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Exploring Life & Business with Michael Palmer of McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michael Palmer. 

Hi Michael, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I’d always made ice cream. My wife is a chef, and I’m a winemaker, and we’re both food people. We had what we thought was a sophisticated ice cream maker at home, and I would do all sorts of weird stuff with it for parties and birthdays. And then, of course, I grew up with McConnell’s. It’s a family business. When our house burned down in the wildfire some years ago, here in Santa Barbara, it was sort of a call to action – I knew that I wanted to segue out of my brand marketing business, which took me on the road the better part of each month, for many years. I thought I’d concentrate on my wine business and see if I could grow it (I’m still working on that), but then I talked with McConnell’s owner at the time, who wasn’t in good health. See, most of the time, a brand – and product – like McConnell’s, if it sells, especially to a corporation or even, in many cases, to private equity, it gets “watered down”. A bunch of companies were hovering that wanted to buy McConnell’s. Anyway, typical of a case like this a heritage brand gets purchased, and then it gets subsumed into the larger brand, in terms of quality, etc., and the brand suffers. It was very important to Jim (McCoy, McC’s owner at the time) that McConnell’s – a lot of people consider it the country’s original, artisan brand – remain a family business and never suffer in quality. He knew that Eva and I would do everything we could to keep McC’s as it was, or even make it better if that was at all possible. – I guess it’s a weakness of ours (ha). So, he asked me if we’d consider taking it on. I remember coming home and having this moment, “Let’s not re-build our house (after the fire). Let’s put it into McConnell’s.” I got a load of push-back from Eva in that first hour, but years later, we’re still at it (though I wish I’d have built that house(!). And in the first year, we won best dessert in America at the New York Fancy Food Show, so we’re just trying to build on that, I suppose. 

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
I don’t think any small business has a “smooth road”. It’s literally going from catastrophe to catastrophe, day to day. That’s just the nature of things. But you persevere. It can be challenging. We’re a private, family-owned dairy and ice cream company in a field where all our competitors are all private equity-backed chains. So, effectively, we’re up against companies whose goal is market share (rather than profit), whereas for us, if we’re not profitable, we go out of business. It’s a bit of a stacked deck, but we try to just stay the course and focus on the one thing we’re best at – quality, and – and we hope the customer notices the difference. And it’s a business where we get to bring smiles to people. Which is pretty awesome. 

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your business?
The biggest thing is that McConnell’s is actually not an ice cream company. We’re a dairy, up here on the Central Coast. The reason that’s important is because 99% of the ice cream out there – even the artisan brands – are co-packed. That means that they’re essentially brand marketing companies, marketing products that are manufactured for them by another company. This is a very popular thing in the food biz. By contrast, McC’s is a dairy. Which means we make our own products, and everything that goes into our products (cookie bits, swirls, etc., etc.), 100% from scratch. That’s pretty unique in this business, actually. And it really does make a difference, in the products, and in the love that goes into this company. And then, when it comes to those products, we’re not making novelty flavors just for the sake of doing it. We make the classics – hopefully, the very best versions of those you’ve ever had – and then we also can get a bit out there. But never do we do things just for press. I mean, if a flavor happens to get press, great. But for us, everything we do is driven by our desire to create products that are delicious and memorable, that people crave again and again. That’s where we feel we stand apart. And I think that that’s something we’ve never strayed from, as a brand. I’m super proud of that, ‘cause people have a lot of choices these days, and the people who choose us over other brands, they just know (big ‘Thanks” to those people, by the way…). Again, we’re smaller and family-owned, so most of our efforts, when it comes to opening scoop shops, are focused on our home state – here in California. We’re not trying to open stores throughout the country. Let the others play in that sandbox. We just want people out there to know that while there are some pretty good products elsewhere, that they’re lucky, that there’s a little company on the Central Coast of California that happens to churn out the finest ice creams in the country. End of the day, flavor profile is one thing. It’s subjective. You may be a vanilla person, and I might be a chocolate guy, but like any food product, when it comes to quality, that’s something else. Quality of ingredients, recipes, processing. That’s the objective. A product either is or isn’t high quality. Some brands feature novelty – crazy flavors or whatever. Some follow trends. For us, it’s 100% about quality. And consistency. That’s our primary goal. That’s how it’s been with McC’s since 1949. And hopefully, people notice. 

Networking and finding a mentor can have such a positive impact on one’s life and career. Any advice?
I find mentors everywhere. Always have. Older people, younger people. And over the years, I’ve found them in the strangest of ways. I’ve got a very close friend who just moved back to San Diego (he grew up in La Jolla). He’s more than a decade younger than I am, but I consider him a mentor of sorts (I wish I’d learned more from him. What a life this guy’s got!). Anyway, many years ago, I was online, looking at pictures of Uruguay – at the time, I was traveling down there. Long story. Anyhow, a lot of these photos I was looking at seemed to have been taken by the same guy. So, I reached out to him, cold. Next time he came through Santa Barbara, he stopped by. Rest is history. He’s a very close friend of mine, now, and I get kernels of genius from him all the time. So, mentors? You find them where you find them. You just have to be open to the possibility, and put yourself out there. 

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Eric Wolfinger

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