Let’s be honest. The days dedicated to the celebration of food have gotten a BIT out of control. From popcorn to pickles, if there is a food you love more than anything else in the world, I’ll bet there’s a day somewhere on the calendar dedicated to its creation and all its iterations. A day to celebrate it…and perhaps eat it without guilt. If there is one sweet treat that deserves its own day, it is ice cream. In fact, it technically has an entire month. The warm summer month of July is known as National Ice Cream Month; its third Sunday is the day to raise your spoons in honor of its deliciousness.
For so many of us, ice cream holds a special place in our memory banks. I remember sitting as a kid in the old Ice House in Montclair with my cone of blue bubble gum…and a styrofoam cup to collect all the colorful balls. Just two weeks ago I watched my daughter sit in the sun at the Alameda County Fair with a huge swirl-filled waffle cone covered in sticky drips; her face covered in an even bigger sticky grin. I smiled and fought the urge to pull out the napkins until she was done. Fentons Creamery in Oakland is a place where many of us have made such memories. It has been in business for almost 123 years…and seems to me to be the perfect place to add one more memory this Sunday.
The story of Fentons goes all the way back to 1894. A man named Elbridge Seth Fenton opened a creamery as a way to support his large family; his love of little ones resulted in a total of thirteen Fenton children. The family lived in a farm house on the corner of 41st Street and Howe in Oakland. As his family continued to grow with the addition of grandchildren, his young grandson Melvin convinced him to begin to make ice cream. So in 1922, the creamery added a restaurant and soda fountain.
The little boy who inspired its sweet legacy went on to become the ice cream maker; Melvin Fenton is credited with the creation of the signature flavors; Toasted Almond, Swiss Milk Chocolate, and Rocky Road. Before the creamery could deliver its dairy products via truck, a wagon was drawn by two horses appropriately named Vanilla and Strawberry. The horses were favorites of another Fenton grandchild, Virginia.
Ironically, it was Virginia’s husband Bill Morison who convinced the Fenton family to sell the beloved family business to a larger diary operation, Golden State Dairy. Golden State Dairy soon became Foremost Dairy, and the larger company made the decision in 1961 to close the dairy portion of the business. The creamery remained in the location at 41st and Howe for 67 years. The original buildings no longer exist; the Piedmont branch of the United States Postal Service is now located where it once stood. Foremost Dairy kept the restaurant and ice cream production intact and moved the business to its current location on Piedmont Avenue.
Fast forward to 1987, and Fentons once again became family-owned when 3rd generation Oakland native Scott Whidden purchased the creamery. The creamery suffered a devastating fire in 2001. While a swirl of controversy surrounded the cause and circumstances of the fire, the community rallied to help support the rebuilding and the “new and improved” Fentons Creamery was opened 19 months later. In 2007, a second location was opened at the iconic Nut Tree in Vacaville, CA.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting up with Fentons Public Relations Representative Melissa Davis, the owner of Ruby Press and author behind the popular local love book This Is Oakland. I was given the pleasure of stepping behind the scenes to see Fentons Cookie Dough Ice Cream come together and enjoy the sweet smell of huge pots of hot fudge and caramel sauce as they bubbled away. I stepped into the deep freeze for as long as I could manage, and saw Myrtle the Cow, an ode to the first street the Fentons family lived on, smiling back at me from a container of Swiss Milk Chocolate.
Fentons continues to carry the tradition of “from the cow to you in 5 days or less.” I have to admit I was skeptical of this, enough to ask the question after my visit. Yet it’s true, fresh cream is delivered each morning and is made into small batch ice cream that day; all flavors are made by hand in 10-gallon batches. That ice cream is then being scooped into cups and cones a day later. All dairy used by the creamery is hormone-free. The cream used has a specific range of high butterfat content to create a rich and creamy flavor. All of the above creates a product that has withstood the test of time for over 120 years.
Rocky Road is the iconic flavor that was created during the Great Depression, the first ice cream flavor ever created with the use of “mix-in’s”. While the banana split is known for its size, it is the iconic Black & Tan sundae that tends to draw crowds. Created in 1922 when the soda fountain began, the layering of Toasted Almond and Vanilla ice creams with the house made hot fudge and caramel sauces weighs in at 1 pound. The creamery boasts that they build over 30,000 Black & Tan sundaes a year. A tip from my husband and I: ask for it to be served in a boat dish, easier for sharing.
If you are local, you likely have a favorite Fentons flavor. I am a diehard coffee fan. If I am going to be honest, I have them swap out the Toasted Almond for Coffee on my Black & Tan. When I was a kid I loved their lemon ice cream, I remember staring up at it on the flavor sign that used to occupy most of the back wall. My aunt goes for Blueberry Cheesecake; I once made a trip to Fentons to grab her a quart when she was ill.
Owner Scott Whidden alternates between Rocky Road and Coffee Cookie Dream as his classic favorites; he also loves seasonal favorites like Bing Cherry and Rum Raisin. Fentons accepts flavor ideas from both customers and employees; Cotton Candy was recently added to the menu after a customer dreamed it up. However, it is lead ice cream maker Miguel Castillo who designs most new flavors.
So what memory will you make at Fentons Creamery this weekend? Be prepared for long lines, I’ve been told that it is their busiest day of the year. I have a feeling whoever got to eat that entire Oreo cookie above will remember it for a long time coming. I will remember watching my son spoon up hot fudge from the dish when he was just two. I will remember going to Fentons with him the day before his baby sister was born; I still have a coaster with the date on it on my dresser. I now have a spoonful of fresh Cookie Dough Ice Cream right out of the machine filed away for future daydreams when a craving comes calling. I will say, I try to forget the time I fell backwards in one of their vintage sweetheart chairs during a packed house. If you skim through Memory Lane on the Fentons Creamery website you will see all sorts of memories. From marriage proposals to birthdays, the list even includes a recollection of a woman who asked to be left on Fenton’s floor to pass on after falling ill at the table.
I invite you to join the line at Fentons counter, whether it be this weekend or any other. There is no doubt that ice cream from this iconic local spot will leave you with memories galore…sticky sweet ones at that.
Happy National Ice Cream Day!
Fentons Creamery is located at:
4226 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611
Please visit the Fentons Creamery website here for more information, including hours, menu, and check out the information on their Arctic Tours!
National Ice Cream Day is this Sunday, July 16th. Fentons Creamery will be celebrating 123 years in business on that day. Rumor has it that they will be serving Black & Tan Junior Sundaes for $1.23. Keep an eye on their Facebook page or Instagram Account @fentons_creamery for more details.
I would like to thank Melissa Davis of Ruby Press for her time and assistance, as well as the team at Fentons Creamery for welcoming me in!
Historical black & white photos of Fentons Creamery sourced via their website, used with permission.
All other photos by Adrienne Schell. Do not use without permission.