The fall of Trickling Springs Creamery and what it means for my favorite ice cream [Updated]

Update, September 27, 2019, 4:22 EST: According to DCist, a complaint from the Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities from November 30, 2018, alleges that Trickling Springs didn’t reveal information about the company’s financial difficulties to potential investors:

“The complaint alleges that Trickling Springs executives solicited more than $7.8 million from 110 investors and $963,104 from 15 Pennsylvania residents between 2015 and 2017, while failing to disclose that the company was insolvent the entire time. The document also says the company’s executives withdrew more than $1.3 million from the company’s bank accounts between 2015 and 2018, and failed to disclose those transactions to investors as well. Trickling Springs declined to comment.”

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Original story: Yesterday Trickling Springs Creamery—a pretty damn well loved Pennsylvania dairy company—announced that they would be going out of business today, which seemed rather abrupt. I, like many customers, learned this on Facebook, where just days before Trickling Springs had been posting pictures of happy, antibiotic free cows and reasons we should buy their remarkable organic butter. Hell, just last week it posted an exciting announcement that its milk would now come in 12-oz bottles—bottles that my broken heart will never get to try.

After feeling sorry for myself for a few minutes—because truly I am the primary victim of this story—I began to think about the people I know in the food service industry who rely exclusively on Trickling Springs’s dairy. Trickling Springs wasn’t just any dairy provider; it hung its hat on the fact that its milk came from small, local farms who raised grass-fed cows without hormones and antibiotics. It provided the East Coast with milk that was not only insanely tasty but also ethically, economically, and environmentally responsible. Businesses were proud to inform their customers that they worked with Trickling Springs.

Then I thought about ice cream, since I eat a lot of ice cream which makes this whole brouhaha particularly high stakes for me. Producing ice cream isn’t as easy as just running a regular food production kitchen: ice cream is regulated up the wazoo and involves special licensing, stronger regulations and an official degree from ice cream college. And ice cream makers aren’t allowed to just buy regular milk, either: smaller ice cream manufacturers are required to buy government-certified formulated ice cream base from a third party supplier. (Side note for you libertarians out there: you may hate over-regulation, but trust me, in the case, you most definitely want it.) I thought about David and Laura Alima, proprietors of The Charmery in Baltimore, who make the best goddamn ice cream I have ever tasted in my life, all of it created on top of Trickling Springs ice cream base. How would they be affected, and, most importantly, how would this affect me?

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I called David this morning to find out what he knew about Trickling Springs’s mysterious shuttering and to find out what the dairy’s food service customers had been planning on doing. Turns out none of them were preparing for this, because they officially found out late yesterday afternoon, too. David was lucky and managed to get a few days’ advance notice, though, thanks to a chef friend whose local produce suppliers said there had been some mumblings of troubles to come in the Mennonite rumor mill. So now, in addition to all the unanswered questions I have about the Trickling Springs closure, I have a whole new set of questions about how I can get a personal “in” with the Mennonite rumor mill. This story just keeps getting bigger.

David says he’s lucky because he’s neurotic and has a file of Plan Bs to use whenever things go to hell. As a former small business owner I can attest that things go to hell on a pretty regular basis, so this is an excellent strategy to have. He has a stop-gap in place: a dairy supplier who, though not all-natural or grass-fed, can supply him with an excellent base to work with until he can find a new premium base supplier. I’m sure this behemoth of a dairy company already has their sales people out in droves to pick up all the customers Trickling Springs has left in the lurch, so there’s a part of me that can rest bit easier.

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But, while there are other ways for most small businesses to get the product they need to continue operations, there are others who are not only unlucky but are going to end up seriously hurt. As you may have inferred from all that hot regulation chat, it’s not easy to make ice cream commercially, and it’s even harder to bring the product to market. Most small brands use a system called copacking, in which a large government-licensed food manufacturing facility produces and distributes the product for them. Personally, I’ve only worked with copackers on non-frozen goods, but I can tell you that it’s a process that takes months to set up, with initial costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. It’s not remotely a cheap or easy process, and it will not be easy for many small companies to just pick up and take their business elsewhere—especially when you consider this is a highly specialized industry as is, and working with responsibly sourced dairy is an even smaller subset of an already tiny market

Trickling Springs, like many contract manufacturers, does not advertise this program on its website nor on any other public-facing materials. I know of a few specialty ice cream makers that use Trickling Springs to manufacture their supermarket pints, none of which have yet responded to my requests for comment. The best way to find out if your favorite ice cream is in danger? Check out the back of their packaging for a piece of small print that says “made/manufactured by” and check the address. If it’s located anywhere near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, you may want to run to the supermarket and start hoarding.

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As for the future of Trickling Springs, David says he hopes some corporate vulture will swoop in and save the company. As inconvenient as this is for him, it’s far, far worse for many other businesses, and catastrophic for all the small farms that Trickling Springs sourced their milk from. Even if you’re nowhere close to Pennsylvania, try to hit up your local farmers market this weekend and treat yourself to a bottle of fancy milk. Let today remind us that even if we can’t afford to do it every day, it’s important to support the little guy whenever we can, because they’ve got all the odds stacked against them. And, if you’ve never had milk from a farmer’s market, prepare to have your mind blown. I’ve never been able to buy a quart without chugging the whole thing in the parking lot.

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About the author

Allison Robicelli

Allison Robicelli is the staff writer for The Takeout, a former professional baker, the host of The Robicelli Argument Clinic Podcast, and a nascent birding enthusiast.