For generations, the MSU Dairy Store has been a cherished place for the Michigan State University community and its alumni.
“I think everybody in town has come here as a kid and likes to bring their kids here,” Kate Brent, a customer of the MSU Dairy Store for 39 years, said while wiping the pink ice cream stains off her daughter’s face. “It has unique flavors compared to your standard ice cream shop.”
However, the past few years have brought challenges to the business, including a two-year pandemic shutdown that prompted a series of transformations.
During this period, the store faced managerial transitions and shifted its department from the Food Science Department to the MSU Extension Product Center. It wasn’t until Aaron Weiner took charge in 2021, a few months after reopening, that the MSU Dairy Store’s revitalization journey began.
“We had to basically rebuild the store from scratch,” said Weiner. “We had nobody left over to teach us how things used to be done. No computer system set up, no accounting system set up. So it was just like starting from scratch.”
Weiner seized the opportunity to reimagine the business, introducing milkshakes, monthly specialty sundaes, promotions and an expanded product line of pints and quarts.
“They basically gave me the keys to the store and said, ‘Do what you want’,” he said.
On the other side of Anthony Hall lies the MSU Dairy Plant, where the ice cream and cheese sold at the MSU Dairy Store is made. Matt Wilcox, appointed as the MSU Dairy Plant manager in May 2022, encountered the plant in need of repairs.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been checking things off the list of what needs to be done to get back to running at full potential,” said Wilcox.
In addition to the disruptions that came with the pandemic shutdown, the MSU Dairy Plant lost its license to handle raw milk. This meant that it could no longer make ice cream from scratch.
To comply with licensing requirements, it is temporarily using premade ice cream mix instead of processing raw milk. The premade mix allows them to continue producing ice cream for the MSU Dairy Store, but Wilcox remains committed to restoring the use of raw milk to create its own mixes.
“We would like to work with raw milk again in the fall,” Wilcox said. “We still have a few more fixes before we can get to that point.”
To navigate the transition of reopening, the MSU Dairy Plant collaborated with Moo-Ville, a family-owned creamery from Nashville, Michigan, to ensure a steady supply of high-quality ice cream while they work toward resuming production.
“It was a good partnership… and they’re still helping us out currently until we can get caught up,” said Wilcox.
Once advertised on the store’s website as being sourced from cows on MSU’s farms, the shift in sourcing left some patrons surprised.
“I like the idea of being able to source internally and have kind of this holistic attempt or process to make ice cream,” said Brent, still wiping the strawberry ice cream off her toddler’s chin.
Lydia Bolen has been coming back to the MSU Dairy Store for seven years with the expectation that the dairy in her Izzo’s Malted Madness ice cream came from the MSU cows.
“I’ve always thought it was from their own source,” said Bolen. “It makes it a little more special.”
Neither Weiner nor Wilcox knew when the last time they sourced from the MSU Dairy Farm was. Wilcox said that, to his knowledge, the plant was getting its milk from Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA), a dairy farmer-owned cooperative.
“They weren’t getting raw milk from MSU farms before COVID either,” said Weiner. “They were using the farm, but… I don’t have any idea about why they changed totally.”
To evolve the business, Weiner embraced technology to cater to modern demands, working on a website that allows customers to place catering orders and purchase items online.
He envisions the store becoming a destination for more than just ice cream, offering lunch options and products from the MSU Product Center clients.
The Product Center collaborates with external companies, providing them with an innovation counselor to assist in various aspects of business, from manufacturing to marketing and design.
Weiner has dedicated shelf space in the MSU Dairy Store for products from 31 different Michigan businesses, all MSU Product Center clients. These products range from vegan frozen desserts to cocktail infusion kits.
“Our retail sales, those hoodies and sweatshirts have taken off,” Weiner said, gesturing toward the MSU Dairy Store branded merchandise, featuring hoodies and sweatshirts designed by MSU students displayed on the store’s shelves.
Whatever the source of dairy, Weiner is committed to improving the business, selling high-quality ice cream so Dairy Store enthusiasts continue to visit.
“The Dairy Store brand isn’t like any brand that I’ve ever worked with,” Weiner said. “People are very loyal.”