I’ve passed by the Hudsonville headquarters many a time, and often wondered what goes on inside to create such creamy concoctions as Grand Traverse Bay Cherry Fudge, Sleeping Bear Dunes Hug, and Michigan Deer Traxx, so I finally decided to find out.
It may not be Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but this unassuming building in Holland, Michigan, is nonetheless full of surprises. The roaring fire behind the welcome desk was a tad unexpected to say the least. The whole office area has a warm vibe, with stone and wood accents that seem more like what you might find in a Northern Michigan lodge. The walls are bedecked with photos capturing the company’s history, and this is where our journey begins.
According to resident marketing guru and crack tour guide, Bruce Kratt, the Hudsonville story starts over a century ago with a group of local farmers who were looking for a better way to sell their dairy products. They banded together to form a co-op and chose their first location on Chicago Drive in Hudsonville, Michigan, in 1895—hence the name.
In 1926 the creamery began producing ice cream, and by 1940, Hudsonville was producing six flavors year-round. During that same period, Dick Hoezee, one of the co-op members began working at the creamery. Six years later he bought controlling interest, and eventually moved the co-op to Burnips, Michigan, in order to make room for the widening of Chicago Road back in Hudsonville.
A full quarter of a century later, after continuous innovations and new flavors, Dick Hoezee sold the business to his four sons, Dell, Jack, Rich, and Phil. To this day, though the company is now owned by another West Michigan family, Dell is still very active on a regular basis providing the invaluable wisdom of his vast experience.
The family atmosphere is also evident throughout the facility. Many members of the team have been there for twenty years or more. Newcomers are often recommended for the job by veterans who have already come to know them out in the community and believe they would make a nice addition.
The families they serve seem to be ever present as well. Upon walking out from the offices into the production facility, aside from the size, the first, most noticeable impression are the murals on the wall. They depict animals as they truly are, and as they would appear when drawn by the hand of a child. The artist's intention is to serve as a reminder that there's a child in all of us. Continuing the theme, even the large vats that hold the dairy products before they are iced, are painted in bright colors reminiscent of children’s crayons.
While the atmosphere is somewhat festive, these artisans take their business of creating quality frozen treats, very seriously. One of the most significant factors in the equation is the quality of the raw materials. While some companies may use milk and cream that travels on a truck for days, Hudsonville gets their dairy products from local farms. In fact, their primary supplier is just seven miles away, a fact that is evident in every taste.
Once the fresh dairy makes its way in, it is pasteurized and turned into a vanilla or chocolate mix, before being enhanced with flavors, fruits, nuts, chocolate chunks, and swirls. Local products like mint from Kalamazoo and vanilla flavoring from Northville are used as often as possible. The ice cream is double-churned by machine, a term that orignated when ice cream was churned by hand first in one direction, and then the other. Churning prevents the formulation of ice crystals and results in a smooth, creamy texture.
The goal of the entire process is that each container has generous portions of what they call inclusions, like Michigan cherries or chunks of chocolate, and that they are evenly dispersed throughout the package. To ensure such quality each run is submitted to an inspection process. A package is sliced in half and examined to see how many inclusions and/or swirls there are, and whether or not they are distributed throughout so that each scoop will be as tasty as the last. According to Kratt, “We’d rather pour inferior product down the drain, than let it reach one of our customers.”
That emphasis on quality is not only evident in the taste of the product, but in the growth of the company. Just a few weeks before my visit, they added new equipment that will allow them to double capacity, and Kratt has no doubt they will continue to see demand at that level.
In fact, the building itself, which was once an old automotive facility, has a large area that is currently used only for staging that provides plenty of room for future expansion. There is also the possibility of running multiple shifts as the company grows beyond just West Michigan’s favorite ice cream producer and into one of the most popular throughout the entire Midwestern United States.
Today, carton after carton of French Vanilla is coming off the line and will make its way to the giant freezer, where it will be stored at -20 F to retain freshness until it is shipped to a store near you. It only takes a moment or two in the freezer to understand why there was a roaring fire in the lobby. Yet, somehow, that doesn't lessen one's appetite for a taste of the creamy goodness right as it comes off the line.
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