Ice Cream and Fried Chicken SecretsJul 30, 2020 11:25AM ● By Mike Cutillo
Forget about why the chicken crossed the road. The pertinent question when it comes to Seneca Farms, an iconic eatery in the heart of the Finger Lakes, is: How does a restaurant become famous for its fried chicken and its ice cream?
Joe Trombley, who has owned the red-and-white restaurant on Route 54A just south of the Yates County village of Penn Yan since 1976, laughs at the question. Yes, he admits, it’s an odd combination, but it works. Oh boy, does it work.
The place had been a dairy since the 1950s when Joe and his father bought it four-plus decades ago, so the ice cream part was only natural.
“It was always a dairy and they delivered milk and made their own ice cream, and then over the years, they just started buying Perry’s ice cream and selling that,” says Joe’s daughter Nitosha Fingar. “When they bought it, Dad decided that everyone was doing Perry’s. So, there was a course you could take at Penn State to make your own ice cream. He went and took that, then started doing the homemade ice cream here.”
Joe corroborates his daughter’s story, saying he took the class so that he wouldn’t be locked into dishing out the same brand of ice cream that everyone else around town was selling.
“Perry’s made me mad because they were selling to everybody in town,” he says. “I started thinking that I would never make it if I didn’t make my own. It was the best decision I ever made.”
As for the fried chicken? That came after a kitchen was added in 1978 and a menu was being developed.
“We tried many recipes and this last recipe seems to really be working, and how the combination (of ice cream and chicken) started, it wasn’t my actual idea at the time, but it just worked,” Joe says.
He says “this last recipe seems to be working” like they just hit on it last week, but, in reality, it came after various trials and errors, mostly variations of recipes from family and friends. He won’t give up the secret to the rock star fried chicken, which is crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, and loaded with tons of flavor, other than to say it’s beer-battered fresh every day with a tasty blend of herbs and spices.
“It’s really hard to say more without telling you the whole thing,” Joe says with a laugh.
As for that ice cream, in addition to the fresh fruits, nuts, and fudges that flavor it, it is made with cream that has a higher percentage of butterfat than most, making it creamier and richer. There is soft ice cream and hard ice cream, about two dozen regular varieties with a handful of rotating seasonal ones, it is hand-swirled, and made on premises—about 900 gallons a week in the heat of the summer.
Seneca Farms—located near Indian Pines Park and lovely Keuka Lake—is not just chicken and ice cream, however. Tiffany Phillips, Joe’s other daughter, who co-manages the place with Nitosha as Joe phases himself out, ticks off a list of other top-selling items: handmade burgers (with beef from the village’s popular Morgan’s Grocery), Hoffman hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, corn fritters, macaroni and other salads (many of which are their grandparents’ recipes), and chicken fingers.
Wait, what? Corn fritters? In upstate New York?
Joe, a Penn Yan Academy grad, was living in Florida when he and his father learned that Seneca Farms was available for sale. While developing a menu, Joe recalled food from his Florida days. “There was a place that sold chicken and corn fritters, and I thought to myself, ‘We should sell corn fritters, no one else has them.’”
“People come from all over to get the corn fritters,” Tiffany says. “They take them home in the winter and freeze them; they make corn fritter sundaes. They love them.”
They must love the rest of what’s available at Seneca Farms, too, as people come here from all over. The grounds include an outdoor pavilion and about a dozen round picnic tables topped with red-and-white umbrellas. On a steamy summer day, license plates in the parking lot were from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Florida (maybe there to check out the corn fritters?). Meanwhile, a constant line of vehicles snaked around the building, their occupants loading up on food and ice cream at the pickup window, which happened to be the first drive-through window in the region.
And no feature on Seneca Farms would be complete without mention of its extensive collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia—everything from chandeliers, mirrors, and posters to Coke-can-crafted toy cars, trucks, and airplanes hanging from the ceiling. That started with Joe buying some items to accent the restaurant’s red-and-white colors; it spread to the customers, who have donated numerous trinkets over the years. The Coke motif really exploded after a fire in 2005 almost destroyed the business. Joe rebuilt it bigger and better than ever—especially the kitchen—and the result was even more business and more Coke items.
“Because we lost so much, people were bringing us boxes of their Coca-Cola collections,” Nitosha says. “Coke themselves donated some stuff. Somebody wrote into them about our fire, and they sent us a whole bunch of stuff.”
So, a family-run joint for over four decades—Nitosha and Tiffany both started working there when they were about twelve and have a combined fifty-three years in now with children of their own who are helping these days—that has built an incredible reputation behind the unlikely combo of killer ice cream, scrumptious fried chicken, and corn fritters can also pass as a bit of a Coca-Cola museum.
Open from the first Thursday in March to the last weekend in October, if you are exploring the Finger Lakes—and especially Keuka Lake—make Seneca Farms one of your stops. You can also find Seneca Farms at senecafarmsny.com, or call (315) 536-4066.