How the last U.S. ice cream stick manufacturer stays competitive
GUILFORD — When the doctor tells you to open up and say, “Ahhh,” pretty much anywhere in the world, there’s a chance that the wooden stick pressing on your tongue was made in Maine. And the wooden stick in that Creamsicle? Probably also from Maine.
Hardwood Products Co. in Guilford has something of a split personality. The company is divided into two operations, one right across the road from the other.
On one side, there’s Hardwood Products LLC. Over here, it’s all noisy trucks and bark flying off logs, while a suite of singular machines churns out flat, birch sticks at a rate of 1,200 per minute.
On the other side of the road is Puritan Medical, a microbiology lab where you’re more likely to see folks running around in white coats. Both halves have played a role in Hardwood’s success.
Both sides of the company have been around for almost 100 years, from a time when forest industries were booming and Maine was billing itself as the toothpick capital of the world.
“When my grandfather first bought this property there was a little box mill out at the end here — just a little company with I believe six or eight gentlemen making wooden boxes,” says third-generation Owner and Vice President James Cartwright, who has been with the company for 40 years.
Cartwright’s grandfather started the Minto Toothpick company in 1919, which then became Hardwood Products a year later. In 1928, the company started making its first medical items, tongue depressors, and for decades, things went well.
“And then the facility burned flat in 1958 — completely flat. Office, warehouses, complete manufacturing — the only thing standing was the smokestack,” he says.
The original 1919 biomass boiler made it through as well, and they still use it today to heat the plant. The mill fire turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Cartwright says, because the family was forced to build a new plant — one that was not only fireproof but designed with time and motion efficiency in mind.
Their competitors were not so unlucky.
“They just kept running the old facilities — weren’t very efficient — and that raises their cost up and that’s what helped put them out of business, when China came with lower pricing. China was coming over and selling ice cream sticks cheaper than we could make them. So we had to depend on all of our other products to get through that tough 20 years,” Cartwright says.
Hardwood Products is the only manufacturer of ice cream sticks left in the U.S., and orders are rolling in at last, Cartwright says, thanks in no small part to a whole room of highly proprietary mechanisms, such as a machine that grades and sorts newly minted ice cream sticks at a rate of 20 per second — a process once done by hand.
“And these are our sorters that we designed and manufactured here. So these are really proprietary machinery and there’s no patent on them; the patent is secrecy,” he says.
By designing and building its own secret technology, Cartwright says the company has been able to produce the same quality, birch stick of decades past, but shrink the price gap to within 10 or 15 percent of what Asian manufacturers can offer.
The investment is paying off. This bunch of sticks shooting out of this top-secret machine is part of the company’s first official order going to a major international buyer.
“They tested us last fall — I think it was August. We ended up shipping the product in October. That was our first run to check our quality — prove who we said we were. We passed with flying colors,” Cartwright says.
Costa Rican dairy cooperative Dos Pinos, which sells some 600 different products across Central America and the Caribbean, found Hardwood Products through the company’s website. Now, it plans to buy at least 70 million ice cream sticks this year.
Across the street, Puritan Medical has been pushing its specialized medical products into the global marketplace. In addition to millions upon millions of stick applicators and tongue depressors, they’ve developed a special niche in the world of swabs — some wooden, some not.
Director of Regulatory Affairs and Quality Assurance Paul Dube says the company has aggressively marketed its swabs from Germany to Dubai.
“The other thing is, it’s kind of a small world in swabs. There aren’t a lot of companies that do what we do. It’s not as simple as it looks sometimes, there’s a lot of quality requirements that go into it, a tremendous number of regulatory requirements,” he says.
Hardwood now ships its Puritan products to 58 different countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. But as with the ice cream stick business, there is still one very hard nut to crack — Puritan Vice President Timothy Templet says it’s been a challenge trying to sell directly to China and its 1.4 billion citizens.
“The government has to approve you as a supplier. Today we have spent over $100,000 to meet their standards, and they keep moving the mark, and at this point in time we have given that up,” he says.
To be allowed into China, Templet says the company would be forced to demonstrate exactly how each product is made, essentially sharing the secret recipe for its success. For a company that has been kept afloat by 100 years of patent secrecy, Templet declines.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.