Some businesses are so entrenched in their communities that they serve as a symbol of the city in which they’re based. With a long history stretching back to the Great Depression, Yarnell’s has become exactly that kind of institution in Searcy.
Started by Ray Yarnell in 1932, the ice cream giant lasted through four generations of family ownership before a bankruptcy filing prompted its sale to the Chicago-based food conglomerate Schulze & Burch in 2011. When the plant reopened in 2012, its 200-member workforce was trimmed to about 40 plant employees.
Yet Yarnell’s maintained its flavorful formulas and branding under the new owners, and nearly a decade later, is thriving again, said Mitch Evans, who has risen to the title of vice president of sales and marketing in his 39 years with the company.
“We service Arkansas, southern Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and parts of Oklahoma,” he said. “We basically cater to the Southern palate. Ice cream is very volatile and has to be handled correctly. We work with partners that allow us to do that and keep our quality in there. And then we make sure customers get a quality product.”
Yarnell’s currently produces 22 flavors, with its classic Premium Red signature flavors ranging from Ozark Black Walnut and Death By Chocolate to its Homemade Vanilla, Homemade Strawberry and Homemade Chocolate variations. It also has limited-time seasonal flavors, including the current Lemon Ice Box Pie and the upcoming return of its holiday-season Peppermint flavor.
The company also makes two “Guilt Free,” low-calorie flavors — Homemade Vanilla and Classic Chocolate — that have no added sugars and just 100 calories per serving. Rounding out their offerings are three types of low-fat yogurts: vanilla, chocolate and strawberry cheesecake.
“Homemade Vanilla is the most classic Southern-type ice cream we make and is our top-seller,” said Evans, who spent his first decade with the company as a route salesman before rising through the executive ranks. “In some areas, they wouldn’t consider it because they would be more towards a creamy blend, while our Homemade Vanilla is richer.”
The company’s biggest challenge came amid the Great Recession of 2008 and the tumultuous years that followed.
“Basically you had the recession affect consumer spending, and then increased costs jumped in there and caused the cash flow to be in bad shape,” Evans recalled. “Schulze & Burch had a lot of experience in the food industry, and this was their big move into the ice cream market. But they specialize in creating the products that other brand names market as their own, and they agreed to keep our products exactly as our customers loved them.”
In 2020, another merger occurred when Turkey Hill LLC of Lancaster, Pa., bought Yarnell’s main 100,000-square-foot plant facility. The 18 months of negotiations culminated in an agreement that Turkey Hill would guarantee Yarnell’s the “line time” needed to produce its products on the assembly line.
That big move came at a good time, because the COVID-19 era and its negative drain on nearly every aspect of the economy came soon after, and the new partnership provided much needed support.
“A lot of changes have happened since COVID, as our sales in the grocery industry really increased,” Evans said. “However, our food service business in schools, restaurants and colleges had a rough time last year. But it’s getting better. It seems like there’s more home eating now and less going out.”
One man who’s been especially happy to see Yarnell’s survive is Buck Layne, the president/CEO of the Searcy Chamber of Commerce. Noting that Ray Yarnell launched the brand when he bought the town’s ice cream plant to save his job and those of his friends when the Great Depression threatened to force its shutdown, Layne spoke highly of the company’s nine-decade history.
“They are the oldest manufacturing company in Searcy, and after Ray retired, his descendants Albert, Rogers and Christina ran it for three generations afterward,” Layne explained. “At one time, Yarnell’s had several hundred employees and their own fleet of red and yellow delivery trucks, plus a fleet of 18-wheelers.
“When they went bankrupt, they sold the fleet, but they’ve been a great corporate citizen and a major employer for years,” he added. “They’re a staple in our community, and I’ve never heard a person say they don’t like Yarnell’s ice cream. People love the product and are proud it’s in Searcy.”