With a smile and a cheerful, “Hello, welcome to the Ice Cream Factory!” employees greet customers walking through the door of the Ice Cream Factory in Eldon. At this ice cream shop about an hour southwest of Columbia, colorful T-shirts hang on a rack for sale and an oversized gumball machine stands in the corner, dispensing inch-sized gumballs for a quarter.
Less than four years ago, this building was derelict and condemned.
But Shannon and Katie Imler had a vision for the 14,000-square-foot facility, which was once a Kraft Foods cheese factory. They personally funded the project, and they implemented their vision room by room, relying on Shannon’s background in construction. The husband and wife grew up in Eldon and are passionate about breathing new life into old buildings in the community.
“I actually have a picture of Katie and I standing in here with, you know, everything was just completely gutted and gone,” Shannon Imler said. “And so every few months, we’ll do a little more work, we’ll do a little more work, until we finally got it where we wanted it.”
Despite difficulties posed by the pandemic, the company has boomed, outgrowing its production facility in Eldon. The Ice Cream Factory is now purchasing a property in Lebanon that was once a dairy processing plant. The company is investing $9 million into the project, which is expected to create about 130 jobs over the next five years.
“As our business grows, the (Lebanon) plant allows for much more capacity than we have now,” Shannon Imler said. “It’s really a good tool for us to have to keep growing. The great thing about it is that there are several acres around there that we can expand to if we need to.”
‘Push the boundaries’
The Ice Cream Factory launched in April 2019 and had just opened its second location in Jefferson City in early 2020 when the pandemic threw it a curveball. The 35 wholesale customers that the business had, consisting of restaurants and other scoop shops, canceled all future orders.
In March 2020, we lost all of our wholesale business,” Shannon Imler said. “Our two company-owned scoop shops basically had no business whatsoever.”
Hear more: The Ice Cream factory on the Business Brief podcast
The Imlers immediately pivoted their focus toward placing products in essential businesses — first in Missouri, then in neighboring states.
“I personally went to grocery stores and convenience stores across the Midwest and talked to every manager or owner that I could possibly talk to and ask them to purchase our ice cream,” Shannon Imler said.
The business still employs similar methods to continue growing. As an incentive to retailers stocking their products, the company supplies compact-size deep freezers to stores needing extra space to store the frozen treats.
“I’m still kind of doing the same thing today, to push our company to grow more and more,” Shannon Imler said. “We’re trying to push the boundaries.”
Currently, the Ice Cream Factory distributes to 16 states and over 1,200 retail stores. The company produces 23 flavors, including brownie blast, blackberry cobbler and its bestseller — gooey butter cake.
Maddie Hensley, an employee in the Eldon scoop shop, was raised in the mid-Missouri town and has witnessed the Ice Cream Factory’s impact on the community. She said Eldon residents have been very receptive to the business since its opening.
“I’ve had so many people say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an amazing little place,’” Hensley said. “It’s a great place for families to get together and for kids’ birthday parties. I think it’s really given the town a good hangout spot.”
The Eldon location currently employs between 40 and 50 people, with up to 15 additional seasonal hires during the busy summer months. Apart from employees in the scoop shop, the Ice Cream Factory requires delivery drivers, ice cream makers and bakers who prepare cakes and cookies that are included in various ice cream flavors.
“Each year or month that goes by, we’d make a little more ice cream, make some more cakes, and it just grows a little bit each year,” Shannon Imler said.
‘The next level’
After the rapid growth of their business, the Imlers were on the lookout for their next location when they found a former dairy factory in Lebanon, which is about an hour south of Eldon. Like the Eldon facility, the Lebanon plant already had a drainage system in place that was conducive to making dairy products.
“What will really take us to the next level and allow us to be competitive with large national ice cream brands is our Lebanon, Missouri, facility,” Shannon Imler said. “It’ll allow us to produce up to 100 times more ice cream at full capacity in that plant than we are here (in Eldon). This is just a very, very small place compared to where we will be in a few years.”
Officials in Lebanon are excited for the Ice Cream Factory to come to town and for the new jobs it’s projected to create. Brian Thompson, president and CEO of Lebanon Regional Economic Development, was part of the team that helped bring the business into the community.
“We’re very blessed and happy to have them as one of our newest businesses in the community,” Thompson said. “In addition to getting that new location, the jobs, the investment, all of the above … they are very community-minded individuals. So I think they’re going to be very active and engaged. That’s kind of like icing on the cake, or maybe sprinkles on the ice cream.”
Once operational, the facility will be among the 20 largest employers in Lebanon by headcount. The plant will also add to the variety of jobs in the Lebanon area, Thompson said, including ice cream and bakery production, shipping and retail positions.
“One of the things that I’m really excited about is the diversity of job offerings,” Thompson said.
The Imlers believe the Lebanon location will provide an opportunity for increased ice cream production, as well as an easily accessible stop for motorists to exit the interstate for a sweet treat. The factory sits on more than 12 acres, and Shannon Imler sees the property as the next step toward achieving even larger goals for the company.
“We’re hoping to eventually be in every state in the United States, and once we do get our Lebanon plant actually making ice cream, that’s our number one goal,” he said. “You know, we can always sell more ice cream, but we have to be able to make it more efficiently.”