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House of Flavors, Inc. Nourishes its Team and Community with Mission

 “It’s bigger than ice cream.”

That’s what Sarah Holmes, Vice President of Finance for House of Flavors, Inc., wants the community to know about the company that has grown from a small family dairy into Michigan’s largest ice cream maker.

In 2024 alone, House of Flavors, Inc. (also known as House of Flavors manufacturing), will donate $200,000 to nonprofit organizations in Mason County.

Holmes is proud of the company her family members grew and sold to Protein Holdings, which is as much about philanthropy and caring for its employees as it is about ice cream.

Holmes sat down with me to discuss the company and its new donor advised fund at the Community Foundation for Mason County. *

I discovered during our interview that House of Flavors Manufacturing, its team, and the new fund are about more than turning out a sweet treat. 

I recently learned through my work at the Community Foundation for Mason County how much House of Flavors manufacturing, through the Protein Foundation, contributes to our community. 

Recipients of 2024 funds include Blue Hat Ministries, West Shore Family Support, the Rotary Club of Ludington STRIVE program, Habitat for Humanity, HELP Ministry, The Salvation Army, Human Trafficking Prevention & Victim Support, Covenant Christian School, Ludington Area Catholic School, Lakeshore Food Club, and many other local organizations.

How does this giving work, and why did you choose to set up a fund with the Community Foundation?

We annually give a significant amount of our profits away to charitable organizations. We keep a certain percentage here locally, which is why we set up the donor advised fund through the Community Foundation for Mason County. We were finding that we would get to our fiscal year-end and felt a bit rushed to make donation decisions. Therefore, we decided to put the money into the Community Foundation. Our donor advised fund is a vehicle we can utilize to distribute funds without having to make last-minute decisions.

What the Community Foundation does with the fund — our money is raising money collectively in a pool. We know our money is at work, not only for the Foundation but for future grant recipients. The Community Foundation is making us better stewards of the money.

How did Protein come into the picture?

In the mid to late ‘90s, Protein Holdings and its principals had a mission and vision to own companies that physically and spiritually fed the poor and the needy. Their goal was to purchase companies in the four major food groups to be able to do that.

The acquisition world in the dairy industry at that time was hot. Bob, Jeff Hackert (my brother), and I decided why not kick the tires. Ultimately, the plan was for Bob to be able to retire and Jeff to take over the company. We connected with a few different companies in the industry, including Protein Holdings, to see if we could make a deal that would help Bob retire.

One of the principals of Protein, a pastor named Ralph Rogers — who has since passed away — went to my brother and said, “Jeff! I had a vision in my shower that we were going to do a deal with House of Flavors! And here we are. We want to put together a deal to buy House of Flavors.” And so, in September 1999, we sold a controlling interest in the company to Protein.

Today, Protein owns 100%. House of Flavors Inc. is the only company that Protein has owned for several years, having since sold off all other investments.

That really speaks to the success of House of Flavors manufacturing, right here in little Ludington!

Yes, here in little Ludington! Protein’s giving has changed over the years. At first, it was 10% of profits. Since then, the percentage has increased substantially. The IRS only honors 10%. And so, for any additional amounts granted above that, we don’t receive any benefit from a tax perspective in doing that. It’s just what we do. It’s bigger than ice cream.

And you know. Business is business. Sometimes, things happen where we’re not as profitable.

The Lakeshore Food 4 Kids weekend backpack food program was fortunate to receive two grants from the Protein Foundation with House of Flavors manufacturing. I was helping run the program when Matt Owen, the Managing Director of the Protein Foundation, reached out to me two years ago. He said, “I’m really sorry. I’m just coming back and telling everybody who has received grants in the past that we don’t have as much money to share this year.” I was amazed that he took the time to communicate this to me. It truly highlighted the character of the company.

I know. And it’s great to give the money away, but when you can’t at least match or exceed what you’ve done before, it’s kind of like … ugh. Here’s only a thousand bucks, and we gave you six last year. But it’s still something.

We try to divvy up the funds between charitable and civic organizations. We try to understand the mission and vision of all the organizations that submit grant applications. But we really focus on the Christian aspect of the organizations we give to since many of us are Christians. The company’s vision and mission are inspired by Christian ideals and teachings, and we like to make sure that people understand who we are, what we do, and why we do it.

When we’ve had a significant amount of money to give away, we talked about not giving money to particular organizations just because we’ve always done it. Sometimes, a lot of money toward an organization can hinder them rather than help. This is why we continue the grant application process, even though we already know many of these organizations and what they do.

Matt Owen of the Protein Foundation spearheads grant applications. Then, our executive committee reviews the applications. Matt typically makes recommendations to us, and then we decide how much and who to give the funds as a group. That’s how local giving happens.

This might sound like a silly question, but what is the difference between the House of Flavors restaurant and House of Flavors Incorporated? 

The restaurant is the restaurant, and the plant is the plant. It’s really funny. Many people who have grown up in our community still think that all we do on the other side of the wall of the restaurant is just make ice cream for the restaurant. Until the late ‘80s, it was all one company, which is probably why some confusion exists.

The restaurant is owned by Barry and Cindy Neal. The actual name of the company of the restaurant is “West Bay Ice Cream Company doing business as House of Flavors.” 

Do we make ice cream for the restaurant? We do. But the restaurant doesn’t buy it directly from us. Every once in a while, we will sell product to them directly. But for the most part, they’re buying the ice cream we make and getting it delivered from a wholesale channel, which has proven more practical from our standpoint.

So, when people think about the money you are giving back to this community, it’s not just about all the tourists lined up outside House of Flavors restaurant to eat ice cream every summer … Every business selling ice cream made by House of Flavors manufacturing contributes, correct?

Right. The manufacturing company is House of Flavors Incorporated, owned by Protein Holdings. The factory, employing more than 240 people, produces more than 1,400 unique items — mostly private-label ice cream and our own labels, Ashby Sterling and, of course, House of Flavors – that are sold all over the United States. House of Flavors manufacturing is the funding engine for substantial grants to organizations dedicated to physically and spiritually nourishing others.

To differentiate between the restaurant and the manufacturing company, if somebody asks, “Where did this donation come from?” we like to say, “House of Flavors manufacturing.” 

House of Flavors manufacturing has been modest about giving gifts through the years. Why is that?

Because it’s not about us. It’s about the organizations that we’re out to help. And we’ve always said that when God blesses us with a great year or the opportunity to give something, the glory goes to Him.

The other thing is we couldn’t do any of this without our faith and every single one of our team members. I share that message when I give funds to organizations — to say, you know what? If you see somebody wearing a House of Flavors jacket or hat, thank them. They need to hear it not just from us but also from the community and the organizations getting the funding.

What are your proudest House of Flavors accomplishments and memories over the years?

For me, personally, it’s going out to deliver grant checks. Hands down. We like to get a lot of our team members involved. That’s the fun part of what we do … It truly is the cherry on top.

But also, it’s being a part of community events like Friday Night Live or the Love Ludington celebrations. It has been a lot of fun handing out ice cream at these events – not just for House of Flavors manufacturing, but for our team members to be out there in front of the community.

What makes your company and its team unique?

Anybody who’s a new hire goes through an extensive, week-long onboarding program. Our COO, VP of HR, safety director, and several others talk with each new employee. They get a week-long taste of House of Flavors, which helps them feel valued from the beginning. And again, because it’s bigger than ice cream, they get to see the real mission of being the funding engine of the Protein Foundation for local and national giving. So, from the perspective of our team members, they see it. They feel it. They know it. They understand it; that, I’m going to say it again — it’s bigger than ice cream and “worthwhile work.”

We assume most employees probably come to work wearing a backpack full of “stuff.” As an organization, we decided to provide tools and resources to help employees not carry such a heavy load to work each day. We know when the backpack is heavy, they will be less successful at work. We call it “Fit for Duty, Fit for Life.” 

Chaplain Keith is one of the resources we provide. He’s from Corporate Chaplains of America, an organization we support financially. Keith is on our property at least once, if not twice a week. He’s available for all shifts. He goes into the plant to engage with people. If employees reach out to him and say, “I’d love to have an opportunity to talk to you,” then whether they talk to him on a break or at lunch or after hours or whatever, Chaplain Keith is available. Everything is obviously confidential.

Then, we have our LERN (Lakeshore Employer Resource Network) coach. Several employees utilize the LERN services, whether it be help with loans, daycare, or housing.

We also make sure employees understand that their health insurance covers any kind of counseling and things of that nature if they need it. We’re constantly trying to connect employees with resources to help lessen the load in their backpacks when they come to work.

And we do a lot of cool things for our employees, like “Take-Home Ice Cream Fridays.” We’ve got a special rack of ice cream. On Fridays, you can pick and choose what you want. We also do message boards once a week in employee break rooms, and we recognize everybody’s birthdays and their anniversary date for how long they’ve been at House of Flavors. Employees get a free membership to AFC, the health club in town, and a 30% discount card for the restaurant. In addition, House of Flavors manufacturing created a nice profit-sharing plan for all our team members to participate in.

That’s pretty amazing!  How are you doing with employment? I imagine that pay and some unique benefits encourage people to want to work at House of Flavors manufacturing … 

We are currently 98% staffed. We’re very blessed to work for an organization that gives funds away and takes really good care of its people. 

What is your goal for the newly established House of Flavors, Inc. Fund at the Community Foundation?

Honestly, the first goal was to have a landing spot for the money. The second goal was that if we didn’t fully utilize all the funds within a grant year, they would earn some return on the investment. Hopefully, the fund will continue to grow.

In 100 years, what would you want people to know about your fund?

We couldn’t be where we are today without the foundation that Bob and Kay Neal built and, of course, the generosity of Protein Holdings. I want people to understand that we are doing everything we can for the betterment of our community, one scoop at a time!

*This interview was conducted by Tara Autrey, Community Outreach Specialist for the Community Foundation for Mason County.