A scoop full of history
July/Aug. 2008 California Country magazine
By Tracy Sellers
Customers get more than their just desserts at this local legend.
In an age when restaurants come and go and traditions are as fleeting as who Paris Hilton is dating at the moment, there is one long-standing tradition that has satisfied hungry hordes for generations: Fentons Creamery & Restaurant in Oakland.
The 114-year-old ice cream parlor has a complete menu that features classic diner favorites with a California flair, like the Fenton Burger dressed with special sauce, sandwiches served atop authentic San Francisco sourdough and hot dogs made from Niman Ranch beef. But you'll definitely want to save room for dessert, because Fentons serves up some of the most amazing ice cream around. From their famous Banana Special—loaded with nearly a half pound of ice cream—to their Fudgeanna—complete with homemade fudge sauce—these aren't just bowls of ice cream. They are frozen masterpieces and a true step back in time.
"When you step into an ice cream parlor, things slow down, people tend to reminisce," said Fentons President Scott Whidden. "We've got people who are visiting for the first time and they'll have a memory of today. We have other people who are remembering some other time. For whatever reason, ice cream marks events in our lives—good times."
And producing good times via ice cream is exactly what Elbridge Fenton had in mind when he opened the parlor in 1894. A dairyman by trade, he was enticed into the ice cream arena by his 13 children—all of whom were fans of the frozen treat.
"It was started as an old-fashioned family dairy in the 1800s," explained Whidden. "All the family members were involved and processed all the cheese, milk and cream themselves. From there they began to get into the ice cream business."
A restaurant followed in the 1950s and by early the next decade, the restaurant/ice cream parlor concept had caught on with locals and visitors alike. All of this was accomplished under the watchful eye of the Fenton family, who remained owners of the legendary spot until 1987 when Whidden assumed the presidency.
It wasn't an accident that Whidden was chosen as the heir apparent. The Oakland native had been an ice cream maker since the age of 16. And now, in addition to ice cream maker and Fentons president, he can add one more title to his resume: master blender.
"A master blender has many years of experimenting with flavors, developing ice cream flavors, dreaming of ice cream flavors," Whidden said. "Many of the flavors I've put together have actually been home runs."
That includes his prized CCAC—the Creamy Caramel Almond Crunch flavor developed to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1989. The flavor is thought to replicate, on a cone, what Fentons' signature sundae, the Black & Tan, does in a dish.
But probably the most famous flavor to come out of Fentons Creamery is Rocky Road. The story goes that George Farren, a candy maker at Fentons, was making a rocky road candy bar one day when he decided to blend it into an ice cream flavor. At the time, Farren was friends with William Dreyer and Joseph Edy, who had an ice cream shop on Grand Avenue in Oakland (which would later become the internationally renowned Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream company). Legend has it that Dreyer soon began making Farren's recipe to serve to his customers, tweaking the original version slightly by substituting almonds for English walnuts. And thus, Dreyer's had a new flavor that remains a customer favorite today.
This is just one of the many memories served up at Fentons daily. Fresh ice cream is made on site each day, in a glassed-in spot of the restaurant where customers can watch the action. Whidden estimates they use between 1,500 to 2,500 pounds of ice cream on a nice, sunny day. And on a pleasant three-day weekend, they've been known to dish up more than 5 tons.
To make the best ice cream, you need to start with the best ingredients. Cream, of course, is at the top of the list.
In the beginning, Elbridge Fenton delivered cream, his prized product, from his dairy to the store by horse-drawn carriage. Today things are a bit more high-tech, with Fentons getting all of their milk from family farms and dairies across Northern California.
Another element that makes Fentons' product taste a bit better than everybody else's is the butterfat content of their ice cream. By law, U.S. ice cream must have a minimum of 10 percent butterfat. But because more butterfat means a richer flavor, Fentons requires at least 14 percent—making for a luscious ice cream experience with every bite.
And as any experienced Fentons customer will tell you, it takes quite a few bites to get through many of their legendary sundaes. Some come to the table so loaded with toppings that extra plates are needed just to catch the overflow.
Take the Banana Special, for example. It's as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the stomach—enormous scoops of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate cradling a ripe banana and bathed in three sauces. But by far, the most popular sundae at Fentons is their Black & Tan, which features creamy vanilla ice cream layered with homemade caramel and fudge sauces and topped with whipped cream, toasted almonds and, of course, a cherry. In fact, the B&T represents about every other sundae sold at Fentons, which can add up to as many as 500 a day.
"From the littlest child to the adult, everyone's eyes widen as they see the sundaes placed in front of them," said Whidden. "It never fails."
About 40 different varieties of ice cream are made on the premises each day, and you can bet everyone has their favorite.
"Mine is Rocky Road," said customer Art Fairson. "I grew up here and now live on the East Coast, but I always make a special trip back. I want my kids to experience some of the memories I had as a kid and there's no better place than Fentons."
Regular Carol Shaw expresses a fondness for the Black & Tan, saying, "I come here all the time because of it. It just tastes old-fashioned."
Old-fashioned ice cream made with old-fashioned traditions in mind. It's a simple recipe for success, and one that has been generations in the making.
"Fentons brings people together—people from all economic classes, all ethnicities, all persuasions, all sitting next to each other eating ice cream," said Whidden. "That's what has made us special and what will continue to make us special."
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.