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Graeter’s Ice Cream to open first Chicago-area store in May

Just in time for summer, Graeter’s Ice Cream, known for its signature hand-crafted chocolate-chunk-filled black raspberry flavor, will open its first Chicago area store next month and is eyeing as many as six stores locally within the next few years.

The first store is expected to open May 8 at 1347 Shermer Road in downtown Northbrook. That will mark Graeter’s entry into its biggest market outside of Cincinnati, said Chip Graeter, head of retail operations and one of three fourth-generation family owners of the 145-year-old Cincinnati-based company. Graeter runs the company along with his brother Bob and cousin Richard.

“I’m most excited about the opportunity to take my family’s product to another city to see what people think about it,” he said.

Not to brag, but Chip Graeter said many people say the ice cream “is the greatest there is.”

“We’re known for our chocolate,” he said. “The big chunks are soft and have a great mouth feel.”

A special sundae designed just for Chicagoans is in the works, and other Windy City flavors will emerge as the company gets to know the area better, Chip Graeter said.

The Northbrook store will seat 35 and employ 20 to 30 full- and part-time workers to dish out cones, sundaes, malts, milkshakes, banana splits and ice cream sodas during busy summer months. The number of employees drops dramatically during the winter months, Chip Graeter said.

Chip Graeter is head of retail operations and one of three fourth-generation family owners of the 145-year-old Cincinnati-based company. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

Chip Graeter is head of retail operations and one of three fourth-generation family owners of the 145-year-old Cincinnati-based company. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

The company’s analysis of its emails, website traffic and social-marketing demographics, along with other measures, showed that Chicago could be a successful site for Graeter’s, which prides itself on a “French Pot” ice cream-making technique.

Liquid ice cream and liquid chocolate are poured into a spinning pot that’s chilled to 15-below zero on the outside, and workers break up the chocolate into chunks to make the confection.

The process results in thick, creamy ice cream that workers pack with a big spoon into 2-gallon containers.

“If we had four to six stores in the Chicago area, that would be fantastic,” Chip Graeter said in an exclusive interview Monday with the Sun-Times. “One store could possibly be in the city [of Chicago]. That would be an eventual dream.”

The expansion would occur within the next three to four years in the Chicago market, he said.

It’s part of Graeter’s strategy to open stores in new markets such as Cleveland, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charlotte, North Carolina, he said.

Graeter’s currently operates 34 retail stores in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. It also has one store in Las Vegas, Nevada.

In grocery stores, the company sells select items at Jewel, Mariano’s, Treasure Island, Sunset Foods and other specialty retailers.

Graeter’s is one of the biggest overnight deliverers of ice cream in the country, mostly because people send it via online order from Graeter’s website as a ‘thank you’ to friends or as a corporate gift. The orders are shipped in dry ice via next-day air.

The company relies on its retail stores to generate up to $27 million of its total yearly $40 million in revenues, Chip Graeter said. Online orders account for about $3 million in revenues.

Graeter’s already is taking the next technology leap by setting up loyalty programs so that ice cream lovers can get alerts and special offers on their smartphones when they are near a Graeter’s ice-cream store.

“We make unique flavors and selections you can only get on our web store,” he said.