A New Day at Sunset
There was once a “golden age” of independent ice cream shops—the kind where somebody scooped up your favorite flavor, adding to the glory that was summer. It was a time before air conditioning was everywhere—a time of jazz and speakeasies, and continued through the hard times of the Great Depression and the tense, anxious days of World War II. The decline of that golden age started with the development of television (people stayed home more) and refrigerators with nice, big freezers, and by the 1970s there were only a few independent ice cream stores left.
In 1977, very few people would consider trying to start a business that had been taken over by chains like Friendly’s or Baskin-Robbins and had changed so drastically. But John Fritz (above) is not most people. John saw, instead, another market, a hybrid of people buying ice cream to eat at a stand, and people buying ice cream to take home. And so Sunset Ice Cream was born. First, he needed a plant, which he built just north of Williamsport. It’s a small, scrupulously clean plant, with two electric ice cream machines. These machines each make ten gallons of ice cream at a time, and it takes ten minutes for cream, milk, sugar, and flavorings or other ingredients (like chocolate chips) to become some of our favorite flavors. The milk comes from Leiby’s Dairy in Tamaqua and has since John started. Watching the machines work is like stepping back in time, as the ice cream dispenses out the chute into three-gallon cardboard containers for ice cream shops, and half-gallon containers for retail sale at shops all over Pennsylvania. Sunset still sells a full half gallon, not a quart and a half.
With the production part covered, John and his wife Phyllis simply built a shop across the alley from the plant. The name Sunset is from the amusement park that once was near the plant and shop, back in that golden age of ice cream stands. Old pictures of the park adorned the walls. It was a simple building, with benches, and a player piano that played for a quarter. It was usually high school girls, in the Sunset uniform, that actually dipped ice cream. And the lines could be long, especially after a Little League game, or at the end of a long summer day. But the showstopper in this building was the immense ice cream counter. at counter could hold nearly every flavor that John Fritz made in the plant, and that was fifty—count ’em—fifty flavors. John created the flavor that became the biggest seller for him—Peanut Butter Cup. He was the first to chop peanut butter cups into a chocolate ice cream, forty years ago. He also created Raspberry Breeze and Creamsicle.
John Fritz also figured out the formula for a local favorite.
“Chocolate Malt was invented in Jersey Shore at the Allegheny Creamery,” he says. “Martin MacLellan wouldn’t give me the formula because he thought he would open another shop and it was his signature flavor. But years later, he told me that I had figured it out.” The flavor still sells particularly well in the Jersey Shore area, where the Jiffy convenience store downtown sells forty half gallons every two weeks. And John’s favorite flavors? “Black Raspberry or Peanut Butter Ripple,” he confesses.
But one ice cream shop cannot support a plant, and John had the plan for that. His four trucks send his ice cream, as half gallons, all over the state. “Some stores sell 200 cartons every two weeks,” he notes. And John Fritz’s ice cream is a welcome stop at fairs and carnivals in Pennsylvania. According to John, the ice cream business is growing. He sells more in the summer, but he sells plenty in other seasons. The plant makes more than 600 gallons a day in the summer, and in slower months makes 400 gallons. The staff is small, and mostly family. “I have a wonderful family,” he says. Phyllis works at the plant, along with Eric, a grandson.
A few years ago, the land where the old ice cream parlor sat was sold for new development on Old Lycoming Creek Road. But, around the same time, a new ice cream shop appeared less than one mile north of the plant, at 2062 Lycoming Creek Road, (570) 494-5747. This is the only Sunset parlor in the Williamsport area, and is owned by Jessica McDermott and Brett Harer. Brett was in the Marines for four years, and Jessica is a cancer survivor. His savings was the seed money to open their shop, and they did all the renovations themselves. The new shop has many of the old favorite flavors, and has added some non-dairy frozen smoothies (developed during chemotherapy). The cancer is in remission, and the shop is doing great, with May 2018 the busiest month yet.
Jessica and Brett have close ties to the Fritz family, and her shop has much of the same feel as the old shop. That’s not surprising, as Jessica was once one of those high school girls scooping huge portions of ice cream into cones at the old shop. It’s a fitting tribute to a family that for over forty years has been making and sending the sweet taste of summer throughout the state all year long.