Friday, May 1, 2009
Writer: Andy Johns     Cover Photo: David Humber
On the rare occasions during his childhood when snow fell at the Mayfield Dairy in Athens, Tenn., Scottie Mayfield was sent outside with huge bowls to collect fresh flakes for snow cream. Once the task was completed, his mother added half and half, vanilla flavoring and confectioners sugar to the snow, making the chilly chore very worthwhile. “In about a minute we’d have a headache because we’d eat it too fast,” he recalls.
The memory leaped to life about 35 years later when Mayfield, 58, the president of Mayfield Dairy, first met Jane Burn and saw one of her favorite recipes. Burn, a Spruce Pine, N.C. resident, had created a snow cream for her ice cream shop that might stay true to its homemade texture during the distribution process.
“It was about the identical product; it brought back memories,” says Mayfield, sitting down for a recent interview. “The difference was I wasn’t getting out of school and going sledding.”
After drawn-out negotiations, Mayfield agreed to pay Burn a percentage of his snow cream sales, confident Burn’s formula would be a hit. When it debuted in 2003, he was proven right. Within three months, snow cream became the company’s top-selling flavor. A nice royalty check was sent to Spruce Pine where hard times had caused Burn to close her shop. “That put a smile on her face,” says Mayfield.
The tale of the snow cream illustrates Mayfield’s many contributions to the company his family started nearly 100 years ago: he is one scoop businessman, one scoop company spokesperson and one scoop ice cream connoisseur. With a college degree from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Masters from Emory University, he is the fourth generation of family to run the dairy. The bow-tied, ice cream man speaks plainly like any east Tennessee dairy farmer, with a twinkle in his deep, sincere eyes. “I drink a lot of milk,” says Mayfield, 58, who consumes Mayfield 1% Nurture Milk with every meal at his home in Athens. Ice cream comes after meals, with few exceptions, he adds, laughing. “Our variation is birthday cakes. On birthdays, that’s cake with ice cream on the side.”
But his pattern changed a little bit this spring when his wife, Lisa, decided to make a risky decision for lent. “She gave up ice cream and that’s a big deal in my family,” he says. Lately his family has kept a carton of vanilla bean ice cream, snow cream and blueberry granola frozen yogurt in the freezer. Mayfield, who admits a vanilla bias, says plain vanilla is the only constant among the company’s 40 or more flavors.
“People want their choices,” he adds. Mayfield’s own discerning palate plays a big role in what those choices are. He says the company receives scores of samples from all over the country. He and a 12- to 15-member ice cream committee evaluate the samples as they come in. Once the group chooses a few favorites, they ask producers for a bigger batch, and offer prospective flavors at Mayfield’s visitor centers in Athens, Tn. and Braselton, Ga. Those most popular with guests are then put into production.
Ideas for new products come from other places as well. Each time Mayfield passes through the terminal at Lovell Field in Chattanooga, an airport employee reminds Mayfield that his favorite way to enjoy ice cream is a scoop of vanilla bean over fresh cantaloupe sliced up in the bowl. But the ice cream architect always explains such a product would be difficult to make because freezing cantaloupe would make it rock-hard and take away from the ice cream’s fresh flavor. When he’s not up for flavor debates and wants to slip through a crowd incognito, Mayfield turns to a simple disguise.
“I just take off the bowtie and no one recognizes me,” he says. “That’s all I have to do.” Bowties—usually red—have become part of his signature style, and he wears one at almost all of his public appearances. Mayfield says the neckwear is a throwback to his days at Baylor School in Chattanooga, when he dated Jane Healy Bourne. Jane’s father and brother (former Chattanooga mayoral candidate Rob Healy) always wore bowties, he says, and the look impressed a young Scottie.
“That’s all I have now, bowties,” he said. When the bowtie is off and he’s just Scottie rather than the face of an ice cream empire, Mayfield is usually in his shop woodworking or helping his son Michael on his farm in McMinn County. In his well-stocked workshop, Mayfield makes everything from picture frames and birdhouses to four-post beds. When he talks about the fruit and vegetable farm Michael started three years ago, his words quicken excitedly and a proud smile broadens across his face. “When I retire, I’ll probably go work for my son,” he says.
Not that he’s planning to retire anytime soon, Mayfield says. If you’re the ice cream man, why would you? ◆
Scottie Looks Ahead
Scottie Mayfield says all brand names in the dairy business have been hurt by the recent economic downturn as some consumers opt for cheaper store brands. The price of milk and fuel soaring to new highs last year didn’t help either, he adds. In September, his company, which produces nearly 70 million gallons of milk and almost 30 million gallons of ice cream annually, announced plans to layoff 100 employees.
Overall, says Mayfield, milk and ice cream sales remain strong because both are products that people primarily buy for home use. For consumers, buying a carton and eating ice cream in a comfortable porch swing is cheaper than buying scoops at an ice cream shop. Now, with milk and fuel prices lower than they were in 2008, Mayfield is hopeful that the 2009 ice cream season will be a good one.
SCOTTIE MAYFIELD AT A GLANCE
Wife Lisa and three adult children: Charles, Mariah and Michael; grandson Dylan
President of Mayfield Dairy
Lives in Athens Tenn.
Bachelors degree from Georgia Institute of Technology; Master in Business Administration from Emory University
Fourth generation of family to run the dairy
Favorite ice cream flavor : Mayfield Vanilla