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How it’s made: Michigan State University's Dairy Store ice cream

3 people in hair nets and lab coats gather around a table to make ice cream.
Megan Schellong
Matt Wilcox (far left), Michael Meadows (second from left) and Trina Bierschbach gather around a table to help make ice cream at Anthony Hall.

On Michigan State University’s campus, the Dairy Store has been serving up scoops of ice cream since the early 1970s, and getting a frozen treat from the shop has become a rite of passage for the Spartan community.

Dairy Store customers have a tough choice when they get up to the counter after waiting in line on a hot day: 13 different flavors from Butter Pecan to the very green Spartan Swirl.

While the Dairy Store in its current iteration has only been around for a few decades, it’s part of a legacy that traces back to the school’s beginnings before it was known as MSU.

More than a century ago, in 1913, the Michigan Agricultural College opened a dairy plant which included a creamery and lab for student learning.

Then in the 1950s, products made at the plant like milk, cheese and sour cream started being sold to students living in residence halls.

That’s when the Dairy Store moved into Anthony Hall where it still is today.

The dairy plant is located just off to the side of the Dairy Store. The plant itself resembles a commercial kitchen, equipped with four stainless steel tanks, a state-of-the-art commercial freezer and stacks of empty 3-gallon ice-cream tubs waiting to be filled.

But before the ice cream making happens, staff need to suit up in hair nets and exchange their shoes for tall rubber boots.

That's because of how much water is being sprayed on a regular basis to sanitize and rinse equipment and move any ice cream drippings down the drains in the floor.

Matt Wilcox is the dairy plant production and operations manager. He provides a rundown of how the process begins.

“Now, I turned on the ice cream freezers and now, we're gonna start cooling it down ... Then once it gets into a semi-frozen state, then we'll we'll start adding candy to it, and then we’ll be making cookie dough ice cream," he said.

The ice cream starts out as liquid mixture, held in what Wilcox calls a “flavor vat.”

"It's a stainless-steel tank. It holds 150 gallons of mix. So, you can make 150-gallon batch of a given flavor," Wilcox said.

After a syrup is added to give the base a cookie dough flavor, the ice cream mix gets frozen and travels through a pipe where frozen cookie dough pieces and chocolate chunks are incorporated.

The sound of the machine is quite loud as it churns the mix-ins.

"Then the inclusions are added and dropped into the ice cream and then piped up through to the three-gallon filler," Wilcox explained.

This plant here is incredible. It can do around 1000 pints an hour or so just going from making ice cream by batch to this continuous process is just really cool for me, because I love ice cream. Ice cream is my life.
Michael Meadows

Michael Meadows helps make ice cream at the facility. His job is to fill each tub with ice cream as it pours out.

"You imagine a three-gallon tub about a foot high. It starts at the bottom, and I can kind of lift the pipe as it fills up the tub," Meadows said.

Meadows is 22-years-old and a co-founder of an ice cream company.

He said working with the dairy plant has given him perspective as an entrepreneur.

"This plant here is incredible. It can do around 1000 pints an hour or so just going from making ice cream by batch to this continuous process is just really cool for me, because I love ice cream. Ice cream is my life," he said.

He said this task is truly one where he feels like he’s running up against the clock.

"We just have to stay on top of it as the freezer never stops, it literally, the entire day, like never stops pumping out ice cream, so someone's always got to be on this because unless we stop the entire machine, it won’t stop. ”

After Meadows tops off each tub with ice cream, it’s time for a quality control check among the team.

"It's actually sensory evaluation," Wilcox said.

"Or lunch on production days because we just eat ice cream all day," one volunteer said.

"For better or worse," another volunteer added.

The finishing touch is an MSU Dairy Store sticker, and then it’s off to the freezer for the ice cream to set.

According to Wilcox, it's -26 degrees Fahrenheit in there.

Meadows explained just how cold the freezer is.

"I've been wet before going in there like my pants are wet. And then if you were in there for like two minutes, my pants literally got frozen over. They were just, like, stiff," Meadows said.

After the ice cream is frozen, it gets sent off to the MSU Dairy Store for everyone to enjoy.

And for more of a behind-the-scenes look at how the ice cream is made, there's a public observation deck looking into the plant off the side of the store.

Megan Schellong hosted and produced Morning Edition on WKAR from 2021 to 2024.
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