Bassetts: America’s Oldest Ice Cream Company

Featured Article, Food, Hometown Cooking, Made in America, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on June 20, 2012
Hannah Eshleman Serving up cold treats since 1861, Bassetts Ice Cream operates its century-old stand at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pa.

Roger Bassett, 51, flips open a freezer door and uses a round metal scoop to dig elbow-deep into a blue and white cardboard tub, emerging with a mound of vanilla bean-speckled ice cream. He packs the creamy dessert into a wafer cone before releasing the crowning dip from the scoop with a quick twist of his wrist.

The technique comes from years of scooping experience by Roger, among the fifth generation of Bassetts to serve ice cream over the marble counter of Bassetts Ice Cream stand in the historic Reading Terminal Market of Philadelphia, Pa. Founded in 1861, Bassetts is America’s oldest ice cream company and has been serving the frozen treat in the market since 1893.

“Even in hard times, we’ve never changed the recipes or cheapened the ingredients,” says Roger, who was 11 when he began working at Bassetts with his father, David. He now works alongside his son, Eric, 18, and cousin Michael Strange, the company’s president.

“It’s very rich and creamy,” says Larry Carnuccio, 69, of West Chester, Pa., as he savors a cup of ice cream at the Bassetts stand, with out-of-state relatives in tow. “It’s one Philly landmark that you can taste as well as see.”

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In a state where dairy farms are commonplace, Philadelphia once boasted about 50 ice cream companies, most of which gradually closed or moved their operations elsewhere.

“Philadelphia was the Ice Cream Capital of America at the turn of the last century, and Bassetts alone continues the tradition of quality ice cream-making that once distinguished the city,” says Ellen Brown, who surveyed ice creameries across America for her 2011 cookbook Scoop.

Bassetts was started by Lewis Bassett, a schoolteacher in Salem, N.J., who began his summertime business with dairy cows and a mule that pulled the crank on a giant ice cream-making machine in his backyard. Lewis’ grandson and namesake perfected the company’s high-butterfat, all-natural confection and some of its most popular flavors, including rum raisin, Irish coffee, cinnamon and its signature Philadelphia-style vanilla loaded with specks of vanilla bean. For most of the company’s history, the ice cream was made in the basement of Reading Terminal Market. As demand increased in the early 1970s, production moved to larger facilities elsewhere in Philadelphia.

Today, Bassetts ice cream is made cooperatively with Galliker’s Dairy, a third-generation, family-owned business in Johnstown, Pa. (pop. 20,978), some 200 miles west of Philadelphia.

In two buildings filled with gleaming metal tanks and pipes, locally produced milk and cream are combined with sugar, whey and stabilizers, then pasteurized under high heat and mixed with flavoring ingredients such as vanilla beans from Madagascar, Guatemalan coffee and pureed banana. The mixture is combined with air and quick-frozen in a machine that forces the dessert through tubes and into empty tubs on a moving conveyor belt. The ice cream is stored in a freezer at 20 degrees below zero before distribution.

Galliker’s annually produces a half million gallons of Bassetts ice cream, which is sold at Reading Terminal Market, restaurants and ice cream stands, along with pint containers available at supermarkets, mostly in the Philadelphia area.

Family members say quality ingredients and a lighter texture make their ice cream exceptional. The company also keeps customers intrigued with new concoctions—such as green tea, pomegranate blueberry crunch and the candy-filled Gadzooks!—among its 40 flavors.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not stopped by someone who wants to tell me their idea for a new flavor,” says Strange, 53.