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How friendship, family and lots of eggs combined to give us the tasty dessert we call our own.

When my wife and I moved to Milwaukee 11 years ago, we were instantly smitten with frozen custard. The first summer we lived here, we dutifully tried each of the city’s venerable custard stands, dutifully checked the Flavor of the Day every evening, and dutifully gained eight or nine pounds. Forget Cream City: I remember wondering (as I ate my many cones) how Milwaukee came to be Frozen Custard City. A year or so later, when we put ourselves on frozen custard-free diets, that question faded from my mind. Until now. At the risk of my waistline and cholesterol levels, I recently beat a path back to the city’s longstanding stands to learn what makes our custard culture special, and maybe have the custard shop owners talk a little smack about each other.

But like a duckpin bowler in tenpin country, that is not the way we roll here in Milwaukee.

Seeing the frozen custard emerge adds to the appeal. Photo by Jessi Paetzke

We embrace tradition in Milwaukee, and are proud of our reputed niceness. And the story of our frozen custard culture is very Milwaukee indeed, with an ongoing history of families helping families and an emphasis on cooperation, not cutthroat competition. If you’re looking for backstabbing and sneaky business practices, look elsewhere. Even the product itself doesn’t involve many proprietary secrets.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Dick “Mac” McGuire, owner of the Kopp’s Frozen Custard on Bluemound Road in Brookfield. “The custard runs into the back of the machine, it gets frozen in a barrel, and it comes out the front.” We’re standing in the Kopp’s office, a fishbowl at the back of the production floor, with a vista of the four machines that produce hundreds of gallons of vanilla, chocolate and the flavors of the day. McGuire is wearing the uniform you’ll find the employees wearing at all three Kopp’s locations: white shirt, white pants, white apron, white paper hat – and black bow tie.

Kopp’s Dan and Dick “Mac” McGuire. Photo by Jessi Paetzke

It might not be rocket science, but it is dairy science. As far as science goes, the formula for making frozen custard is pretty simple. “In order to be called frozen custard, you need to have one-point- four percent egg yolk solids,” explains Bill Klein, the plant manager for the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Beyond that, it has to meet the definition of ice cream, which is at least 10 percent milk fat, no more than 100 percent overrun [basically, the amount of air whipped into the mixture] and 20 percent total milk solids.” In other words, frozen custard is ice cream, plus egg yolk. The yolk is there to add flavor and as an emulsifier, making it all mix together nicely. Frozen custard seems smoother, creamier than its hard-pack ice cream and frozen yogurt cousins because it has less air than hard ice cream, so there’s more of it in your mouth with each bite. Temperature also plays a role: Frozen custard is about five degrees warmer than ice cream, which translates to smaller ice crystals. “It comes off that machine and you’re eating it right away at twenty degrees,” says Klein. “So it is as high a quality as you’re ever going to get.”

With that simple recipe in mind, the affable Mac McGuire is happy to show a reporter and his frozen-custard-loving kids the freezer, which holds the Wisconsin-made custard mix, and gives us a close look at the machines that crank out the custard. Those machines are as good a place as any to try to understand the many overlapping sections of Milwaukee’s frozen custard Venn diagram. The gleaming, stainless steel machines in Kopp’s Brookfield store are 70 years old. They’re maintained with replacement parts supplied by Ron Schneider. Schneider owns Leon’s Frozen Custard, the South 27th Street institution founded by his father, Leon Schneider, in 1942. Leon got his start as a night manager at Gilles Frozen Custard, started by Paul Gilles at 75th and Bluemound in 1938. (For his part, Gilles joined the custard business a few years earlier, working at long-departed Clark’s Frozen Custard as a teenager.) And while Leon was building his frozen custard and custard-equipment-making empire, he trained a woman named Elsa Kopp.

With that simple recipe in mind, the affable Mac McGuire is happy to show a reporter and his frozen-custard-loving kids the freezer, which holds the Wisconsin-made custard mix, and gives us a close look at the machines that crank out the custard. Those machines are as good a place as any to try to understand the many overlapping sections of Milwaukee’s frozen custard Venn diagram. The gleaming, stainless steel machines in Kopp’s Brookfield store are 70 years old. They’re maintained with replacement parts supplied by Ron Schneider. Schneider owns Leon’s Frozen Custard, the South 27th Street institution founded by his father, Leon Schneider, in 1942. Leon got his start as a night manager at Gilles Frozen Custard, started by Paul Gilles at 75th and Bluemound in 1938. (For his part, Gilles joined the custard business a few years earlier, working at long-departed Clark’s Frozen Custard as a teenager.) And while Leon was building his frozen custard and custard-equipment-making empire, he trained a woman named Elsa Kopp.

Kopp, born Elsa Moll, had immigrated to the Milwaukee area from Germany as a teenager, later marrying Karl Kopp. It was while Elsa worked at a local bakery that she met Leon, who helped maintain the shop’s frozen custard machines. Leon and later Art Richter – owner of another custard stand, The Milky Way – helped Elsa get into the business. With her husband ailing from Parkinson’s disease, she went to work at The Milky Way. But in 1950 the Kopps went into business themselves. And Elsa ran the stand at 60th and Appleton with Mac McGuire even after her son, Karl Jr., sold it to McGuire in 1975.

Photo by Jessi Paetzke

McGuire moved the shop to Brookfield in 1991. As is the case with all the Kopp’s stores, the stainless counters gleam in front of the custard machines there. While each place has its own character (Kopp’s is friendly but businesslike, Leon’s is a neon throwback to the 1950s, and Gilles’ intimate interior sends people spilling out into the parking lot), they all share a key attribute – the machines are front and center, on purpose. The big freezers, with a slow-moving tongue of custard spilling out, are part of the appeal.

Given the many ties that bind them, it’s no wonder that the competition among Leon’s, Kopp’s and Gilles is friendlier than you’ll find between McDonald’s and Burger King franchises. “In Milwaukee, among this triumvirate of custard stand operators, there’s always been this commitment to quality first,” explains Bobby Tanzilo, co-author of Milwaukee Frozen Custard (American Palate publishers, 2016). “And then, as part of that, cooperation – with a little bit of competition.” Tanzilo says shop owners told him stories of running out of custard mix on a hot, busy day in summer and buying emergency stock from a competitor.

Frozen custard was popularized in the United States on Coney Island. “It was a carnival treat,” Schneider says. “And when you go to a carnival or the State Fair – anywhere there’s a midway – much of the attraction is what’s going on. In this business, it’s what you see going on – the product coming out of the custard machine. The man pouring the mix in the back of the machine, scooping the cones by hand.”

Butter pecan. Photo by Jessi Paetzke

Schneider and his fellow owners recognize that they’re lucky to be in a business in which their customers are generally happy. “Whether they’ve been here before or it’s their first time and they’ve never seen anything like it, it’s the joy factor all around,” says Dick McGuire’s son Dan.

But will the joy factor remain? It seems so. Succession plans are underway at the Big Three. Dick McGuire is in the process of turning the reins of the Kopp’s Brookfield store over to Dan. Ron Schneider will pass Leon’s on to a third generation – his son, Steve – someday. And Tom Linscott says he is starting what he hopes is a long, slow transition for the newly remodeled Gilles to be owned and operated by his son, Willy.

But one question remains: Which frozen custard tastes best? Every Milwaukeean has his or her own opinion, it seems, and many of the opinions seem based on which brand the person grew up eating. All three use a mix as the basis of the product, and the results are similar. What differences exist can be detected in the flavors: Leon’s rich butter pecan, Gilles’ perfect chocolate, and the great variety that Kopp’s offers. 

Topping off a scoop with a wafer. Photo by Jessi Paetzke

But focusing on differences might be beside the point. Linscott says frozen custard offers an opportunity to focus on similarities. “Food is a great common denominator,” he says. “With all the divisiveness in this country, I look for ways to find things that unite us.” Frozen custard as the national emulsifier? “It’s all smooth,” Linscott says with a hearty laugh. ◆


3 Myths About the Big Three

Seventy-year-old machines making a dairy dessert every day have to be pretty frightening inside.

False  “We clean all the machines every night,” says Dan McGuire of Kopp’s in Brookfield, who says it takes about 30 minutes to clean each of the four machines.


Leon’s was the inspiration for Arnold’s (and then Al’s), the drive-in from the TV show “Happy Days.”

False  It was The Milky Way on Port Washington Road that “Happy Days” creator Tom Miller frequented as a student at Nicolet High School. The Milky Way closed in 1977 and was immediately replaced on the site by… Kopp’s.


Gilles is pronounced “Gill-ees.”

False  The place is named for its founder, Paul Gilles – pronounced “Gill-ess.” Owner Tom Linscott is aware nearly everyone pronounces it the wrong way. “I’ve always said I’m not going to restrain society,” he says.


 

Mitch Teich wrote August 2016’s “Breaking Away” feature.

Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” June 9 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Frozen Custard Forever’ appears in the June 2017 (City Guide) issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning May 29, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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