Cold Front

For the Scoop On Gifford's

The Gifford's guys: co-owners Marcelo Ramagem, left, and Neal Lieberman.
The Gifford's guys: co-owners Marcelo Ramagem, left, and Neal Lieberman. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

There are scores of Washington area natives who have had a lifelong craving for Swiss Sauce. They fondly remember piling into the family station wagon and heading to Bethesda or Arlington, simply for the pleasure of pouring this rich milk chocolate syrup, served in individual metal pitchers, over glistening scoops of high-fat ice cream. These folks were happily "I scream, you scream" Gifford's bound.

And the present owners of Gifford's Ice Cream & Candy Co. are making it easier for fans of the brand to find Swiss Sauce once more.

Three weeks ago in Silver Spring, Marcelo Ramagem and his partner, Neal Lieberman, opened an 8,200-square-foot factory to expand the Gifford's presence in the area and feed the region's love of sweet nostalgia.

The competitive business of selling ice cream may be well staked out by independents and by chains such as Baskin-Robbins, Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's, to name a few. But apparently, in a city prone to heat waves and high humidity, there is always room for more makers of frozen confections.

"This is a great brand untapped in the Washington market with enormous potential," says Lieberman, 39, on a factory tour. (Public tours are not available.) "Gifford's is an institution."

Just inside the kitchen door, in a 50-gallon copper kettle, swirls the secret-formula Swiss Sauce, with what looks like mini marshmallows floating on top. A couple of commercial ice cream machines are churning away, manned by young guys wearing white coats and hairnets. For the most part, the operation is just getting off the ground, but Ramagem and Lieberman are running at full speed.

In addition to what is now the company's flagship store on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, in April the partners opened a Gifford's branch on E Street NW in Penn Quarter and in June a third location in the newly redeveloped Chevy Chase Center, on Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights.

In the past month, for the first time, eight flavors of Gifford's ice cream -- dressed up in crisp yellow-and-blue pint containers with a new diamond-shaped logo -- arrived in area specialty food stores. Bulk sales are booming, the partners say, with more than 70 local restaurants now serving Gifford's.

"Take a look at our automated production system. I'm a technology guy. I customized it myself," says Ramagem, 29, who started as a Gifford's scooper 10 years ago. "If a batch of, let's say, mint chip is too green, I can go back and find out exactly what happened. Our recipes may be old, but we're high tech."

The old recipes came from founder John Gifford, who opened the first Gifford's on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring in 1938 and two years later a Bethesda location on Wisconsin Avenue.

Unlike the small stores of today, Gifford's was a 2,500-square-foot classic ice cream parlor -- a destination for families and couples on a date, with roomy tables large enough to hold an assortment of sundaes, sodas and banana splits. There was table service, and creamy caramels to chew all the way home.

In 1948 Gifford opened a branch in Arlington and eight years later a Baileys Crossroads location, followed in the early 1960s by outposts in Gaithersburg and Burke. At holiday times the stores filled with customers who had to have a Gifford's ice cream log, whose plain exterior concealed a colorful turkey or Christmas tree shape inside each slice.

"It was such a charming, old-fashioned place, and the notion of a surprise inside the log was pretty amazing," says chef Patrick O'Connell, co-owner of the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., and a native of Clinton. "This was something you couldn't ever dream of making yourself at home."

Gifford continued to run the business until a few years before his death in 1983, when the stores and secret formula for Swiss Sauce passed to his son Robert. But the finances were in bad shape, and just two years later a Baltimore bankruptcy judge ruled that the company's assets should be liquidated to pay an estimated $350,000 debt.

But the Gifford's name refused to melt away.

In 1987, new owners bought the rights to the trademark, recipes and packaging and opened a Gifford's across the street from the original Bethesda location. They sold ice cream under the name until 1999, when they sold the business to store manager Marcelo Ramagem and his father, Sergio, who subsequently moved the store to Bethesda Row. The senior Ramagem sold his interest to Lieberman in 2002.

The partners hope to gradually revive the seasonal ice cream log concept over the next year, starting with a Christmas tree silhouette this winter. But they are approaching the project with caution, anticipating production challenges.

"It's very labor intensive and requires space for an assembly line," says Ramagem, who is shopping for the food-grade plastic molds that will be required. The pre-frozen centers are set into molds that are gradually filled with soft ice cream.

Because of the ice cream log project, he predicts that the Easter season will be especially trying for Gifford's workers. "About 10 percent of the rolls are defective," he says. "There's always one in every batch where the bunny's ears falls off."

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