The Kellerhaus’s location since 1966 was built in 1908 as a home. (Courtesy photo)
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — A true northern New Englander will enjoy a dish of rich, homemade ice cream year round, even on the coldest of winter days. And on a summer-like Memorial Day weekend, the ice cream scoops are sure to be busy.
If there's a place that exemplifies this frozen dairy tradition, then it has to Kellerhaus, the ice cream and candy-making company located at Weirs Beach in Laconia, which is celebrating its 110th year in business this weekend.
Now owned by Mary Ellen and David Dutton, Kellerhaus will mark the Memorial Day weekend by offering free ice cream to veterans and current armed service members from Friday through Monday. May 28 will be "Super Hero Saturday," when, from 1 to 6 p.m., anyone who comes wearing a super hero costume will be treated to free cake and ice cream.
Before Ben & Jerry's, and before Friendly's, Kellerhaus was making its own ice cream. Company lore says that when Otto Keller began making ice cream in the early 1920s – using ice harvested from Lake Winnipesaukee and tons of rock salt, as modern refrigeration technology hadn't been developed yet – he was the first to do so year-round.
But the Kellerhaus story actually goes back even further, to 1906, when Keller arrived in Laconia from Merrimack, and by the end of the day had secured a job at Phillips' candy store. Though he was nearly destitute when he first arrived in Laconia, Keller owned the downtown store within a year.
The world, and Laconia, has changed much in the century and a decade since then, and the Keller family proved that they had the determination and vision to survive. In the Great Depression, Otto added a tea room to keep the business going. World War II, with its sugar rationing, proved a bigger challenge for the business, which by then had seen sons Seth and Pitman join the operation. 1943 was perhaps the business's most difficult year, when Seth left to join the armed services.
Another major disruption was on the horizon in the 1960s, when the city was planning its urban renewal project, which tore down several blocks of the city center, including the building housing Kellerhaus. Though Seth and his wife, Peg, who were then running the candy business, had planned to relocate to a spot over the Meredith town line, a friend suggested they consider a tract of land and grand 1908 home on Route 3 in The Weirs, with views of the lake and mountains beyond. The property, built by Myron Hart and known as Hartland, was quickly purchased by the Kellers, who build an addition, expanded the business to include gifts, and opened in May 1966.
When the Kellerhaus opened in its Weirs location, Seth had a new innovation to unveil, the now-famous ice cream smorgasbord, a buffet-style sundae bar. As Mary Ellen explained, the concept had its critics.
"When Seth decided to do make-your-own sundaes, his dad Otto thought it was a bad idea, that he'd never make any money," she said. Seth proved his dad wrong, as the smorgasboard was a smash success. In 1974, a reporter for the syndicated news service United Press International took notice and wrote an article about the long lines of tourists that waited for more than an hour, rain or shine, to make a sundae exactly to their liking. The article noted that the Kellerhaus ice cream is the richest in New Hampshire, with 16 percent butterfat.
"People have to remember that there wasn't anything else like this in the area," said Mary Ellen, of the smorgasboard phenomenon. Imitators have since appeared, which means that those who wish to visit the Kellerhaus today don't have to wait in the rain for hours.
Still, Mary Ellen thinks the Kellerhaus has something that the others don't: their ice cream, still made the same way it has for nearly a century, and made once a week during the winter and twice each week during the summer. In the busy season, Kellerhaus will produce 700 gallons of ice cream each week. Each batch is made by David Dutton.
"We're super fresh. It's constantly being made," said Mary Ellen. Each batch of ice cream, now made with almost exclusively all-natural ingredients, is prepared on site, in the same 1929 York ice cream machines that were passed down from the Kellers. And, all the same recipes, too. The Duttons expect to serve 70,000 ice cream customers over the course of the summer.
The most popular ice cream flavor, because it's most amenable to toppings, remains vanilla. Young patrons have shown an affinity for the "cookie monster" and "moose poop" flavors, while their parents tend to like cherry chocolate chunk and cookie coffee. Mary Ellen prefers the simple coffee or chocolate ice creams.
Although the Kellerhaus has had to prove itself agile to survive for 110 years, changing its business model and even its location, one thing that hasn't changed is its commitment to delicious, house-made, high-quality recipes. The Duttons still use the same index card file of recipes, each of which have been amended by the hand-written notes of generations of owners before them.
"We're back to basics, but we never left them," she said.
The ice cream smorgasboard at the Kellerhaus features home-made toppings to go aong with the home-made ice cream. (Courtesy photo)
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