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A Family Career in Ice Cream

Created date

May 19th, 2009

Ice cream is a product that has earned a permanent place in the American freezer. It's a personal food that means different things to different people. For some, it's symbolic of times spent with grandchildren and grandparents, for others, a first date with the love of their life. For John Harrison, it means carrying on a tradition.Harrison is the official taste tester of Edy's Grand Ice Cream, one of the nation's leading producers of the frosty treat. He landed the job 26 years ago based on his natural-born ability to sample a flavor and pinpoint even the most subtle defects in taste and consistency. How is he able to do it? According to ' Harrison, ' "Ice cream is in the genes." Although he's speaking figuratively, ' the literal meaning isn't too far off. Harrison's family has played a role in the world of ice cream for more than a century. It all started in 1880, when his mother's grandfather, Herman Prum, left Germany to ' pursue a stake in the American dream. Working his way over ' on a steamer making ices and desserts for other passengers, he arrived in New York City where he would settle and open up ice cream and candy parlors on Manhattan's West Side. "When he got to New York, both candy and ice cream were really just beginning as an industry, so he opened two parlors--one for each product," says Harrison. "New York City was a good place for him to open his business because it was so heavily populated." But Harrison also notes that the budding industry of the 1880s was a long way from today's massive production plants and 20-below-zero storage facilities. Without refrigeration, ice cream makers like Prum were constantly racing against time and the summer heat. Equipped only with iced nickel-plated containers covered in burlap, they had to maker their product daily. If it didn't sell that same day, it spoiled. The 20th century's advances in refrigeration opened up a new demand for the frozen dessert. Manufacturers could produce more of it, and consumers could take it home. It was during this period that Harrison's father's side of the family left its mark on the industry. The sons of a Tennessee dairy farmer, Bob and Tom Harrison helped shape the world of ice cream as we know it today. "In 1960, my father, Bob, bought an Atlanta-based company called Dari-Tech, which manufactured fruits and flavors for the ice cream industry," he says. "When he got a hold of the company, it had less than $1 million in sales, and over the years, he took that figure up to $15 million." Harrison's uncle, Tom, was equally as successful with his Memphis, Tenn., ice cream factory, which was one of the world's largest in the late 60s. Here, he used the industry's first set of round ice cream molds to make a line of novelty products based on candy bars like Baby Ruth--an idea that made him a millionaire. Harrison spent much of his youth ' in this factory developing a passion for the cold, creamy concoction. "That's where I worked, and sometimes ate, my way through the summer months of high school and college," he recalls. "Early on, I learned how to formulate ice cream and also about the nuances of those ingredients used to make it." Despite this knowledge and experience, Harrison had no intention of following in the footsteps of his father and uncle. After graduating with a degree in chemistry from Memphis State University in 1965, he spent three years in sales. All the while, the world of ice cream lingered in his mind. "It wasn't what I set out to do originally, but it turned out to be my calling," he says. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and that was certainly true in my life." In 1968, Harrison went to work for his father's company selling ingredients and troubleshooting manufacturing and formulation problems for ice cream makers in North and South America, which he did until the early 1980s, when he joined Edy's as their official taster. And as to what drew him to the business, Harrison cites a blend of admiration and passion. "My father had a lot to do with my decision, and I wouldn't trade the years that I worked with him for the anything," he says. "He was my boss, my mentor, and my hero." As far as his passion goes, his explanation is as colorful as the subject. "Ice cream is a fun industry! It's an explosion of all things pleasant: cream, sugar, chocolate, and fruit. And what's more, it puts a smile on everyone's face."