FLORIDA — How many four-word phrases are as tantalizing as “ice cream trade show?”
And is any word is so mismatched to an ice cream trade show as “coronavirus?”
On Friday, Hill & Markes employees got to say both.
The food-, janitorial- and business-supply company born in 1906 as an ice cream supply company gave a glimpse of the ice cream retal industry circa 2020 at its trade show, while simultaneously showing its business clients products to keep their customers safe from all manner of germs.
Hill & Markes has seen a huge jump in sales of hand sanitizers and surface disinfectants this winter as the COVID-19 pandemic spread from China to dozens of other countries, and then reached downstate New York.
“We’re tripling the amount of inventory we’d normally have,” said CEO Jason Packer.
The company has been able to keep up with demand from its 4,000 customers thanks to a solid supply chain, he said, though a walk through the cavernous warehouse on Route 5S showed some shelves looking a little bare.
It’s an unusually busy time for Hill & Markes and its 165 employees. Along with the sudden attention to fighting germs, its clients who buy shopping bags for their customers suddenly need to switch to paper or reusable sacks.
And spring is just around the corner, kickoff time for the seasonal ice cream shops it supplies.
In 1906, Amos Hill and Charlie Markes went into business selling candy, ice cream and ice cream supplies such as cones out of Amsterdam. Packer, who likes to say he’s been with the company 41 years (he’ll turn 42 later in 2020), is the third generation of the family that bought out Mssrs. Hill and Markes in 1947.
The company retains the founders’ names but does not sell ice cream as they did, because it now uses a hub-and-spoke delivery model across all of upstate New York and can’t keep the sweet stuff frozen across time and distance.
But it sells just about everything ice cream-related — ingredients to make ice cream and scoops to serve it, cones and cone dispensers, sprinkles and nuts, napkins and spoons, chocolate syrup and hot fudge heaters.
(Pop quiz: What are CC8 M&Ms? Anybody? No? They’re the familiar M&M chocolate candies, chopped up small enough to be swirled into soft-serve ice cream inside a specially designed ice cream machine as it dispenses into a cone or cup. One learns things like that at an ice cream trade show.)
Unicorn sprinkles are a big thing this year, said Katie Bruno, who works in marketing for Hill & Markes. Dessert nachos, too.
“Last year began the Freak Shake,” Packer added.
Several ice cream companies and their wares were represented Friday, from the Hudson Valley favorite Gillette Creamery to the larger Perry’s from the Buffalo area to Hood, a national brand.
Most Hill & Markes customers who operate retail ice cream stands sell soft-serve, said Packer. Those that offer scooped hard ice cream make it themselves in some cases.
Meanwhile, scattered among the food displays were tables of sanitary products that food retailers will need to keep their facilities and their customers’ hands clean, from pump bottles of alcohol-based sanitizer gel to self-contained electrostatic cleaning systems by Clorox, one of the few companies to see its stock rise in recent weeks as the market dropped amid COVID-19 worries.
“Our biggest focus right now is bringing inventory — as much Clorox, as much hand sanitizer as we can — and then training our customers on the proper cleaning and disinfecting processes to prevent the coronavirus and any other flulike viruses,” Packer said.
The Clorox Total 360 system — which uses an electrostatic charge to make a rapidly evaporating disinfectant cling to every exposed surface despite gravity — is doing particularly well.
“We’ve probably quadrupled the sales of that in the last week,” Packer said.
Because it is part of a cooperative, Hill & Markes has not, so far, encountered the product shortages that some individual customers are seeing on retail shelves.
“They have a supply chain coordinator that works with us and manufacturers to get us the product we need,” Packer said. “We’ve been working with these manufacturers for decades, so we have a lot of credibility. We don’t inflate our estimation about what we need, and they trust that we’re being honest, we really do need it.”
Despite their timely importance, the sanitary products played a supporting role to frozen treats at Friday’s event.
“With this show we’re focused mainly on supporting our ice cream customers,” Packer said.
But hygiene is an inseparable part of that — Hill & Markes built a fully equipped classroom into the headquarters it constructed in 2011, and gives its customers and their employees demonstrations on the most effective uses of the products they are buying.
Packer said he and his fellow distributors across the country are seeing increased interest as COVID-19 spreads.
“Now people are actually listening to us. We’ve always preached it, but now they’re listening.”