Royal Ice Cream scoops a niche in foreign market

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
Manchester - posted Fri., Mar. 8, 2013
James Orfitelli, owner and president of Royal Ice Cream. The company has produced specialty ice cream desserts since 1926. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.
James Orfitelli, owner and president of Royal Ice Cream. The company has produced specialty ice cream desserts since 1926. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.

You may not realize it, but your daily commute might bring you past an international player in the ice cream business. Tucked away on Warren Street just off South Main Street, Royal Ice Cream Desserts has manufactured ice cream desserts since 1926. When the company founder, Michael Orfitelli, was 16, he came to America from Telese, Italy. He worked several odd jobs at various locations, including Manchester Dairy, formerly at Summit Street.

“He worked there until he was in his mid-20s, and then he decided he could do this on his own,” said James Orfitelli, the grandson of Michael and the current owner/president of Royal Ice Cream. Michael founded Royal Ice Cream and worked there many years. Michael was extremely proud of achieving his American dream. James tells the story of how his grandfather wanted to show off his 1954 Buick to his family, and so he brought it to Italy on a visit. Once there, the transmission broke. Because no one knew how to fix an American car, he had to drive it in reverse for 40 miles back to the boat. “Needless to say, he didn't do that anymore,” said James.

Michael and his wife raised eight children, all of whom were involved in the business. But it was James' father, Harold, and his uncle, Michael, Jr., who carried on the business for 35 years after Michael, Sr.'s passing. James took over the business in 1987.

When the company was first founded, it sold a little of everything: specialty desserts for restaurants, pints and half-gallons, and novelty items like popsicles, chocolate covered bars, and ice cream sandwiches. By the early '60s, the family saw that larger companies were able to do a better job producing ice cream novelties. As the company evolved, it moved farther and farther from the novelty and stick items and focused its product line on ice cream specialties.

The company has expanded its specialty line, and has 50 different items. It produces ice cream specialties, ice cream cakes, 2.5-gallon bulk ice cream and even private labels for other companies. It also produces ice cream for other brands as well, such as Kemps Ice Cream in Minnesota and Delicious Desserts in Brooklyn, N.Y. It even makes an ice cream sandwich for Munson's Chocolates (which was also founded in Manchester) called the “Chipwich.”

The company has now broken ground into new territory, with a Feb. 1 shipment to China.

James was approached by a representative of a Chinese company that wanted to ship some Royal Ice Cream products to China, to sell at small dessert venues in malls and shopping centers. “In China, American ice cream is really, really sought after,” James said. Dairy products are scarce and the ice cream made there is of poor quality. Ice cream imported from the states is highly desirable – a pint of Haagen-Dazs sells for $12, said the representative.

The representative ordered 10 pallets of Royal Ice Cream products, valued at $30,000, and sent a freezer container to Royal Ice Cream for pickup. Even though the company paid $5,000 to freight the container, it can expect a nice payoff. The container was scheduled to arrive on March 8. “We're excited to see how that turns out,” said James. He hopes to make regular shipments in the future, three or four times a year.

Since then, a liaison from California, acting on behalf of another Chinese company, has approached James as well.

Royal Ice Cream is also doing a deal with the Christie Cookie Company from Nashville, Tenn., in which it will provide the peach ice cream filling for sugar cookie ice cream sandwiches destined for the Masters Gold Tournament in Georgia, April 8-14. “The cookies are excellent,” said James. “Let them go to room temperature and they taste like you just baked them.” The Christie Cookie Company ordered 30,000 ice cream sandwiches from Royal Ice Cream. James and his staff will make short work of the order: he estimates they can do 10,000 in half a day.

Interestingly, James did not have to reach out to these companies for these deals - they reached out to him. He said he has been discovered by the Internet as well as word of mouth. “As big as the United States is, the ice cream industry is really small,” he said.

James's four children have careers outside of the family business, and it seems that James will be the third and last generation of Orfitellis manning Royal Ice Cream. However, he is not worried about the future. “I have one broker firm that has called me every January for the past 10 years, wanting to know if I'm ready to sell,” he said. “I know if the day comes when I put the word out wanting to do that, it would just be a matter of time."

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