“Every bit of Thrifty Ice Cream starts here,” says Scott Becsi, the decade-long general manager of the Thrifty Ice Cream plant in El Monte, less than 20 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles.
He’s gesturing for me to look toward the hockey rink-size factory floor below. “If this were a bakery, we would be literally 10 times bigger than this, but ice cream manufacturing is an amazingly compact endeavor.” A sea of stainless steel machinery buzzes and whirs as we peer through panoramic windows from the factory’s second floor. With our hair covered in flimsy nets, our bodies draped in crisp white coats, and our — close-toed, as required — shoes properly disinfected, we descend a set of stairs to enter the nucleus of the frosty operation.
Tucked in an industrial pocket between the 10 Freeway and Rosemead Boulevard, the Thrifty Ice Cream plant has been churning out millions of gallons of the frozen treat since 1976. Eating ice cream is a year-round pastime for Southern Californians, and the affordability and convenience of Thrifty have made it a local favorite for more than 80 years. Only a short drive — often timed with a necessary drugstore visit — and a few bucks stand between Angelenos and an amply satisfying cone. A single scoop is priced at just $2.49 and served in a cup or atop a paper-wrapped Joy cake cone or sugar cone. Crushed nuts, rainbow sprinkles, and sugary drizzles are neither available nor needed.
Brothers Harry and Robert Borun and their brother-in-law, Norman Levin, founded Thrifty Cut Rate Drug Stores (as it was known at the time) in 1929; the family initially purchased ice cream from local suppliers to sell at Thrifty’s in-store ice cream counters. For decades, the pharmacies sold single scoops of ice cream for only 5 cents, using the cheaply priced sweet as a loss leader product to entice customers to visit more often. “If you have a line of business [where] your customer base is taking care of those who don’t feel well and they only come to you once or twice a year, you need a reason for customers to come in more often,” says Becsi. “And that was the reason for soda-jerk fountains.”
The burgeoning brand expanded from one downtown Los Angeles store to become the largest drugstore chain on the West Coast, with 620 outlets in California, Arizona, and Nevada. But obtaining enough ice cream to meet demand and sustain the store’s pricing strategy became increasingly difficult. The Boruns took matters into their own hands and began producing their own ice cream in 1940 after purchasing the Borden Ice Cream Company factory in Hollywood. Thrifty’s first three flavors were concord grape-pineapple, rocky road, and fruit cake. In 1976, ice cream production relocated to the 55,000-square-foot El Monte facility that continues to operate today.
A steady and loud mechanical hum vibrates throughout the factory floor. The plant’s employees — a formidable army of 110 workers donned in protective gear, many of whom have been with the company for 20 years or more — work in 10-hour shifts to produce 60,000 gallons (or 1.5 million scoops) each day. The first crew arrives at 4 a.m. and the last shift ends at midnight, after which the entire facility is deep cleaned. Becsi, a spry 67-year-old, oversees the entire operation, logging into work before sunrise to answer emails from “Mom and Dad” — his nickname for Thrifty’s parent company Rite Aid Corporation, which acquired the business in 1996 for $1.3 billion and operates on East Coast hours.
As a child growing up in La Palma in the 1960s, Becsi had a regular diet of Thrifty ice cream. “I remember being a 6-year-old little boy with a nickel in his pocket, and there would be no doubt in my mind what I would do with that nickel,” he says. “I’d pedal my little bicycle down to the local Thrifty, stand up on my tippy toes, look at all those wonderful ice cream flavors, and pick the one I wanted to spend my nickel on.” Becsi usually settled on a scoop of rainbow sherbet or chocolate chip on a cake cone.
With its cylindrical top and tufted bottom resembling a dressed-up toddler’s frilly socks, the unique shape of a Thrifty ice cream scoop is instantly recognizable. Building upon inventor Alfred Cralle’s seminal “ice cream mold and disher,” Thrifty initially introduced a barrel-shaped metal scoop to ensure uniform portion sizing and painless scooping for workers. Rather than rely on wrist dexterity to yield a single serving, the proprietary scooper used one’s body mass and a two-pronged trigger release instead. “You just put [the scooper] in the container, you push your weight against it, so no matter how petite or how big a person you are, you can push that down, simply turn it 90 degrees, and pull up and have a perfectly formed ice cream scoop,” Becsi says.
While the Thrifty ice cream scooper has proved timeless in its utility and sophistication, the nearly 50-year-old El Monte factory’s equipment didn’t age as well. Before Becsi began his tenure as general manager in 2013, the plant’s machinery hadn’t significantly changed since it first opened. “One of my driving goals has been to join the 21st century,” he says. “Ten years ago it took us two or three seconds to make a standard take-home container or quart-and-a-half of ice cream. Right now, we’re making them at basically one a second.” This focus on modernization allows Thrifty to maintain its competitive pricing without sacrificing quality and consistency. “Time is money,” Becsi says.
Most notably, the upgraded equipment means Becsi and the plant’s managers receive real-time feedback on the entire ice cream-making process. “We can see every movement of every machine, motor, fan, where our ice cream mix is, and where our trucks are on the road,” Becsi says. This constant stream of information allows them to immediately implement tweaks or pivots, a marked difference from the past when data arrived a day or a week after it was captured. Even while producing about 5 million gallons of ice cream annually for other brands and labels, the plant’s maximum capacity exceeds its current demand, putting Thrifty in a plum position for future expansion.
Workers stationed amid the factory’s cacophony and blur of moving parts supervise their specific place in the ice cream-making pipeline. While the heavy-duty equipment is state of the art, the actual ice cream-making process has remained mostly the same over the brand’s eight-decade history. All the ice cream produced in the factory starts the same way: A base mix of water, sugar, whey powder, and stabilizer is concocted in a lidded vat within an enclosed room. (Stabilizer slows down ice cream’s melting and keeps its texture emulsified and scoopable even after months in the freezer.) There’s a different base for each family of like-flavors in Thrifty’s 52-flavor lineup. A chocolate mix provides the foundation for best-sellers like Chocolate Malted Krunch, mocha almond fudge, and rocky road, while birthday cake, butter pecan, and cookie dough begin with a vanilla base.
Cream and milk with 10.25 percent butterfat are incorporated into the base before everything is repasteurized and sent to the factory’s towering silos to be held at 36 to 45 degrees. Next comes flavoring, coloring, and gradual freezing. “The ice cream freezer is really just like a soft serve machine or yogurt machine,” says Tim Briggs, the factory’s quality assurance manager, who started his career at Thrifty 35 years ago on the facility’s shipping docks. “The ice cream mix comes [through] the back end of it and is pushed against stainless steel walls that have liquid ammonia, 40 degrees below zero, behind it.” Instantly freezing when it hits the wall, the ice cream mix is continually scraped off. All in all, the machines transform 7,200 gallons of ice cream mix into soft serve each hour.
One of the perks of touring the factory is taste-testing the ice cream in its wonderfully wobbly prefrozen state. Briggs snatches a container of the day’s flavor, pistachio, from the conveyor belt and eagerly pries it open. In a more liquefied form, the ice cream’s signature green hue looks a few shades paler than its counter color. Its pistachios are plentiful. A bold dose of amaretto hits our palates first, followed by a lingering saltiness from the roasted nuts. Becsi explains that the ice cream’s warmer temperature means it melts in our mouths faster and has a more “impactful flavor sensation” as a result.
Chunky elements like nuts, fruit, chocolate, marshmallows, and malt balls are added through the “fruit feeder” at this soft serve stage. Becsi, smiling and clearly in his element, provides historical facts and anecdotes as we move on to tasting a sample of the pink lemonade, a seasonal flavor that’s selling so well that it might be added to the regular lineup. “We have a supplier who’s been [providing] one of the main ingredients for Chocolate Malted Krunch for over 50 years,” he says. On Wednesdays for the past half-century, the owner of the malt ball factory, who drives from the Valley to El Monte, also brings the workers doughnuts.
The bulk of the factory floor is dedicated to packaging the ice cream into pints and 48-ounce containers that will be shipped to nearly 2,300 Rite Aid stores across the U.S. and more than 200 Rite Aid stores in Mexico. The jumbo three-gallon containers, which take two arms to carry, will land in the 500 Rite Aid stores that house ice cream counters inside.
The speedy conveyor belts and robotic claws piping ice cream into containers of various sizes hiss and swish. After each vessel is filled, lidded, and sealed, every other one is flipped on its head as it moves along the line, something Becsi says improves packaging efficiency. Then, the ice cream enters “the hardener,” a hidden-away system of flash-freeze tunnels, bringing fresh ice cream from about 20 degrees to minus 20 degrees in around five hours and minimizing the size of ice crystals to keep the texture smooth and creamy. The final product is frozen at minus 40 degrees for a day before leaving the factory.
Thrifty ice cream has been an unwavering presence for Southern Californians since its inception. Yet rumors of mergers and acquisitions, like when grocery giant Albertson’s sought but failed to acquire Rite Aid in 2018, have surfaced from time to time, worrying longtime devotees about the future of the brand. According to a Los Angeles Times report, it was bought and sold twice prior to landing at Rite Aid in 1996: Pacific Enterprises (the operator of Southern California Gas Co.) purchased it in 1986 and sold it to the investment group Leonard Green & Partners in 1992. Even through multiple corporate transitions and recent bankruptcy filings, Thrifty ice cream has endured.
“I personally think that Thrifty ice cream will always be around regardless of Mom and Dad’s situation,” says Becsi. At this moment, surrounded by pulsating ice cream machines at full throttle, it feels like Thrifty is on solid ground.