Cold Comfort

Island Ice Cream, little place in the islands owned by Gary and Patty Sundberg, offers sweet rewards

by Margery Sharp

island_lead_man_DSC0931ccIn 2004, after Gary Sundberg had taken early retirement from Verizon, he and his wife, Patty, opened a snack bar in Grand Isle called SunBurgers. Their ice cream was so popular with customers — who petitioned them to keep making it after the snack bar was closed — that they decided to go all the way. They launched Island Homemade Ice Cream in 2006. The Sundbergs love to experiment with flavors such as Maple Bacon and Long Trail Coffee Stout. A new fall flavor is Woodchuck Hard Cider Raspberry Sorbet.

Gary Sundberg, wearing a lab coat and a white hairnet, greets visitors at the door of his Grand Isle manufacturing facility by handing them a hairnet matching his own. “It’s OK,” he says. “Everyone looks odd in them.” Right behind him is his wife. Patty, dressed in similar fashion. She leads the way into the large room where their homemade specialty desserts are made and packaged.

The Sundberg are the founders (and sole workers) of Islands Homemade Ice Cream, a venture they launched in 2006. They make sorbet, Italian ice, frozen yogurt, ice cream, and sherbet at their up-to-date plant in the heart of the Champlain Islands.

The plant, which the couple converted from a former garage, is the original site of SunBurgers snack bar — a play on their name, they say, to note the many burgers they cooked for customers — which they opened in May 2004. Two years later, they gave up the short-order business and went full time into the manufacture of ice cream.

Gary explains how this happened. “On the snack bar menu was ice cream,” he says. “When we closed our second summer of operation, our regular customers asked us to stay open and continue serving it. We decided this was a good idea, so here we are, just the two of us, making ice cream year-round.”

The Sundbergs didn’t do things half way. In addition to taking a two-week course in ice cream–making at Penn State University, says Gary, “we consulted several people already in the business of ice cream production before we made the final plunge.” These included folks they met at the National Ice Cream Retailers Association convention.

“The ice cream community is pretty social,” Gary says. “We have about 20-ish shop owners we can call with questions, everything from, ‘Where can you find environmentally friendly cups?’ to, ‘My freezer is making a funny noise — what is it?’”

Early on, when they were gathering their equipment, Gary contemplated trading his Harley Road King for an ice cream maker. “Then I changed my mind,” he says. “Now I’m glad I did.”

Island Ice Cream is served by the Grand Isle Consolidated Water District on a state-of-the-art system. The ice cream manufacturing process is also strictly monitored. Vermont Department of Agriculture reps appear at random twice each quarter to inspect equipment, test the water, and sample each of the products.

Patty, nee McDonald, grew up in Burlington and graduated from Burlington High School. Gary and his parents came to Vermont from Long Island when he was in sixth grade. He graduated from Mount Mansfield Union High School, where he competed in track and field. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Vermont and Vermont Technical College. They met in 1975 “at a big old party” says Patty.

When Gary graduated from VTC in 1976, he says, “there was an economic downturn in Vermont — translated to ‘no work.’ Although I was in the top 5 percent of my class, no jobs could be found.”

Fortunately, he was recruited by Bell Telephone Laboratories in Naperville, Ill., as an associate member of the technical staff. Patty found work there, too, as an administrative assistant in the same building where Gary worked. “They had about 2,700 employees at the time,” says Gary. “In that era, software was a new thing, and while at the labs, I received two patents for programming ‘breakthroughs.’”

After two years, on a trip back to Vermont, Patty’s father told them he had seen job openings in The Burlington Free Press for management positions at New England Telephone Co. The couple had been talking about their future. “We decided that the Midwest was just a stopping point,” says Gary, “and that we wanted to raise our family in Vermont.”

He interviewed with New England Telephone that weekend and was offered a management engineering position with the “outside plant” in Essex Junction. “That is, designing all the poles, cable, and electronics necessary to bring phone service from the central office to your home or business,” Gary explains.

In those days, it was easy to transfer from Bell Labs to New England Telephone, he continues, “because we were all AT&T.” They sold their Illinois condo and bought a small cottage in Charlotte. Their daughter, Kristin, was born the next year, followed two years later by a son, Andy. They moved to Grand Isle in 1982.

Gary remained with the phone company through its various iterations, as NYNEX and eventually Verizon, until he took an early retirement offer in 2002. He continued doing contract work for Verizon and helped his parents, he says, “while cancer was taking my dad.”

After the snack bar opened in 2004, he worked there with Patty in the summer and did contract engineering for Verizon from September to May. He ended the contract work in 2005, he adds, “and went full-bore into the ice cream.”

The Sundbergs sell the bulk of their products wholesale, but do make occasional appearances with a pushcart filled with their frozen delights. Most weekends they attend celebrations or festivals and bring along their pushcart for retail sales. For example, in early October, they attended the Harvest Festival at Sam Mazza’s Farm and Market in Colchester and were on hand for the Stowe Foliage Art & Craft Festival.

“We’ve supported the Sundbergs since they started,” says Laurie Mazza Bombard, operations manager for Mazza’s. “Their product is high quality and it’s a great business. I’ve tasted every flavor they’ve put out and I love them all, especially the raspberry sorbet. They come to our festivals. The company has a local feel, which makes a difference. We like our relationship with them and hope it will continue.”

In the plant, the Sundbergs’ typical work day runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with no lunch. “We’ve worked our schedule so that we make ice cream Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday,” says Patty. “Thursday is delivery day. We load up our refrigerated truck and we deliver from Highgate Springs down to Shelburne and over to Williston.”

Shore Acres Inn and Restaurant in North Hero sells Island Homemade exclusively, says Susan Tranby, one of that property’s six owners. “It’s a wonderful product. The plant is right down the road from us and the Sundbergs deliver. We’ve been with them ever since they started. We like to use Island products whenever we can.”

The Sundbergs adhere to that philosophy as well. “We make it a point to buy as many of our supplies as possible from Vermont businesses. We get our maple syrup from the A&B Beverage next door, where we sold our first pints of ice cream. We get all the mechanical work done on our vehicles just two doors down from A&B, and our strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries come from Sam Mazza’s. We get our basic yogurt product from a farm in Addison County.”

The Sundbergs, who recently earned an Award for Excellence for their French Vanilla flavor at a competition in Scottsdale, Ariz., like to experiment with flavors. Maple Bacon is one of their big hits. Another is Long Trail Coffee Stout, made for the annual Vermont Brewers Festival, partly from beer brewed at the Long Trail plant.

In 2009 the Sundbergs were commended as Employer of the Year by Pride. Inc. in recognition of their practice of hiring people with brain injuries to affix to the ice cream carton covers the company’s blue and white logos, designed by Twin State Signs of Essex. “A friend introduced us to the Pride Inc. organization,” says Patty. “We take the labels and covers to the workers in a Northfield office.”

Along the way, Patty and Gary brought up two children, Kristin and Andy, who have left the nest. The Sundbergs confess there’s little time for vacations, although they have occasionally taken time away from their hectic, two-person operation to travel to Florida and Mexico. “Fortunately,” says Gary, “we do enjoy working together.”

At home, the Sundbergs are active in their island community. They contribute ice cream to the Island Apple Fest and the Vermont Nurses Association and the islands’ elementary schoolchildren, and offer ice cream to donors at Red Cross blood drawings. They also donate ice cream for a recognition dinner for C.I.D.E.R. (Champlain Islanders Developing Essential Resources Inc.), a program that offers meals, transportation, and other help to seniors who are island residents.

Last year they supplied ice cream for walkers in the March of Dimes fundraiser in Burlington. They also give out ice cream cones and popsicles for the annual YOGI picnic. YOGI (Youth Organization of Grand Isle) sponsors the Little League baseball organization.

It is their practice to make a donation to the Cancer Research Foundation at Fletcher Allen Health Care for every cup of ice cream sold at the hospital’s Harvest Cafe.

Their ice cream has not gone unnoticed in the world outside of Vermont. They were pleased to receive national recognition for their ice cream last summer in the June 10 graduation issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine.

“After all,” says Patty, “who doesn’t love ice cream? It’s a party food!” •