If there’s anything Fosselman’s Ice Cream Co. has proved in 100 years, it’s that when it comes to ice cream, the purest tried-and-true recipes of yesteryear still hit the sweet spot.
As one of the oldest continually-operating ice cream manufacturers in Southern California and the oldest business in Alhambra, Fosselman’s is celebrating its centennial this year old style — a lot of tradition mixed with a little newness. To kick off the year, the flagship ice cream parlor and production center at 1824 W. Main St. recently underwent a remodel to evoke the days of soda fountain shops, complete with an old-fashioned candy counter stocked with pastel salt water taffy, eye-popping swirled lollipops and jawbreakers almost the size of a child’s face.
And the ice cream? Well, that remains the same. The rich, creamy concoction still is mixed from a base of four simple ingredients, including 16% premium butterfat and a paradigm of pure essences and flavors, just as its founder, Christian Anthony (C.A.) Fosselman, intended all those years ago.
“Go big or go home — if you’re going to indulge, you’ve got to do it right,” said owner John Fosselman. “One of the things we’ve learned over the years is: Know your niche. We’ve always only made our ice cream with premium ingredients.”
Chris and John Fosselman are proud, third-generation owners of an ice-cream business begun in 1919 in Waverly, Iowa, by Grandpa C.A. Fosselman. Back then, C.A. ran a brewery begun by his father, Peter Fosselman, a German-immigrant brewmaster, but began incorporating soda pop and ice cream early on near the banks of the Cedar River. When Prohibition hit early in Iowa, C.A. did what he could to keep the business going, turning the brewery into an ice house and making only ice cream and soda pop, whose popularity grew amid the absence of alcohol-based drinks. After struggling for years in hard times and the unforgiving Midwestern winters, C.A. realized — amid the invention of mechanical refrigeration — he could sell ice cream year-round in a place where the weather called for it. And so came the Fosselmans to sunny Pasadena in 1921.
Over the years, the business saw its share of ups and downs, from booming early on to scaling drastically back in the Depression era. At its peak, Fosselman’s expanded to include production and delivery of milk and butter across the Greater San Gabriel Valley area and oversaw a fleet of more than 20 delivery trucks. Later, C.A.’s sons Jim, Bill and Bob took over the business, and each ran a different location, in Alhambra, South Pasadena and Highland Park.
When the brothers seemed ready to step away from the business, Chris and John Fosselman, at just 23 and 21 years old, saw their chance to forge ahead with Fosselman’s. At great risk, they agreed to buy out their dad and uncles, but they also knew they needed to make some changes to become more profitable.
“We had some life lessons starting out in this business so young,” recounted John, noting that they worked 60-hour weeks for at least the first 10 years, with Chris adding, “Would I have let my 20-year-old kid sign those papers? Never!”
The brothers, after 30 years working side by side, have an easy demeanor together, often completing each other’s sentences and raising an eyebrow at an inside joke. They learned to work together by example, watching how their uncles did it, John noted, and of course, “It takes a lot of tenacity. There has to be a lot of forgiveness because you’re working with the same people you’re going to see at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Sometimes it’s tough to leave it at the door, but the bottom line is you can’t trust anyone more than family.”
The third-generation brotherhood has so far proved fruitful: In the 1990s, Chris and John successfully pivoted Fosselman’s toward the upscale wholesale and food service industry, always dedicated to their grandfather’s philosophy, even before the organic moniker became popular: Use the best, locally sourced ingredients, all natural; no corn syrup and no preservatives; and make small batches by hand with as much butterfat as possible.
“Our dad told us, ‘Make it so good they can’t resist it,’” Chris Fosselman recalled.
“It really makes the best-quality product out there,” added John. “Obviously, it costs us more, but it’s because of the quality of the ingredients and the way that we hand-manufacture it, even though it’s a more labor-intensive model than most, it makes the best product, and that’s why we’ve continued to do it and why it’s been around for 100 years.”
With the production and retail ice cream parlor still in Alhambra, Fosselman’s now boasts more than 600 accounts in Southern California and is rapidly growing the wholesale distribution of its traditional and soft-serve ice cream and sorbets to Northern California, Nevada, Colorado and Texas. Its clients include some of L.A.’s most exclusive restaurants, hotels, private clubs and other ice cream shops, which might sell Fosselman’s under their own brand names. (“We don’t make that a condition,” said John, since exerting quality control over its brand after it leaves their premises could turn into a logistical nightmare. In the cutthroat ice cream business, some vendors might try to use the Fosselman’s name but switch out the product with something cheaper.)
The brothers also have wholly embraced the artisanal ice cream market and creation of new flavors. Apart from being ready to help any chef achieve his personal vision of a flavor, Fosselman’s has catered to Alhambra’s changing demographic over the years, finding a niche market in popular Latino flavors like Oaxacan chocolate, horchata and dulce de leche. It is also famous for Asian flavors like red bean, lychee, green tea, taro root and even a foray into Midori wasabi ice cream, in which a pound of wasabi was used at a chef’s behest.
“Remember that? It was sweet at first and then hit you at the back of the throat and just lit you up,” said John, with Chris laughing, “Yeah, it was like working with pepper spray.”
There was also a doomed effort to create a flavor from durian, a fruit whose smell is so notoriously rancid, in fact, that hotels forbid its appearance. That was probably a bad idea from the get-go, John admits, noting, “We couldn’t get the smell out for a week.” But it attests to the brothers’ willingness to try anything, and how far they’ve brought the business from their father’s days, back when he refused to make even the blue ice cream every kid wanted. Now, the blue Cookie Monster flavor continues to be one of the store’s best sellers, and an entire generation is still crazy about it, according to Fosselman’s social media accounts.
As in any small business, the brothers constantly worry about how new tax codes and minimum-wage increases will hit their operations — and, in their case, Fosselman’s restaurant clientele — while always trying to keep their ice cream at an affordable price point. But going forward, the brothers are confident in growing their brand and making the business viable for another generation to carry on. In the past 30 years alone, their business has tripled in size and consistently sees year-on-year growth. Later this year, they plan to push sales again and debut a new pint-sized ice cream to reach smaller, upscale grocery stores and markets.
And they’ll keep making it just like Grandpa C.A.: “Make it so good they can’t resist it,” John repeated, rising to get back to work. “In a recession-proof business, people eat ice cream, happy or sad.”