SUGAR CREEK FOODS ~A Chilling Tale of Sweet Success ~

August 1, 2011 | By More

Story by Dianne Edwards

The flavors read like the list on a snow cone stand reminiscent of our youth – Apple Pie, Banana, Lemon Ice Box pie, Cupcake, Coconut, Peach, Strawberry Sensations — yet this delectable concoction isn’t shaved ice- based. It is “good-tasting wellness” lovingly-crafted into Russellville’s own Sugar Creek Foods International frozen yogurt and sorbet. 

Childhood friends Scott Van Horn and Bud Gunter, both of Russellville, have helped build one of the largest and most successful soft-serve frozen dessert plants in the United States. The pair purchased the Sugar Creek plant in 2007 when it faced the second closure in its history following its previous sale to an international company. Scott now serves as president/operations and Bud as vice president/Sales and Marketing.

Both were employed with Scott’s father, Mac Van Horn, when Sugar Creek Foods was rescued from closure, first during the early 1980s. The elder Van Horn placed the plant under private ownership, saving dozens of jobs supporting their hard-working employees. Scott and Bud “grew up” together, first as pre-teens then later as young men, developing not only a fondness for the product but a firm friendship that now extends into the business world.

Previously a creamery known specifically for making butter and some ice cream, Sugar Creek later became a major player in the frozen yogurt industry, manufacturing the Sugar Creek brand and other private labels .

After many successful years, the company was purchased by Eskimo Pie. At that time more famous names in the industry were produced, including Honey Hill Farms – a brand popular on the West Coast popular among frozen yogurt consumers for over 30 years. (Sugar Creek purchased the Honey Hill Farms brand in 2008.)

Bud had begun working in sales in 1987 only to later leave when the business was purchased .

When the friends learned that the company was again facing closure in late 2006 and that the company was looking to sell the Russellville division, they said to each other, “Want to buy a yogurt company?” and so the plants new history began.

“The business was near and dear to our hearts. We had the idea to buy back the plant because we saw a niche in the frozen soft-serve market and wanted to offer premium, high quality frozen dessert mixesfeaturingafrozenyogurtandsorbet unlike any on the market.”

They also shared their concern for the long-time dedicated family of employees who, without the intervention of the Van Horn/Gunter alliance, would have lost their jobs.

“That first day of business was scary,” recalled Scott. “You see, we had 35 employees and zero customers – a challenge most folks wouldn’t tackle.”

“That first year, everyone sold,” laughed Bud. “It didn’t matter what your job was supposed to be.”

“And as I remember it, there wasn’t a lot of sleeping,” Scott chimed in.

Knowing that they wanted to create something different and unique for their customers, the friends knew that — in a crowded and competitive field — they would need to produce a “truly crafted” frozen yogurt.

“The term ‘crafted’ is thrown around a lot, but it is the mantra at Sugar Creek Foods,” said the owners. They believe bulky flavorings are key — using real fruit purees, indulgent cocoas, vanillas, vanilla beans, coffees, cookies, marshmallow, nuts, and other exotic flavoring ingredients which are carefully blended into each batch.

And, they continually introduce new flavors into the market, testing product on customers. Recent additions include the Honey Hill Farms “Cupcake” – featuring with red indulgent chocolate cupcake base with added cream cheese icing droplets.

“If they don’t like it, we don’t make it. We recently sampled “Cupcake” with excited consumers. The testers said we ‘nailed it’ and that they loved the icing droplets dispersed throughout the mix.”

The same response was generated when Honey Hill Farms “Rocky Road” was introduced. Filled with real marshmallow and nuts, the new flavor was an immediate hit.

In addition to producing a product that consumers will enjoy, Sugar Creek’s Honey Hill Farms brand is focused on nutrition, producing several categories of frozen yogurt. They include Low Fat, Non-Fat, No Sugar Added Non-Fat, and Non-Fat Non- Dairy (Sorbets).

The company’s frozen yogurt contains viable counts of live active cultures; four cultures – one of which is a pro- biotic — that are not only certified at the time of manufacturing, but also in the finished product.

Scott and Bud are proud of the fact that the Sugar Creek plant has been producing high-quality niche products at its Russellville dairy and manufacturing plant since before they were born — beginning in the early 1940’s. The Sugar Creek and Honey Hill Farms brands combined have helped hundreds of independent operators and chains to differentiate themselves from all the other frozen yogurt shops.

After years of transition and two near closures, the pair cited good growth, “double-digit” growth, and is proud the plant is debt free.

This past June, the plant again exceeded all historic production levels,, all while running at only 45% of the plant’s true capacity, sited Scott.

Forecasting continued growth, the owners noted that they had recently purchased the former Farmer’s Co-op  property located adjacent to and just west of the current plant structure.

When the lifelong friends purchased the plant, it had not been well-maintained, they said. Two million dollars has been spent on upgrades and one additional upgrade is planned for this fall. Currently there are 42 employees running a split-shift, some at a separate location.

The Sugar Creek/Honey Hill entity isn’t contained just within their North El Paso Street corner location as Scott discussed the production site of their now famous “Super Jug” manufactured at their facility on Elmira Avenue on the East side of Russellville.

After years of working with the packing and handling of the frozen yogurt product, Scott realized there were problems with past containers.

“We didn’t like the industry’s choices of packaging cartons. Cartons leaked and (traditional) milk jugs are not an efficient use of space,”saidScott.“So we designed our own packaging called the ‘Super Jug’ which we now use exclusively for our product.”

Customers that have changed to the Super Jug have experienced a host of cost- and-time-saving benefits. The Super Jug offers 82% less “leakers” than cartons or bags as well as 50% less product waste than cartons from incomplete emptying. Handling time is cut by half over the use of 1/2 gallon cartons. The easily-stackable packaging is made of earth-friendly recyclable HDPE plastic using a tamper- evident re-sealable cap. The Super Jugs are also waterproof for quick thawing.

Vendors and independent operators are all brought into the Sugar Creek fold for education, tours and of course, lots of sampling through the company’s “yogologist” program.

“Yogologists” — those interested in selling and marketing the company’s frozen treat mixes — are provided free, personalized, one- on-one consultations, detailed support to plan and grow their business, a creamery tour of the production plant, a visit to the Research and Development department, demonstration of the ‘Super Jug’ production and a visit to the Tasting Room where they can sample many of our delicious frozen desserts.

And don’t think the Sugar Creek Foods/ Honey Hill Farms products are limited to “frozen yogurt.” There’s ice cream, gelato, soft-serve mix, ready-to-use base for shakes, smoothies and sorbets, and traditional frozen custard — “a classic made from rich cream and real eggs.”

Honey Hill Farms (which can be described as a ‘more gourmet’ level of frozen yogurt product, is on the ‘cutting edge’ of development. Realizing that new and tantalizing flavors of key to the success of the self-serve frozen yogurt shop business, they frequently introduce new flavors.

Among the newest are: Cherry Limeade, Cupcake (red chocolate cake complete with the cream cheese icing); Lemon Ice Box Pie, Tropical Sorbet and Rocky Road. Imagine using real ingredients (not flavorings) that are tiny enough to produce gigantic taste and still fit through the small openings of the dispenser! Their unique Custom Blendz Flavoring system, allows yogurt shop customers to mix and match their favorite combinations.

Private labeling and custom formulation are offered to customers as the Russellville plant provides expertise to co-pack products for emerging and established companies.

Utilizing one piece of equipment the pilot plant,’ their Research and Development department can create unique custom- blended samples for small scale sampling and approval before moving a custom blend into full-scale production.

“At Sugar Creek, old world craftsmanship meets hi-tech production in high quality delicious batches to meet your needs,” pledge the owners.

Sugar Creek is a fully licensed dairy and pasteurizes under FDA certification and inspection and under kosher certification.

“The most stringent levels of regulatory compliance are maintained, meeting and exceeding all inspection standards including – but not limited to – FDA, Military Standards, food safety audits, and export requirements.”

Sugar Creek’s Honey Hill Farm’s Frozen Yogurtiecraftedwithbeneficiallivenatural yogurt cultures, using only the highest quality ingredients and secret recipes specially blended for a smooth and creamy taste, pledges the Sugar Creek family. The frozen yogurt – selections including Nonfat, Low Fat and No Sugar Added (made with Splenda®) varieties are “a great alternative source of calcium.”

“Our goal is to make the best, stay focused on our customers, create innovative products, help support the dreams of building profitable businesses, and most of all, have fun in the process,” echo Scott and Bud.

The pair is very ‘hands-on,’ willingly handing out their personal cell phone numbers to customers. They believe on doing business one-on-one, the way Scott’s dad always conducted business.

“It’s the only way we know how to do this,” stressed Scott. “But we want to ‘do it right.’ We treat our customers the way we would want to be treated.”

Directing us to the tasting room, the owners mused, “It’s a hard life, but we couldn’t imagine doing anything else we’d love more.”

 

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