Business & Real Estate

Gunther’s marks 75 years of scooping sweet treats in Sacramento

Gunther’s neon “Jugglin’ Joe” sign was designed by the ice cream shop’s original owner Herman Gunther, who told his children that if Joe ever dropped a tossed scoop, that day’s ice cream was free.
Gunther’s neon “Jugglin’ Joe” sign was designed by the ice cream shop’s original owner Herman Gunther, who told his children that if Joe ever dropped a tossed scoop, that day’s ice cream was free. jvillegas@sacbee.com

The 800-square-foot space of Gunther’s ice cream shop in Sacramento appears to have been untouched by time.

Interior walls and floors have been restored to their post-World War II appearance, old-school milkshake blenders adorn one wall, and over the front door, the neon figure of server “Jugglin’ Joe” is tossing scoops of ice cream over his head with his right hand and catching them perfectly in a cone held in his his left palm.

Standing amid hustling counter workers and contented ice cream consumers of all ages, you half expect your ear to pick up a static-laden radio broadcast telling of president-elect Dwight Eisenhower’s goals for his first term in office.

3,500Gallons of ice cream and freezes produced by Gunther’s during a week in the summer months

Co-owners Rick and Marlena Klopp wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I want it to be like this 100 years from now,” she says. Her husband adds: “We’ve had many offers to franchise or expand, but we’re happy with what we have.”

The business at Franklin Boulevard and Third Avenue is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. A formal community celebration was held at the site on Saturday, and earlier this month, the Klopps joined workers dressed in 1940s-vintage ice cream shop uniforms for a special photo in front of the building.

The formal name of the sandwich/dessert shop and attached ice cream-making operation is Gunther’s Quality Ice Cream Inc. But regulars know it as simply Gunther’s.

Over nearly two generations, the Klopps have endeavored to keep Gunther’s the place they fell in love with – a small, casual spot to which residents of Curtis Park and other surrounding neighborhoods can stroll, lining up on a pleasant Sacramento day to sample dozens of available flavors.

To be sure, the business has grown over the years.

The company now employs 32. The Klopps said they have three delivery trucks, transporting ice cream and fruit freezes to about 100 destinations, mostly in the Sacramento region. That includes restaurants, hotels and specialty ice cream outlets. Products are not sold in grocery stores, however.

Gunther’s desserts are made on-site, with an output of 3,500 gallons of ice cream and freezes a week in the peak summer months and about 2,500 gallons a week during the rest of the year.

“That’s why whenever you come in here, you’re going to see somebody making ice cream,” Rick Klopp says. He says he trained the current ice cream makers, just like he was trained in his youth.

Rick Klopp notes that Gunther’s ice cream is still made the old-fashioned way, utilizing an original “batch freezer” to freeze and whip cream. It was purchased in 1949 and makes about 60 gallons of ice cream an hour. It’s similar to the hand-cranked ice cream machines used in the early 1900s.

By today’s standards, it’s a rich blend of ice cream, with 16 percent butterfat cream, higher than the around 10 percent found in commercial brands. The Klopps say generations of customers like the richer, creamier blend.

Gunther’s was established in Sacramento in April 1940 by Herman “Pop” Gunther and his wife, Iva. They set up shop in a 12-foot by 40-foot space at Franklin Boulevard and Fifth Avenue. They had worked for a Bay Area company operating a chain of ice cream stores, but when the company folded, the Gunthers thought that Sacramento’s warmer climate might make the community a better place to sell ice cream.

Turns out they were right.

“I’ve always felt that it was Sacramento, with its climate, and the people who live here. It’s just perfect for ice cream,” Marlena Klopp said. “We’ve always had a lot of foot traffic, and over the years more and more people have been arriving on bicycles.”

The long history of Gunther’s is not unique to Sacramento, seemingly a mecca for decades-old purveyors of ice cream. The local lineup includes Vic’s Ice Cream, a Sacramento fixture since 1947, and Leatherby’s Family Creamery, the local ice cream parlor chain that opened its flagship shop on Arden Way in 1982.

“Sacramento has a long-standing tradition of fiercely supporting small, independent and locally owned businesses,” said Janna Haynes, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento-based California Restaurant Association. “Given the mild climate and hot summers, ice cream shops are a great fit for Sacramentans, and the family-owned operations are part of the generational history of Sacramento.”

With Sacramento part of the post-WWII population boom in California, the original Gunther’s location grew increasingly busy. Ice cream was made on-site; business was carry-out. Ice cream cones, priced at a nickel apiece, were particularly popular.

In 1949, the Gunthers opened a new shop in a larger space at the current 2801 Franklin Blvd. site. Through the 1950s, the customer base continued to grow, with regulars telling their friends, and some customers driving into Sacramento from hour-away locales to sample the sweet treats.

It was the beginning of a process spanning generations.

“I can’t tell you how many people have told us that they first came in here with their parents when they were children, or even with their grandparents,” Marlena Klopp said. “It keeps going today. Our customers range from small kids to people in their 90s.”

The multigenerational pull also applies to shop employees. “We’ve had the kids of former employees working for us,” Rick Klopp said.

The Gunther family continued to run the business until 1968. Herman Gunther died in 1963, and the Gunthers’ son, Dick, died in 1967. Iva Gunther sold the business to Carl Buchell. One of Buchell’s employees in 1969 was 22-year-old Rick Klopp, who would become manager and then purchase the operation from Buchell in 1974. Iva Gunther died in 1989.

While the restaurant menu board features a consistent 40 or so flavors on-site, the Gunther’s portfolio of flavors tried or used over time is more than 200. Over the years, the Klopps said, the shop’s fruit freezes have become increasingly popular, accounting for more than 20 percent of sales these days.

The Klopps are routinely on-site, something they feel strongly about. “You can’t be absentee owners,” Rick Klopp says.

And the on-site owners are sticklers for preserving old-school traditions. Take “Jugglin’ Joe,” for example.

The large, iconic neon sign over the shop’s entrance was designed by Herman Gunther, who told his children that if Joe ever dropped a tossed scoop, that day’s ice cream was free.

“Yes, we still tell that story, and who knows, it still might happen,” Marlena Klopp said.

At a glance

  • Started: 1940 by Herman and Iva Gunther
  • Employees: 32
  • Site: 2801 Franklin Blvd., since 1949
  • Co-owners: Rick and Marlena Klopp
  • Ice cream: About 40 flavors for sale on site on a given day. Flavors used or tried over time total more than 200. Products made on-site and distributed to about 100 destinations, including restaurants, hotels and specialty outlets; not sold in grocery stores.
  • Other offerings: Fruit freezes, “lite” ice creams, sorbets, sherbets, yogurt, sandwiches
  • More information: gunthersicecream.com

Source: Gunther’s Quality Ice Cream

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