Isaly’s: Chipped Ham, Klondikes, and Other Tales from Behind the Counter
By Brian Butko
Pittsburgh: Senator John Heinz History Center, 2021
Softcover, 148 pages, $19.95
Available at https://visithei.nz/isalys-book
Reviewed by Harold Aurand Jr.
Like me, if you are old, you probably remember how the dairy industry once worked. First, local farmers brought their raw milk to a central processing plant, where it was pasteurized and bottled or turned into other products like ice cream and butter. Then, delivery trucks would leave the processing plant and drop the products off at retail stores or, more commonly, customers’ homes. My parents had an insulated box on the front porch. Sometimes the milkmen would have the keys to customers’ homes and deliver everything straight to their refrigerator. And sometimes, if you were lucky, the processing plant had an attached dedicated retail outlet.
Growing up, my local dairy had one where you could shop or sit down at an ice cream counter and order from a wide variety of flavors. There was also a small lunch counter. As a boy, I remember the dairy as a special place. If you were lucky, Sunday drives ended there with a big cone of ice cream. My parents brought me a dish of cherry vanilla when I had my tonsils out, and it was the site of a well-remembered elementary school field trip. Even though it’s long gone, I still think of their sign with a plexiglass cow’s head when I drive past.
Isaly’s (rhymes with “fries, please”) dairy business started in eastern Ohio and was much like the one I remember, with one exception. In addition to the dedicated retail outlet at the central processing plant, Isaly’s established a chain of stores in the surrounding area. As the company expanded to include several regional processing plants, each created its own network of stores. Isaly’s quickly rose to become the world’s largest chain of dairy/deli stores.
Just like I fondly remember my local dairy, for several generations of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia residents, the local Isaly’s was a meaningful part of many communities. At its peak, there were hundreds of stores. Then they went away. In part, the chain struggled because it was too focused on urban or small-town neighborhoods when retail was moving to the suburbs. They were caught between cheaper fast-food restaurants and convenience stores and what were perceived as more upscale sit-down restaurants.
Brian Butko’s new book, Isaly’s: Chipped Ham, Klondikes, and Other Tales from Behind the Counter is aimed at people who remember Isaly’s glory days. The book is divided into 50 short chapters, arranged alphabetically by the titles Butko gave them. Instead of being designed to be read, this is a book to be leafed through. I can imagine the book sitting on a coffee table and being paged through, with the reader stopping at whatever topic caught their fancy.
The color photographs are most impressive, as previously, everything I’d seen about Isaly’s had been in black and white. I thought the color captured more about what it must have been like to go to one of their stores. For past customers, it will bring them back. For people like me, who’d never been there, the stores became more tangible.
Besides interior and exterior shots of the stores, there are copies of advertisements, lunch counter menus, and some of Isaly’s signature recipes. The story of Carlo Ciampaglia’s murals at Isaly’s stunning Art Deco Youngstown processing plant, and interviews with the company’s workers both, in different ways, help the readers understand why the dairy was such a special place and remains beloved. There are chapters on memorabilia for collectors. Finally, although Isaly’s was focused on dairy products, they contracted for other branded items, like Boulevard Coffee and Mountain Air Soda. It was nice to see those products get some attention.
Today Isaly’s is mostly just a memory. In 2017, Conroy Foods, Inc., re-introduced Isaly’s ice cream, and the Senator John Heinz History Center and several other vendors sell merchandise. Isaly’s famous Klondike Bars are now distributed nationwide by Unilever. Some Isaly’s stores were converted to local convenience stores or delis, and there is talk, on page 55, of reopening an original-style Isaly’s store again. Butko’s new book certainly helps us recapture the old sense of community that came with delectable neighborhood businesses.
For people less interested in reminiscing, who perhaps just want to learn about the history of Isaly’s, Butko can help us there too. In 2001, Stackpole Books published his Klondikes, Chipped Ham, and Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly’s, which is a straightforward history, looking at why it became so popular and then disappeared. It’s more focused on business strategy and the inner workings of the Isaly family. The previous book is comprehensive but not as fun as the new one.
Harold Aurand Jr. is a history professor at Penn State-Schuylkill Campus.