While Warwick Ice Cream is made locally on Route 2, some of its ingredients come from as far away as New Zealand.
Congressman James Langevin found that hard to believe Tuesday when he visited the plant as part of his ongoing effort to promote locally produced foods and the food industry.
But then Jerry Bucci, whose father started the company in 1930, had reason to be surprised, too. With snow falling furiously, four inches already on the ground and traffic crawling on Bald Hill Road, Bucci expected Langevin would reschedule. That call never came.
Instead, Langevin’s van appeared. It didn’t have the traction to make it into a parking space, so with lights flashing, Langevin, in his wheelchair, drove into the snow.
“It’s got four-wheel drive,” he said of the chair that, without skidding, navigated several ramps to make it into the building.
Bucci questioned how is it possible he can buy butter and cream from New Zealand for less than what it sells for locally. Langevin was incredulous, but Bucci insisted that is the situation.
“It’s impossible to find it [butter and cream] in New England. It’s all going overseas,” he said.
Langevin said he would like to see locally harvested ingredients going into locally produced foods. He said he would look into it.
Watching the cost of ingredients is one of many details Bucci keeps an eye on as the state’s only ice cream manufacturer and a small business. He said he uses an alternate vendor to National Grid for natural gas and electricity. The switch for electricity is saving him about $1,000 a month on a bill that averaged $7,000. There have been some savings on his gas bill, too. Another major expense is water. The plant uses about 10,000 gallons a month to make ice cream.
With such a volume, Bucci found his sewer usage rates skyrocketing. Usage fees are based on water consumption.
Fortunately, Bucci brought the matter up with the Warwick Sewer Authority. The fact that the water was going into the manufacturing process and not carrying waste into the sewer system resulted in a rebate of about $20,000, he said.
“Everything is just high for small businesses,” Bucci said.
He said he has found health insurance affordable, as generally many of the company’s 25 full-time employees are on their spouse’s programs.
He has also found since Langevin’s last visit about four years ago that banks and credit unions are more receptive to making loans. He said he was able to get a loan to buy additional trucks and that he may turn to the Small Business Administration as he looks to upgrade equipment.
Bucci said company sales for last year improved over the prior year. He was particularly excited by the company’s recent success with Sam’s Club. Warwick Ice Cream was featured at the club’s road show, which showcases local products. Warwick Ice Cream flew out of the freezers, and the company was so impressed that when Sam’s Club President Rosalind G. Brewer came to Rhode Island, she personally visited Warwick Ice Cream. Bucci is hopeful of an agreement that will bring Warwick Ice Cream to Sam’s Clubs across the country.
Langevin was impressed. It was just what he was hoping to hear.
Inspired by Davide Dukcevich, the co-owner of Daniele, Inc., the congressman is touring food-related businesses to discuss what tools they need to be successful and to help Rhode Island’s food economy grow.
“When I met Davide back in August, he talked about the possibility of branding Rhode Island as the ‘Silicon Valley of Food,’” Langevin said in a stateemnt. “That concept resonated with me, and I believe that the business savvy, enthusiasm and determination of individuals like Davide can make that idea a reality.”
Of course, Langevin and those accompanying him got to sample the ice cream coming off the production line.
Actually, the first taste was of an Oreo-like cookie – a totally organic cookie – that was being crushed to make an organic cookies and cream that is sold under the Blue Marble label. Warwick Ice Cream produces ice cream to be sold under labels other than its own as well as JJ Snack Food. JJ is a frozen dog treat that has been successful.
Is Warwick Ice Cream’s experience in terms of sales a harbinger of an improving economy?
Langevin didn’t care for Bucci’s take.
He feels the state’s economy hasn’t improved.
“When the economy worsens, people eat more ice cream,” he said.
He noted his father started the business in the midst of the Great Depression and the same was true then.