Thursday, January 26, 2006

The ice-cream shop that scooped President Eisenhower’s favorite ice cream is staging a comeback.

Gifford’s Ice Cream & Candy Co., which became something of a Washington legend when it opened in Silver Spring in 1938, is planning a local expansion.

The four-store chain filed for bankruptcy in 1985 and has been operating a single Bethesda store since it was reopened in the late 1980s.

Now, new owners Neal Lieberman and Marcelo Ramagem are hoping to reverse Gifford’s fortunes.

Mr. Lieberman bought into the area’s oldest ice cream company in 2004 — Mr. Ramagem bought half in 1999 — and they plan to expand to 10 shops in the Washington area in five years.

In March, they plan to open a Penn Quarter store at 11th and E streets Northwest near the MCI Center, followed by a shop in the Collection at Chevy Chase stores later this year. A Rockville location is slated to open in early 2007, and then they hope to open in Northern Virginia, Mr. Lieberman said.

From there, they hope to open two stores per year, including a return to its roots in Silver Spring.

The sudden expansion of Gifford’s, which makes its ice cream and candy in a Rockville factory, comes from new owners with a new vision.

“It didn’t make sense, if we’re making the product ourselves, to have only one distribution outlet,” Mr. Lieberman said.

The owners are hoping to tap into the store’s rich history, from locals’ memories of a favorite hangout to Mr. Eisenhower’s requests for coffee ice cream during his trips to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The stores were known for an old-fashioned parlor look, with a long ice cream and candy bar, tables and chairs, table-side waitress service and rich ice cream, made with natural ingredients long before it was trendy.

“When I go out to events, when I say I’m here from Gifford’s, I would say 60 percent of the room comes up and tells me a story,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Mary Kay Harper, executive director of the Montgomery County Historical Society, remembers visiting Gifford’s Silver Spring store as a child in the 1940s.

“You could stand there and watch the ice cream being made in front of you, and they had … lots of different kinds of flavors,” she said. “Everyone knew about Gifford’s ice cream.”

By 1977, when original owner John Nash Gifford died, there were four stores in Maryland and Virginia.

Shortly after Mr. Gifford’s death, his son, Bob, outlined plans to have a shop in every state by 1990, starting with franchises in Annapolis; Charles Town, W.Va.; and Morgantown, W.Va., according to a 1981 article in Regardie’s Magazine.

But Gifford’s Ice Cream & Candy Co. came close to melting.

The plans, which went against John Nash Gifford’s vision to keep Gifford’s in the family and confined to the Washington area, were too bold. In 1985, the company filed for bankruptcy, saying its old-fashioned stores couldn’t compete with corporate giants such as Haagen-Dazs and Baskin-Robbins.

Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Ramagem are cautious about repeating the mistake.

“We’re not looking at national expansion,” Mr. Lieberman said. “We want to be a really strong player in the Washington market.”

The partners are seeking investors to fund the expansion, and they’re re-creating some of the original candy recipes that were lost, including the formula for baby shoe-shaped candies.

“If you had a baby shower and didn’t have Gifford’s Baby Booties, you didn’t have a baby shower,” Mr. Lieberman said.

He questions people who ate ice cream and candies at the original Gifford’s.

“We ask for their favorite candy, what was the texture? What was the consistency?” in order to get it right.

Although 30-cent sundaes have been replaced by $5.95 sundaes, the ice cream is the same, Mr. Lieberman promises.

“The great thing about owning an ice cream and candy store is everybody is pretty happy,” Mr. Lieberman said. “And if you’re not in a good mood when you get here, you get in a good mood.”

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