Jim Kenyon: The Scoop on the End of Soft Serve at Whippi Dip

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 4/30/2017 12:13:57 AM
Modified: 4/30/2017 10:38:36 AM

After reading on Facebook about what’s going on at Whippi Dip in Fairlee, I figured there must be a reasonable explanation. Fake news, perhaps. Or a cruel hoax. Whippi Dip would never stop offering soft serve. Would it?

For frozen dessert fanatics, such as yours truly, the roadside establishment is a virtual mecca. For more than 50 years, Whippi Dip has twirled with the best of them in the Upper Valley. The name itself drips soft serve on a warm summer day.

Last Wednesday, I stood at Whippi Dip’s service window, hoping beyond all hope that a medium-sized twist was still in my immediate future. Owner Crystal Johnson was good enough to step out from behind the grill to console me. Facebook (for once) had it right, she confirmed.

Johnson made the announcement just before she opened for her 18th season last week. “It was a tough decision to make,” she posted.

She’d wrestled with it for a while, she told me. Last year, Whippi Dip’s 5½-year-old soft serve machine went kaput. To get it up and freezing again would cost around $7,000. That’s a lot of banana splits. A new soft serve machine from a top-of-the-line maker, such as the Taylor brand that Whippi Dip used, can run $30,000.

Johnson purchased a used knockoff brand machine for $2,500 to replace her Taylor. By the end of last season, the machine had taken the soft serve thing too far: It was dispensing chocolate soup.

Last week, both broken machines were covered with a brown plastic tarp behind the Whippi Dip building on Route 5. They’re Craigslist-bound, Johnson said.

Some regular customers are taking the no-more-soft serve announcement better than others. “I had someone say they were going to start a protest,” Johnson told me.

On Wednesday afternoon, Jim Clark stepped up to the window. “I need a small twist, please,” he said.

“Sorry,” said Micayla Wheeler, who in her job of taking customers’ orders has become the bearer of bad news.

“There’ll be a revolution,” Clark predicted. His wife, Nancy, had just flown 8,000 miles for her first soft serve of the season.

Well, sort of. After six weeks in Zimbabwe, she suggested on the way home from the airport that they stop at their favorite ice cream stand.

Jim Clark returned to the car, where his wife was waiting, empty-handed. After a brief conference, he returned to the window.

A scoop of hard coffee in a cone would have to do. “My second choice,” Nancy Clark said, “but it’s still good.”

I relayed to the Clarks what Johnson had told me about the economics behind her decision. “Crystal is pretty savvy,” Jim Clark said. “If it didn’t make business sense, she’d be the first to figure it out.”

Johnson, 48, crunched the numbers for me. Roughly 70 percent of her business was food orders. Apparently, Whippi Dip’s curly fries and barbecue brisket sandwiches are bigger hits than I imagined. And here’s the topping: Only about a quarter of Johnson’s ice cream sales came from soft serve. Early in the season, soft serve reigns. But the demand starts to melt away once the weather warms up. “My crowd from Memorial Day to Labor Day is hard ice cream,” Johnson said.

Keeping in mind what I learned long ago in journalism class that every story needs more than a single source, I hoofed it over to Ice Cream Fore-U on the 12A strip in West Lebanon. In the interest of full disclosure, a craving for a coffee milkshake might also have led me in that direction.

What’s more popular: Soft serve or hard ice cream?

“It’s about 50-50,” said Meredith Johnson, who has overseen Fore-U for nearly 20 years with her sister, Jennifer. She also agreed with Whippi Dip’s Crystal Johnson (no relation) that soft serve sales tend to be strongest early in the season. “It’s a sign that summer is coming,” she said. “You can buy hard ice cream all winter at the grocery store. Soft serve is not as easy to find.”

She also confirmed that a state-of-the-art soft serve machine can cost more than a new car. “It’s brutal,” Johnson, said, noting that Fore-U replaced both of its machines a few years ago. Soft serve machines also can be more finicky than a Fiat. On Thursday, a sign tacked to the front of Fore-U showed it. “Sorry, no vanilla soft-serve. We are hoping for a repair tomorrow.”

At Whippi Dip, Crystal Johnson is trying to ease the pain for soft serve junkies. She’s pointed out on Facebook, and with a sign at the service window, that soft serve will still be available just a few jimmies away.

The Wright Scoop, located next to Wing’s Supermarket on Route 5, opens for the season on Friday. Katherine and Michael Wright, of Orford, bought the business last year.

Katherine Wright told me that Johnson has been “very helpful” in letting people know that their soft serve needs can still be met in Fairlee. The Wrights are also buying their soft serve mix from Hatchland Farm in North Haverhill — just as Whippi Dip did.

Better yet, along with chocolate and vanilla, the Wrights are adding maple and coffee this season.

Hold the protest, and serve me up a medium twist.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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