen is that often, when we start a process to make a purchase in something that’s going to help us reduce water, the payback usually is pretty good. All in all, we can support the business case for sustainability.
OU Kosher Program
OU Kosher: Moving to your kosher program. You’ve been under OU certification since the 1985.
Gayle: We’ve been OU certified for as long as I can remember. I recall being a kid and it always had the little OU on it, and I’m thinking back to the 70s.
OU Kosher: Do you use OU kosher certification in your marketing at all? Is that a factor for you?
Gayle: We have not. It’s on our packaging but we haven’t made any specific call outs to it.
OU Kosher: When you’re moving into a new market or a new region, does it come up at all with retailers?
Gayle: For us, OU Kosher is like a table stake. It’s been part of who we are. It’s always been there.
OU Kosher: And how does the certification affect your production?
Marcus: It really is pretty much part of how we do things here and how we produce. When we bring on a customer and they want to produce, and even if they say, “No, we don’t want to have a kosher symbol on our package or anything,” I make sure we insist that everything that goes into your product needs to be kosher.
So that way we have a strong kosher program, we don’t have any slip-ups, and we don’t bring in stuff that doesn’t meet the OU standards.
OU Kosher: So in your contract manufacturing, everybody who goes through your facility winds up with a kosher product and you encourage them to put that on their labels.
Marcus: Yes, we do.
OU Kosher: When you come up with new products, new ingredients, is that at all a factor for certification or is your flavor supplier, your flavor company, all kosher certified?
Marcus: Yeah, our flavor companies are all kosher certified under one kosher certification or another, and yes, it is a factor. When we’re coming up with new flavors, to give you an example, we were using marshmallows in a product and we are switching those marshmallows over to a kosher marshmallow because it’s just going to be easier for us to produce and not have to worry about, so we don’t have to keep stuff segregated. It makes the production flow easier.
OU Kosher: So you don’t really need a training program for your employees because it’s not like you have other non-kosher products in there.
Marcus: No, not really. But we do train employees on what it means to be kosher and what needs to be done, and that’s part of our annual training for our food quality and safety program.
OU Kosher: Gayle, when did you first learn about what kosher certification was?
Gayle: I remember seeing the OU symbol when I was young, but my first real education about it was when I worked at Sorrento Cheese in South Buffalo. They were OU Kosher certified, and that’s where I gained a better understanding of what OU meant and the differences it made in the dairy production process.
Future Plans and Products
OU Kosher: Can you talk a little bit about future products and innovations?
Gayle: Well, we currently have a significant investment underway. We are adding a 20,000 square foot addition to our facility, and we’ve acquired an automated extruded novelty line from Denmark. Our new novelty products will be produced using this new technology.
OU Kosher: Does artificial intelligence play a role in your manufacturing processes now?
Gayle: Technology has definitely played a big role in our recent growth. While not everything is AI, we’ve incorporated various technologies to improve our operations. For example, in our warehouse, we’ve replaced clipboards and paper with headsets that provide voice instructions for picking items. We’ve also implemented different technologies in our freezer and distribution system.
OU Kosher: Marcus, can you tell us more about the new red zone software and whether it includes AI components?
Marcus: The red zone software is primarily focused on operational efficiency and tracking, with a quality component for our quality checks. It helps us measure metrics and ensure that we meet safety and production standards. It also acts as a powerful communication tool, enabling real-time monitoring and immediate response to any issues that arise.
OU Kosher: Can you give us an example of one of the products that will be using the new extruded line?
Gayle: The machine allows for a variety of shapes, flavors, and coatings like white chocolate, dark chocolate, and caramel. Consumers will see new indulgent items in 2024 that are exactly what fans will expect from Perry’s.
OU Kosher: What advice would you give to new brands entering the ice cream category and using your co-packing facilities?
Gayle: If a new brand wants to work with us, it’s essential for us to understand their vision and goals. By leveraging our expertise and resources in the ice cream category, we can collaborate and produce a consistent, reliable, and safe product that aligns with their vision.
OU Kosher: So, on the co-packing side, you offer a partnership from beginning to end?
Gayle: Yes, that’s right. It depends on the situation. Sometimes a brand comes to us with just a concept, and we work with them from the ground up. Other times, they might already have a recipe and need our help to scale it up for commercial production.
Confidence in the Product and Kosher Certification
OU Kosher: Is there anything you’d like to say to kosher consumers?
Gayle: As far as kosher consumers are concerned; I think Perry’s has a great long-term relationship with OU and our kosher certification. It’s something we take pride in and put a lot of training and effort into ensuring the process is done correctly. When you choose Perry’s, you can have a high confidence level in the quality of the ice cream.
OU Kosher: I must say that I’m very impressed with your company. Going from a mom and pop store to where you are now, as a multigenerational company, is unusual.
Gayle: Yes, it’s true. Less than 2% of family businesses make it to the 4th generation. We’ve received a lot of help from many great people to be here over 100 years later..
OU Kosher: Your founder is your great grandfather. Who in the family is most like him?
Gayle: My understanding is my dad was a lot like him. My great grandfather passed away when I was around 11, so I didn’t know him in a business sense. However, we’ve tried hard to stick close to his values, which are reflected in our corporate values.
One thing he was known to say when he walked through the plant was, “Make sure you put in enough of the good stuff.” We still follow that philosophy today, believing that it applies to ingredients and people. Everyone brings their “good stuff” in their own unique way to keep Perry’s going into the next generation. That good stuff rings true to us.
OU Kosher: So he was engaged and always involved with the production and the employees?
Gayle: Absolutely, he had an eighth-grade education but had a very active, engaged, entrepreneurial spirit. When he started getting into ice cream production, he taught himself the recipe and how to commercialize the product and grow the business. He took great pride in that and instilled the value of higher education in his children.
He was able to achieve that, which made him very proud. I often wonder what he would think if he could come back and take a tour today to see The Perrys of today.
OU Kosher: What do you think he would have thought?
Gayle: I think he’d be very surprised by what happened to a little milk route.
OU Kosher: That’s a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.
Gayle: You’re welcome.https://www.perrysicecream.com/