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For beloved ice cream chain Gifford's, a rocky road

Gifford's ice cream shops, a Washington institution, have closed their doors amid a legal battle between their owner and the chain's wholesalers, who allege that the shops were secretly selling another brand of ice cream.

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By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 11:59 PM

One afternoon this summer, Neal Lieberman did what Washingtonians have been doing for generations: He took his kids to Gifford's for ice cream cones.

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Lieberman was no typical customer. He owns the Gifford's wholesale business, which had recently sold its retail ice cream outlets to a flashy Baltimore-area investor who promised he would keep alive the tradition of cozy parlors dipping Gifford's super-creamy flavors.

But that afternoon, the scoops Lieberman said his family was served at the Chevy Chase store were impostors. The sign said Gifford's, but the ice cream was not. It was Hood, a mass-market brand anyone can buy in a supermarket, although a staffer said it was a premium variety of the brand.

A formal allegation of the substitution - along with a photo of Hood ice cream tubs in a Gifford's store - is included in a breach of contract lawsuit Lieberman's ownership group filed this summer against Luke Cooper, the 34-year-old Baltimore investor who last winter took control of all four Gifford's shops from Rockville to downtown Washington. In recent days, all of the Gifford's stores have closed, marking what many fear is the end of the storied chain.

Even competitors are stunned. "Gifford's is the name you could never really compete with around here," said Susan Soorenko, owner of Moorenko's Ice Cream Cafe in Silver Spring. "It's what everybody around here grew up with. It's amazing to see what's happening now."

The nasty legal battle has played out in a Baltimore County courtroom through the summer and fall as customers encountered increasingly odd scenes at Gifford's outlets - stores open only a few hours a day, power outages, weekend closures, spoon shortages and empty cases of ice cream. In September, on Yelp.com, one disappointed patron of the Bethesda store wrote, "They had four flavors when we showed up and two by the time we got to the counter."

Wednesday night, the store next to Bethesda's Landmark Theatres was dark, the chairs stacked up in a back corner, the tip bucket empty on the counter. A sign on the door said, "Closed for the weekend. Sorry for the inconvenience." The writing on the sign seemed to be fading.

Exactly who is to blame for the Gifford's collapse may ultimately be worked out in a courtroom by a jury or judge with tubs of patience, but this much is certain: The troubles are the latest in a series of bizarre chapters for a Washington institution whose storied history has been matched by periods of bitter heartache.

Messy history

The chain was founded in Silver Spring in 1938 by John Gifford, who initially ran the business with his family but later quarreled with his brother and cut him out of the operation, according to family members. The split was so severe that generations later, some Giffords didn't even know John had had a brother. When John Gifford died in 1976, his son Bob took over. That did not go well. Business declined, and one evening, Bob Gifford emptied the cash registers and bank accounts and disappeared, reemerging 15 years later.

In the meantime, the stores went into a steep decline and the company went into bankruptcy. As the sheriff closed in to take control of Gifford's Silver Spring property, family members replaced the original recipes with fakes to protect their family jewel. To this day, family members insist that the Gifford's wholesale operation is not using the real recipes, even though company executives say they are.

"I've got the originals sitting in a storage box," said Andrew Gifford, Bob's son, who has steered clear of the ice cream business.

Andrew Gifford now publishes books through a small literary press and works at the American Psychological Association. He has watched with amazement as the Hunt family bought the rights to Gifford's in 1987 and later sold the chain to investors, who in turn sold the chain to a group that included Lieberman, a former marketing executive at Discovery Communications. Asked about the latest troubles, Gifford said: "I don't know what to make of this anymore. How can this happen twice in 20 years? I doubt the ice cream is the problem."


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