SBA Helps Nations Oldest Ice Cream Company Tap Exploding International Markets

When America’s oldest ice cream company — Philadelphia’s Bassetts Ice Cream — first opened in1861, international product distribution was unthinkable. Founder Lewis Dubois Bassett, a Quaker school teacher and farmer, made and sold ice cream from his backyard using a mule-turned churn. But, over the four generations of family ownership that followed, the Bassetts grew their home-based business into a household name across the eastern United States. From Bassetts’  headquarters in Philadelphia’s historic Reading Terminal Market, the company won customers up  and down the East coast and as far west as Chicago. Thanks to Bassetts’ heirloom family recipe and nearly 150 years of dedicated work, national prominence was in sight, but exporting internationally remained completely off the radar screen. 

But, in 2008, everything changed — both for Bassetts and for ice cream lovers as far from its Philadelphia home base as China. That year marked Bassetts’ President Michael Strange’s first meeting with SBA’s exporting experts, setting Bassetts on a course to tap exploding opportunity in international markets.

Making History

Today, ice cream is almost everywhere, and almost everyone has a favorite flavor. But in 1861 – when Bassett’s Ice Cream founder Lewis Bassett began producing and selling it from his farm – ice cream was just beginning to take hold in America. That novelty, combined with the quality of Bassetts’ secret family ice cream recipe and farm-fresh ingredients, earned Bassetts a strong foothold in the growing ice cream industry, propelling the company to early success. Soon, Lewis Bassett opened a store in Philadelphia on Market Street near Fifth Street. Then in 1892, he moved production and his retail store to Philadelphia’s then-newly-opened Reading Terminal Market, where the Bassetts Ice Cream store remains today as the market’s last original tenant.

Over the ensuing years, Bassetts remained in the spotlight. High-profile projects ranged from making 50 tubs of borsht sherbet for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 to producing signature flavors for a variety of Philadelphia-area celebrities and special events. With each passing generation of family ownership, Bassetts burgeoning brand could be found in an increasing variety of restaurants, clubs, independent ice cream shops, and, grocery stores. Ultimately, the Bassetts brand came to thrive in both the wholesale and retail arenas, and the company grew into a full-service dessert distributor serving much of the eastern United States.

Opportunity Knocks: Overseas Opportunities Put Bassetts On Brink Of A Boom

From the beginning, Bassetts has been a business pioneer. Bassetts’ company founder Lewis Bassett set the standard, starting an ice cream business boldly before most Americans had even tasted the creamy confection. Now — with the help of the SBA — his great-great-grandson, current company President Michael Strange would take up the torch, opening whole new markets for the company through international export of its now-iconic ice cream.

By 2008, generations of dedicated work had primed Bassetts for a chance encounter that would change everything. At a networking event that year, Bassetts President Michael Strange connected with a fellow entrepreneur whose business partner had ties to a food distributor in China. Through these new contacts, Strange shipped ice cream samples to the Chinese distributor, sparking a torrent of demand from the far east and securing Bassetts its first product order from China. The wheels were now in motion: Bassetts was on a runaway train hurtling towards becoming an international brand. A blind taste test in China ranked Bassetts ice cream ahead of some of the world’s largest brands and Bassetts’ Chinese distributor was poised to place the brand in grocery stores, restaurants, and ice cream shops across China. But like most American small business owners, Michael Strange had no idea how to do business in China. How should foreign receivables be handled? Where can overseas shipping insurance be obtained? How is a growing export business best financed? The future of Bassetts’ international business opportunities hung in the balance; if these questions were not answered and answered fast, the very overseas market that could carry Bassetts to next-level success could just as easily break its core business that five generations had invested everything to build.

Enter: The SBA

Once again, chance intervened and Bassetts locked in its overseas opportunities for the long haul. Just after Bassetts received its first Chinese order, Michael Strange’s new international business contacts connected him to exporting expertise at SBA’s Philadelphia District Office and its Small Business Development Center resource partners. SBA’s exporting counselors connected Strange with counselors at local SBDC’s, other federal agencies, and export-focused organizations to guide Strange step-by-step through the exporting process. With that SBA guidance, Strange learned how to structure foreign receivables, secure export-import insurance through the Export-Import Bank of the United States and tap into the USDA’s Branded Program to fund up to 50% of certain overseas marketing costs up to $300,000 per year. That guidance built Bassetts a strong framework for its export business going forward, setting it on the track for long-term exporting success.

Today Bassetts Ice Cream has approximately 2,000 customers in China, where it has opened two retail locations and sells to a variety of grocery stores, ice cream shops and restaurants. The company also has a growing export business in the Bahamas and Anguilla and hopes to export to even more countries over the coming years. Bassetts President Michael Strange continues to strengthen his export business through SBA, participating in exporting classes at local SBDC’s and working closely with exporting experts at SBA’s Philadelphia District Office.