BRANFORD — Last week, Branford’s Rosemarie Davis celebrated her 93rd birthday. All she wanted was an ice cream cake, but it had to be from Ashley’s Ice Cream.
“I am simply hooked on Ashley’s,” said Davis, who enjoyed an Oreo Chocolate cake with friends and family. “I would never go anywhere else.”
The animated nonagenarian was 53 when, in 1979, Ashley’s, named after the frisbee-catching dog that took the world by storm beginning in 1974, first opened its doors on College Street in New Haven.
Ashley’s, which marks its 40th anniversary this month, came into being during what can only be considered the Dark Ages of ice cream. Ben and Jerry were college students. Pints of Haagen-Dazs were just appearing in supermarket freezers. Brightly colored ice pops were the frozen treat of choice.
Before Ashley’s became a perennial Best Ice Cream winner in the ShoreLine Times Readers’ Poll, those on the Shoreline regularly crossed the Q bridge at odd hours in search of a cone from its New Haven store.
Then came a shop in Guilford in 1993, Branford in 1996, and Madison in 2008. (There’s also a Hamden location that opened in 1983.)
The steady expansion is due, first and foremost, to the product itself, according to co-owner Brian Anderson, who worked for Ashley’s in high school and signed on with founder and co-owner Joe Ametrano after college and another job almost 20 years ago.
“Our ice cream is made personally, in small batches, by our own staff,” he said. “We never use artificial colors or flavors or preservatives.”
There’s also the percentage of butterfat which affords Ashley’s ice cream super-premium status and gives each flavor a giddy creaminess.
“The majority of ice cream makers use 12 percent butterfat in their mix. We use 16 percent,” Anderson said.
Many of the strawberries, blueberries and peaches that make up Ashley’s most popular summer flavors come from local farms.
“We use fresh ingredients whenever possible,” Anderson said.
There are exceptions. The popular Peep ice cream, for example, that hops in around Easter and blends chunks of chicks and bunnies into a marshmallow ice cream. And Nutella chip, a concoction of Nutella chocolate hazelnut spread with chocolate chips mixed in.
“The Nutella chip came from a create-a-flavor contest for kids in 2011 and is still a stand-by,” Anderson said. Likewise, the patriotic Red-White-and-Blueberry Ice Cream, the co-winner of that contest, a mixture of blueberries and cherries and white chocolate chips blended in sweet cream.
That yet another flavor, Coconut Raspberry, originated in a customer’s coconut raspberry cheesecake recipe, is testament to the home-grown nature of both Ashley’s ice cream and the people who’ve been keeping it going for the last four decades.
“We have our consistent favorites like Salted Caramel, Coffee Oreo and Honeycomb Crunch, but we’re also able to respond to the more out-of-the-box ideas because we’re small enough where we can say “that would be good,’ and then make it the next day,” Anderson said.
That’s because “both Joe and I are at a store every day,” Anderson said. “We both scoop cones, so we’re talking with our customers, we’re keeping in touch with them, we’re hearing what they want.”
Such is the loyalty that their hands-on approach has inspired that when a Ben & Jerry’s opened on Main Street a few doors down from Ashley’s in 2012, “we never let up and our customers kept coming,” Anderson said. Three years later, the Vermont-based ice cream chain closed its doors.
That kind of support, said Anderson, is in no small part due to the crew that scoops alongside the co-owners.
“They’re friendly, outgoing, and upbeat,” Anderson said. “We’ve been really fortunate.”
It’s safe to say that Davis, who’s made a trip to Ashley’s at least once a week since 2008, feels the same.
“Once you taste their ice cream,” she said, “it’s over for any other ice cream. There’s simply nothing like it. I said that the first time I tasted it and I’m still saying it now.”
Ashley’s is located on 1016 Main Street, Branford, 203-481-5558; on 942 Boston Post Road in Guilford, 203-458-3040; and on 724 Boston Post Road in Madison, 203-245-1113. For more information, visit www.ashleysicecream.net