What Makes Milwaukee's Frozen Custard Scene Special?

Jun 9, 2017

Bubbler Talk is supposed to be on its summer break, as we gather more questions and look for more answers to what you’ve always wanted to know about this place we call home. But not long before the hiatus, a question came in that it would be a shame to wait until fall to answer. "Hi, my name is Sarah Richoux, from San Francisco. My question is: Why is frozen custard such a big deal in Milwaukee?"

We don’t typically get a lot of questions from San Francisco, but as you might expect, there’s a reason Sarah got in touch – she’s a Milwaukee area native with a frozen custard history.

"It was my summer job," she explains. As a teenager, Sarah spent 5 years working at Hefner's as well as Out & Out in Cedarburg. Her boyfriend at the time also had a frozen custard job at Lixx, which used to be on Downer and Belleview in Milwaukee.

To figure out the answer to Sarah’s question, we tracked down Bobby Tanzilo, co-author of the seminal book on the subject, called Milwaukee Frozen Custard. Actually, he was pretty easy to track down, because he’s also managing editor at OnMilwaukee, whose offices are across the street from the WUWM studios in downtown Milwaukee.

Gilles Frozen Custard is located at 7515 W. Bluemound Road in Milwaukee.
Credit Mitch Teich

Anyway, we asked him that very basic question - why is frozen custard so popular here, versus anywhere else?

"I don't think anybody really knows," Bobby says. "[While writing the book], we talk to all kinds of people, we talked to custard stand owners, the dairies that make custard mix, all these people who should theoretically know and everyone has some sort of theory."

So the guy who spent months trying to track down the answer of why frozen custard is such a big deal in Milwaukee says the answer is – no one really knows. Unlike frozen custard itself, that’s kind of unsatisfying.

But as Bobby says, there are a lot of things that make Milwaukee's custard scene special - a commitment to quality and cooperation among the custard stand owners. He explains further:

Joe Clark is the guy who opens the first frozen custard stand here. He hires a guy named Paul Gilles, who then goes and opens Gilles. He has a night manager, named Leon Schneider, who then goes and opens Leon's. And then Art Richter has the Milky Way and he needs someone to manage the Milky Way and he hired Elsa Kopp who then opens her own place (Kopp's).

And while this is going on, Leon is helping all of these other people at the same time. Leon trained Al (Lach) who opened Al's. Trudy opens Trudy's. They were really never in competition with other custard stands. They wanted other custard stands to serve a quality product because they wanted people to associate custard with being a quality product. And, he would say if someone drives past here and sees we sell custard, and if they've had custard in the past and it was good, they'll stop.

Frozen Custard Vs. Ice Cream

So, maybe another important question to ask is: what makes frozen custard special – or at least distinct - from other frozen dairy desserts? We found someone to help us: Bill Klein. He's plant manager for UW-Madison's Babcock Hall Dairy Plant.

Delicious, creamy custard.
Credit Mitch Teich

Bill offered us a definition: "In order to be called a custard, you need to have 1.4% egg yolk solids. Beyond that, it has to meet the definition of ice cream, which is at least 10% milk fat, no more than 100% overrun (amount of air whipped into a frozen dairy dessert) and 20% total solids."

"So, if you compare [custard] to ice cream, the only difference is the egg yolk," he says. Egg yolk provides flavor and serves as an emulsifier (allows ingredients to mix together)."

But Bill says when it comes to the soft custard you get on a summer evening in Wisconsin, there’s another key factor in play: "It's more than just ice cream, it's right off the machine. So, it's served warm (20 degrees vs. dipped ice cream's 5 degrees.)"

And that turns out to be one of the key elements in Milwaukee’s frozen custard culture – seeing the custard come right out of the machine.

In an era in which so much manufacturing is automated, frozen custard-makers say a large part of the appeal for customers is in seeing the employees pouring the mix into the top of the gleaming steel machines, and seeing the river of custard come out the front.

Milwaukee's Big Three – Leon's, Kopp's and Gilles

Leon's Frozen Custard is located at 3131 S. 27th Street in Milwaukee.
Credit Mitch Teich

Ron Schneider owns Leon’s, the shop his dad founded on Milwaukee’s south side in 1942. He says it would be possible to automate the process, but…

"I think that would be a negative thing to not have employees for us," he says. "Frozen custard originated on Coney Island, it was a carnival treat. And, when you go to a carnival or the state fair... much of the attraction is what's going on. You go to the salt water taffy booth and they have the machine, they are pulling the taffy and when that thing is pulling taffy, there's a crowd."

Years ago, Ron says, his father sold a custard machine to a man in town who owned a tobacco store. "And while he was waiting for the machine to be built, he came here (Leon's) to observe everything and noticed we seemed to sell more product when the machine was running," he explains. So when the man got the machine, he put it right in his front window for all to see. "He made enough money the first year to completely pay for the machine and he also refurbished and remodeled his tobacco store. Second year, he put the machine in the backroom, the third year – my father bought it back from him."

This Kopp's Frozen Custard is located at 18880 W. Bluemound Road in Brookfield.
Credit Mitch Teich

It’s the same at Kopp’s. Dan McGuire is the second-in-command at the Kopp’s on Bluemound Road in Brookfield: "When people come in here and see the machines running, it's total fascination."

Mac McGuire, Dan’s dad, says, three of the machines they have are about 70 years old. Mac managed the original Kopp’s stand at 60th and Appleton in Milwaukee, which Elsa Kopp’s son, Karl, sold to him in the ‘70s. He moved it to Brookfield in 1991.

Mac says there’s a lot that’s special about frozen custard here – the taste, the gleaming machine, the flavor of the day idea that Kopp’s pioneered. But he believes it all comes back to the relationship between the people in the business: "It's almost like a brotherhood. This is the hot bed for frozen custard and when you have so few places that make it, we know who each other are."

The inside of a Kopp's Frozen Custard.
Credit Kent Wang, flickr

"Ron Schneider has been our friends for a long time, he supplies us with custard machine parts. His dad helped Ms. Kopp get in business. So, we have a friendly relationship with the other people in the business," Mac says.

But maybe there’s something even simpler at work. Tom Linscott owns the place that everyone calls “Gillees” but is really called Gilles – it’s the oldest frozen custard stand in Milwaukee at 75th and Blue Mound. Linscott remembers a lesson he learned from a consultant he worked with years ago: "You have no idea what you've got here. People make a point to stop by you and part with their resources... they are selectively choosing to go there."

So Sarah Richoux, that’s what makes frozen custard in Milwaukee special. The real question is: can you get custard where you live in the Bay Area?

She answers, "Surprisingly, we can... but, it's just not the same."

What a pity...
Credit Mitch Teich

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