Rural ice cream store attracting a big following
- August 31, 2012
On a trip to Nags Head, N.C., more than 25 years ago, Ken Smith visited a Brew Thru, an Outer Banks store that customers literally drive through to pick up beer on their way to beach.
For Smith, a Fauquier County dairy farmer, Brew Thru sparked renewed interest in a concept he had toyed with for some time: a drive-through store selling milk and other essentials to harried parents who don’t want to drag the kids out of the car.
In the years that followed, Smith’s concept took a different turn. The store would sell ice cream made on-site from milk produced by Smith’s cows. “I just thought: I can pull this off. I can get this off the ground,” he says.
On June 1, 2010, Smith’s store, Moo Thru, opened on U.S. 29 in Remington (between Culpeper and Warrenton), about two and a half miles from his farm. In its first year, the store sold 100,000 ice cream cones. In its second year, sales rose 25 percent.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the store’s 27 parking spaces were all filled and more cars were parked on the grass as customers lined up for cones, milkshakes and sundaes. Moo Thru has become a go-to place for ice cream.
Smith says customer response has been overwhelming. “We have people who drive out of Northern Virginia just to come to us,” he says.
Reviews posted on the website Yelp offer an idea of why customers keep coming back. “I will never eat any other ice cream ever again,” reads one review. “This place is amazing.”
Chocolate is by far customers’ favorite choice among the 26 flavors the store regularly keeps in stock. Moo Thru also produces weekend specials such as butter-pecan ice cream, made with roasted pecans and local molasses. “If we put it out on Friday, and no doubt people know when we put it out now, it will be gone Sunday by 2 p.m., and sometimes it is gone before Sunday,” Smith says.
Customers and potential investors already are asking Smith when he plans to expand to a more populated area, such as Charlottesville. “We have some plans we’re working on to expand or to grow,” he says.
But Smith, who is 60, is not sure those plans will work under current conditions. The commercial real estate lots he has looked at are running about $1 million each. Site work and the costs of building and equipping a store would add another $1 million. “You know, it’s hard to cash flow $2 million in ice cream sales unless you do it over a long period of time,” he says.
Another concern is that Moo Thru was not created to build an ice cream empire.“ We were looking to add enhancement to the family business and make it so that it is multigenerational,” Smith explains. “I’ve got four girls and one son.”
Moo Thru originally was to be managed by one of his adult daughters. “In between the concept and the building, she had two children. So she said, ‘I’m not so much interested right now, Dad. I want to raise these kids,’ and I understand that.”
As a result, Smith’s wife, Pam, has been in charge of the ice cream business. “She’s said, ‘This was never in my dreams. This was your dream.’ But she has really done a tremendous job with it,” Smith says.
Meanwhile, the original family business continues to prosper. The Smiths have more than 400 dairy cattle and farm about 2,500 acres, much of it leased property, raising grains in addition to producing milk. The operation is about three times bigger than the typical Virginia dairy farm. It sells milk in glass bottles at the Croftburn Market in Culpeper and Living Waters Farmer’s Market in Gainesville in addition to the Moo Thru store in Remington.
The heart of the dairy business is Cool Lawn Farm, which Smith’s father, Charles, bought in 1970, moving the family from Harford County, Md., to Virginia.
The family patriarch, now 88, still works on the farm. “I caught him on the tractor this morning out mowing,” Smith says.
When he went to college at the University of Maryland, Smith swore he wouldn’t follow his father’s footsteps. “I knew that there was nothing but work at a dairy farm, and I thought there had to be another alternative to the way my dad worked,” he says.
But he found himself struggling to make a career choice. One day after listening to an economics lecture on supply and demand, Smith told a friend he couldn’t figure out what to do with his life. She asked what he had been doodling in his notebook during class. He opened the notebook to find drawings of a dairy barn.
“She said, ‘Well, I know what you’re going to be. You’re going to be a dairy farmer.’ And lo and behold, she was right,” Smith says.
His 21-year-old son, Benjamin, recently graduated from Virginia Tech and is ready to become the fifth generation in his family to operate a farm.