PITTSBURGH – It’s a sweet summer at the John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in Pittsburgh with the opening of “Isaly’s Dairy: Klondikes, Chipped Ham and Skyscraper Cones.”
The exhibit traces the evolution of the famous deli chain from its start in Mansfield, Ohio, in 1902, to the opening of the Isaly’s plant on the Boulevard of the Allies in Pittsburgh in 1931, to 1972, when the Isaly family sold the company.
A second exhibit, “Kidsburgh,” is the children’s component of the exhibit.
Old favorites. Familiar favorites are shown throughout the exhibit, with Isaly’s ice cream cans and packages, glass milk bottles and a variety of Skyscraper scoops, which were used to make the chain’s mythical Skyscraper Cones. There is also a copy of the Skyscraper scoop patent, which was obtained by Ohio manufacturer Samuel Jennings Jr. in 1935.
A special section of the exhibit is devoted to the Klondike, which had humble beginnings in Isaly’s stores, but has become America’s best-selling ice cream novelty. See how Klondikes have changed through the years, with different packaging and flavors that have come and gone.
The exhibit tells the story of Isaly’s army of employees with pay stubs, name tags, a clerk’s hat from the Youngstown, Ohio, branch and a photo of a horse-drawn Isaly’s dairy wagon. There is also china from Isaly’s stores, a Klondike children’s game and a two-foot high Skyscraper cone.
“Kidsburgh,” the children’s component of the Isaly’s exhibit, is a two-tier exhibit for families, with interactive displays including a spiral staircase leading up to a children’s play area and a spiral slide for whizzing back down. “Kidsburgh” will feature a full-scale fiberglass cow that can be “milked,” and an Isaly’s creative play area with a kid-scale deli and realistic ice cream counter.
The museum. One of only 15 history museum affiliates of the Smithsonian Institution nationwide, the history center is located at 1212 Smallman Street in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The library and archives are open Tuesday through Saturday. General admission is $6 for adults; $3 for ages 6-18; $4.50 for seniors (62+) and students with valid ID; and free to children, ages 5 and under, and history center members.
With validation from the history center, up to four hours parking in the 11th and Smallman streets lot (entrance at 12th and Smallman) is only $3.
For more information, visit the history center’s Web site at www.pghhistory.org or call 412-454-6000.
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PITTSBURGH – Brian Butko, curator of “Isaly’s Dairy: Klondikes, Chipped Ham and Skyscraper Cones” answers some common questions about the famous deli chain.
He researched Isaly’s for nine years for his new book “Klondikes, Chipped Ham and Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly’s.”
Q. Nine years is a long time to research a company. What was so important about this one?
A. Isaly’s story perfectly captures the trends of the past century. William Isaly began 100 years ago by selling his milk door-to-door. Today, Klondike is owned by a huge corporation, made in factories, and marketed and sold nationally. More importantly, the Isaly family were special people. May favorite quote by Henry Isaly: “Let’s give the profits to the customers, not the stockholders.”
Q. But there are lots of companies that succeeded through customer service …
A. Yes, but very few of today’s companies can trace their lineage back a full century, plus Isaly’s also changed markedly in that time. From the first milk route grew 11 dairy plants serving 400 dairy stores, mostly in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. The stores were extremely popular and are still fondly remembered. The Klondike was just a small part of that, and in fact, Isaly’s chipped ham and Skyscraper cones were much better known.
Q. What are those?
A. Chipped ham refers to the way pressed or chopped ham is sliced: razor-thin, which helps bring out the flavor. Skyscraper cones were made with a special long scoop which actually “cut” the ice cream out of the can. It was the same amount as a round-top cone, but it was so tall, it looked like you were getting a lot more. The Klondike can be traced back to a 1922 news story that said it came in six flavors – two of the most interesting are grape and maple! Klondikes were on a stick like its competitor, the Good Humor bar. Novelties were the rage then, mostly inspired by the Eskimo Pie.
Q. Four hundred stores is a lot. What accounted for the company’s rapid rise?
A. Isaly’s concentrated on low prices and high-turnover merchandise, all on a cash basis. The Isaly family then plowed the profits back into expansion and the most modern equipment. This built tremendous goodwill among both suppliers and customers. They could have grown even quicker, as every town in the region wanted an Isaly’s back then, but the Isalys were conservative. Samuel Isaly said things like, “We won’t put ourselves in a position where we are so widespread that we can’t know what is going on in all our stores at all times.
Q. How did the employees feel about the company?
A. Workers were held to high standards. Most companies don’t push their workers to excel for fear of rebellion, but Isaly’s realized how a drive for excellence instilled pride in the workers. Former employees regularly attribute their success in life to the values learned at Isaly’s.
Q. With so many stores, they probably knew they could grow with the company …
A. Isaly’s always promoted from within. For a long time they even used numbered badges, where a worker aimed for badge number one – store manager. From there, you entered regional management. But it was a friendly competition, because workers knew the next opportunity might be theirs.
Q. Was Isaly’s simply in the right place at the right time?
A. No, there was an awful lot of work behind their “luck.” Their whole system of owning the plants and the stores was unique to the dairy industry. The emphasis on value made customers return. And really, the Isaly family systematized everything. Stores, for example were laid out logically. Up front were the dairy and deli products – typically the slowest moving – but many impulse buys were made by customers heading to the ice cream counter in the middle. The cafeteria was at the back so there was no through traffic. The store was a study in efficiency long before McDonald’s brought order to the restaurant business.
Q. So why do we have McDonald’s in every town instead of Isaly’s?
A. The company was swept by the trends of the 20th century, so just as thrift of the Depression buoyed the company’s fortunes, the post-war boom found it struggling to compete. By 1960, Isaly’s ideas and infrastructure were getting old. The company was building in suburban strip malls, but by then, customers wanted drive-in restaurants and supermarkets.
Q. What did the family do?
A. After years of disagreements, the family sold to an investor group in 1972. With the stores and factories looking shabby, the Klondike seemed a natural course to outsiders: one factory can make thousands of bars for grocery chains a lot cheaper than selling them through stores with the high overhead of labor, rent and inventory.
Q. So the Klondike went national then?
A. It wasn’t until the Clabir Corporation purchased the company in 1977 that expansion began. First it was just to Philadelphia, then the east coast. After success in Florida, the bar swept the country in the 1980s, mostly by using food brokers who get products into supermarkets. Instead of fighting the competition – supermarkets – Isaly’s joined them.
Q. So the stores have all closed?
A. No, the plan wasn’t to close them all, just the unprofitable ones. They were eventually sold off so that there are now two companies: one making Klondikes and one licensing stores. About 10 stores remain though only a few look like the beloved old ones. The company that runs the stores now markets chipped ham, barbecue sauce, cheese, ice cream and other products with the Isaly’s name, though the Isaly’s plants closed long ago.
Q. What about the Klondike company?
A. The Isaly’s name came off the Klondike 10 years ago when Unilever purchased the company. Unilever is one of the world’s largest consumer products companies, and had already owned Sealtest. Since then, it has bought Good Humor, Breyers and, most recently, Ben & Jerry’s.
Q. So Klondike’s history plays an important part in its marketing?
A. Maybe not consciously, but yes, the brand always strove to be the best. The old store workers still have a reverence for the family and company. One last story about Henry Isaly can explain why: During a strike at the dairy plant, Henry went out to the picket line and invited the workers inside. “Go ahead and take anything perishable,” he told them. “We may be on different sides, but this thing will be settled someday. Keep an eye on my building, it’s still your home and always will be.” That’s both smart and prudent and that sums up Isaly’s.
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Fun facts about Isaly’s and Klondikes
1. Isaly’s was named for the Isaly family, who came to America from Switzerland in 1833 and settled in Ohio.
2. William Isaly, a grandson of the Isaly immigrants, sold milk from a wagon. In 1902, he and some partners bought a milk plant and several routes in Mansfield, Ohio, to form what would become the first Isaly dairy company.
3. Major plants followed after 1902, in Marion, Youngstown and Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. In all, the company operated 11 plants.
4. William Isaly was so distressed by the poor treatment of his products by retailers, that he decided to open his own stores. Savings due to eliminating the middle man were rolled back into the company to buy new equipment and to expand.
5. The Klondike bar was first mentioned in a 1922 article that listed six flavors being sold in Youngstown, including maple and grape. Other ice cream novelties popular at the time were Eskimo Pie and Good Humor.
6. Isaly’s was also well known for its tall Skyscraper cones, thin-sliced chipped ham, Whitehouse ice cream (cherries in vanilla) and Chocolate Bubble ice cream (chocolate syrup, whipped cream and pecans between layers of vanilla).
7. At its peak around 1950, Isaly’s operated 400 dairy stores, the largest such chain in the world.
8. Isaly’s declined as customers turned to suburban supermarkets and drive-in restaurants. In 1967, Isaly’s operations were consolidated in Pittsburgh. The Boulevard of the Allies plant was making 11 million Klondikes a year.
9. The Isaly family sold the chain in 1972 to an investment group. It was sold again in 1977. With the stores losing money, the Klondike bar was seen as a product that could be expanded with far less investment in labor and real estate.
10. The first expansion of the Klondike was to Philadelphia. With success there, it spread along the East coast and Klondike production was moved to a plant in Hanover, Pa.
11. With Klondike expanding through the south and Midwest, a second plant was built in Clearwater, Fla, in 1982. Food brokers were employed to get the bar into new areas.
12. In 1984, Klondike became the first ice cream brand to have a multi-million dollar national TV campaign, with the jingle, “What Would You Do For a Klondike Bar?”
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