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Tending to one of Rochester’s iconic brands

Gail Drew’s decision to abandon her teaching career and assume control of the family business, Abbott’s Frozen Custard Inc., was made at the last possible moment.
Or so she says. A longtime friend is not so sure.
Drew’s parents, Leonard and Thelma Schreiber, had owned Abbott’s since buying it from founder Arthur Abbott in 1957, when Drew was 10 years old. Leonard died in December 1979 and Thelma carried on for another 10 years.
"It wasn’t fun anymore for her, without my father," Drew says. "There was no one to come home and talk to about all of this. She said ‘sell.’ The deal was going to close, and she turned to me and said, ‘If you want this business I won’t sell.’"
Drew purchased the business and became its president in 1989.
Neither her mother nor her father had ever said anything to their daughter about a succession plan.
"It was the first time ever mentioning the next generation taking over," Drew says. "I don’t know why, but I said, ‘Absolutely. Don’t sell it.’ I don’t know what possessed me."
She seems almost astonished, even relieved, as she recalls the moment.
"It’s everything to me today," she says. "My life would be very different if I didn’t have this business."
Drew was a teacher in the Buffalo suburbs then. She had graduated from SUNY Buffalo in 1969 with a degree in English and earned a master’s degree there two years later. But she spent much of her life listening to her parents tell stories about Abbott’s and a considerable amount of time working there.
"It was a huge change, but I think it went quite smoothly, actually," says Dorothy Ferguson, Drew’s personal attorney and a friend for 35 years.
"She’s been involved in the business from early childhood. She went into education, but I think her heart always was in the business. She lived it from an early age. I think she learned a lot about it that way."
Drew, 64, owns five Abbott’s: in Charlotte on Lake Avenue and in the ferry terminal, and in Henrietta, Gates and Vero Beach, Fla. Some 100 people work at the five locations during peak operations.
The Lake Avenue stand opened for the season March 22. Her stores traditionally close in late October or early November.
"We’ve stretched it to the middle of November some years, but usually by November everybody is ready to rest," Drew says. "It’s a very intense business. You wouldn’t think it is, but we have a whole year’s worth of business to do in a very short amount of time."

Franchises expand
Her company has franchise agreements at 39 other locations. Twenty are in Monroe County, including six at Bill Gray’s restaurants. Eleven are in New York State, with additional stores in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Colorado and Florida.
Owners of the franchised stores sell Abbott’s custard and buy supplies from the company, which receives royalties from sales.
"We do all the training, and we do a marketing program for them every year," Drew says. "We’re trying to continue to brand ourselves all the time, trying to develop that Abbott’s experience."
Drew’s legacy at Abbott’s is the franchise agreements. Her dad sold the family’s first one, a location on West Ridge Road, in 1977.
"It was to a Rochesterian, a man who admired my father in the business," she says. "He came to my father and asked if he would help him set up a business like what we had.
"In those days, you just opened up the store, trained them and helped them get the equipment, and that was it. They used the mix and followed your recipes and stuff, but you didn’t have to register with the state of New York. You didn’t have interior designs. You didn’t need packaging. It was very simple."
When Drew took over from her mom, franchising was one of the most appealing aspects to her.
"I was trying to carve out my own space," she says. "I was very interested in expanding the business that way, although I didn’t really know at the time what I was getting myself into."

The start
Abbott started his custard business in 1902, selling his products at carnivals and fairs along the Eastern Seaboard. Tired of the travel, he made his way to Rochester and opened a permanent location in Charlotte in 1926.
"At that time, there was more of an atmosphere down here," Drew says. "Not so much as in the early 1900s, but it was a beach resort town."
Custard was Abbott’s business, but horse racing was his passion. He owned Blue Man, winner of the 1952 Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Abbott pocketed more than $86,000 in Preakness prize money. Blue Man finished third at the Kentucky Derby and second at the Belmont Stakes that year, finishing his career with earnings of $277,000.
After deciding he did not need the Charlotte business to support his involvement in horse racing, Abbott and his managing partner sold it in 1957 to the Schreibers, whom he had met through a mutual friend and who had franchised an Abbott’s at the Rochester airport in 1955.
"They hit it off, and Mr. Abbott felt these people would take care of this business," says Drew, who was 10 when the deal closed.
The Schreibers lived in Brighton, where Leonard owned a wholesale meat business.
"We were struggling, like so many families at the time," Drew says. "This was, we felt, going to change our fortunes.
"This was a wonderful business to be able to be a part of …; it really was what kept our family together."
Drew and her sister, Lynn, helped out.
"This is where we were likely to see my father," Drew says. "We’d come down and work with him and my mother, and we had a blast."
The family worked seven days a week, opening the stand in the morning and closing it late at night.
"It was something you didn’t ever think about getting a manager for, or turning responsibility over to somebody else," Drew says.
Leonard and Thelma would come home and wake their two children for dinner at 1 a.m., Drew says.
"My father would sit at the table," she says. "My mother would make him dinner. My mother would stand at the sink, and my sister and I would be between the table and the counter, and they would recount the day.
"My sister and I would be rolling on the floor laughing, not because they were telling jokes but the way they talked. It was like George Burns and Gracie Allen. My mother would be going on, and my father was very subtle in his humor. It was hysterical."
They would recount not seeing a customer who normally was there, or a helper who did not scoop custard quickly enough or clean to their satisfaction.
"It was so much fun," Drew says. "It was really a great time.
The financial implications of the business seemed almost secondary to its entertainment value.
"It was successful for us," Drew says. "Whether it had the mystique that it has today, I don’t know. I was 10 at the time, and it was just so natural. It was like it had always been ours. It wasn’t run like a business. It was hovered over, like another child in the family."
Drew never dreamed of replacing her parents at Abbott’s.
"And it wasn’t anything that I was ever groomed to take over," she says. "My parents would never want to mention that someday maybe you’ll have this place. It wasn’t ever going to be this succession of family members. It wasn’t meant to be that way."
Abbott’s became a gathering place for visitors to Charlotte and the Port of Rochester.
"You hoped for good weather," Drew says. "You turned out a wonderful product. You knew all your customers. For my parents-and for us, too-this was part of our social life.
"It was a great melting pot down here. I think we had an advantage that a lot of kids in suburbia maybe didn’t. We met and knew and learned from people from all different walks of life. They were our friends."

Steady growth
The Abbott’s concept has grown substantially with Drew in charge, with revenues increasing each year.
"We have made enormous leaps forward," she says, declining to provide specific financial details. "We have become a business in the last 15 or 20 years. But nothing about the product has ever changed. Even though we’re 44 stores, we’re still a mom-and-pop business."
Vice President Robert Amico has been with Abbott’s for 37 years, beginning as a part-time worker at the Lake Avenue stand for the Schreibers when he was 14.
"He’s done every job in the place," Drew says.
Amico oversees the company’s operations, including its franchisees and most day-to-day activities.
"Gail is a wonderful person to work for," he says. "I’ve never met a more caring person in regards to the company and the Abbott’s name and the people that surround the Abbott’s name.
"She has so much passion for her product, her franchisees and her employees that work in this company. One nice thing about working with Gail is she allows the key management to make decisions. This is not a micromanaged company, which creates much more success."
Amico’s corporate titles include CEO, secretary and director. Drew is president and treasurer. Their offices are on the second floor of the Lake Avenue store. They are the only year-round employees.
"President and all that stuff wasn’t even in my mind," Drew says of the business she took on. "I didn’t have that kind of structure at the time. It was just come in and work downstairs and wait on customers. The way we do business now has just evolved."
Joseph Orden is the senior franchise coordinator and Eric LePore is the district manager. Both work 11 months of the year. Chrystal Gerkin is the consistency coordinator. Kari Cubiotti manages the Lake Avenue store.
"All of our full-time employees have been here half their life," Drew says. "These are my extended family. They’ve all grown up at Abbott’s together and are involved in it."
Drew bought back the Henrietta franchise in the 1980s when its owners retired and did the same with the Gates franchise after that.
"So we had three company stores," she says. "That’s when business had to change, because you had to have control over all these stores. We had to figure out a way to make sure the money got to the bank every night. You had to make sure the payroll was in line with where it should be.
"While we were developing these systems to account for our own corporate stores, we were also setting ourselves up so that we could franchise outside of Rochester. We’re concentrating on that today, although most of our stores are in Monroe County."
Although Drew is interested in prospective franchisees, she is not recruiting.
"I just felt-and I don’t even know why-that we had to do more," she says of expansion. "We had to go to the next level. We had to keep up with the times.
"And, really, it wasn’t that difficult because people always came to us. We never advertised. To this day, we’ve never advertised. All of our franchisees out of town are former Rochesterians who missed it and came to us and said, ‘There’s nothing like it where I live.’"
Drew’s most memorable story about Abbott’s involves a Florida man whose dying father made a last request for the custard.
"They called and said their father wanted Abbott’s and could we get it down to him," she says. "We weren’t doing shipping the way we are today, but we got it down there. He wrote a letter thanking me that his father got to enjoy the Abbott’s before he passed away.
"I mean, are you kidding me? That is something. That’s an honor."
These days, a warehouse near the Lake Avenue store allows supplies to be stored until shipment to Abbott’s locations. The only store west of the Mississippi was opened after its franchisee convinced Drew that suburban Denver was no farther from Rochester than the Abbott’s in Naples, Fla.
"We’d still like to stay on the East Coast," Drew says. "We’d like to become more of a regionally known brand. But it depends on the person. If it were the right person (seeking a franchise), it would be hard to turn down business."
A store in New Jersey is scheduled to open soon; a store in New Orleans is in the works.
"We have a lot of interest," Drew says. "Every week I get calls from people. It’s hard to get the financing now. I think that’s the biggest drawback."

Growth issues
Finding franchisees is largely accomplished by trial and error.
"We want the right people, and we want the right locations," she says. "For a company our size and the way we do it, it’s a challenge.
"We don’t have a real estate department that goes out and carves out locations or buys up leases like some of these franchise ice cream stores do."
Connecting the locations cosmetically and emotionally is a challenge, Drew says.
"You have a product that’s been selling for so many years and people love it," she says. "Everybody in Rochester has their Abbott’s story. Then you say, ‘Gee, how do we brand ourselves?’
"One of our biggest struggles was with an interior design. It was so hard, and we still struggle with how people see us. Our target audience is everybody. It’s really hard to come up with a marketing plan after you have a recognizable and beloved product. And we didn’t do any marketing for the first 100 years."
The challenge is even greater for the out-of-state stores.
"Out-of-town people don’t know us yet, so how do we get people to feel the way people here feel about Abbott’s?" Drew says. "How do we get people outside of Rochester to think they’ve been coming to Abbott’s for 100 years when the store just opened up last week? That’s the big challenge."
The company is relying on community outreach to accomplish that goal, she says.
"We’re working with our new franchisees to sponsor Little League teams," Drew says, "to get involved with events, to find a charity they feel good about donating time and revenue to, and to be a good partner in their community so that people get to know who you are and what you stand for."
Abbott’s was one of four family-owned businesses in Western New York honored by Alfred University last September at Oak Hill Country Club for its commitment to employees and the local community, for innovation and foresight, and for growth and stability.
Last month, the company participated in the fourth annual New Orleans Roadfest Festival.

Off the job
Beyond Abbott’s, Drew’s passion is her three children, she says.
Brenden, 27, is an accountant in Boston. Charlotte, 26, is in law school at Boston University. Georgia, 24, works in the University of Rochester’s office of development.
Drew enjoys gardening, reading and traveling. Her last big trip was to Antarctica in January 2011.
"That was fabulous, other than sailing through the Drake Passage, where everybody got sick because it was so rough," she says.
The passage begins at the southern tip of South America and extends to Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. The trip took two days, Drew says.
"It looks white," Drew says of the continent. "That’s about it. We did go to one station. I think it was an English station. They did have a gift shop.
"Every day we’d get to go out and walk around with the penguins and climb glaciers. We went kayaking one day."
She visited Chile for two weeks prior to returning there as part of the Antarctic excursion, and she also has gone to Baja California, Tahiti and South Africa.
"When they were younger, I took my kids to Tahiti," Drew says. "And my daughter Charlotte studied in Africa at Capetown University, so I took the kids and we went down there.
"Then, two years ago, she worked for the United Nations in Tanzania. My other daughter and I visited her there."
The trip to Antarctica came about with some prodding from her college roommate and her roommate’s husband to join them.
"They’re big travelers," Drew says. "I wasn’t going to go, and then at the last minute I said I’ll do it."
The timing of that decision was much the same as that for her decision to leave teaching for the custard business.
"She’s unafraid to take a risk," personal attorney Ferguson says. "I think that’s huge. Her perspective is always that the glass is always half full. These are great qualities to have. And even though it’s a very successful business, she’s always trying to improve it."
Drew, like her parents, is putting no pressure on her children to follow in her footsteps.
"They’ve all worked at Abbott’s over the years," she says. "They’ve grown up working in the business, during summers and between college years. They have a huge passion for Abbott’s.
"I told them to go forward and carve out their own destiny for right now. I’m very proud of them. They’ve all done very well. It’s just nice to see them grow up. They take your values and your work ethic, and then they become their own person. Maybe someday, one of them or all of them … we don’t know. I’m not thinking that far ahead yet."
Drew turns 65 years old next month.
"I don’t think about retiring," she says. "Obviously, my friends are of the age when that’s a conversation. I can’t imagine not living in Rochester. And I can’t imagine not coming to work.
"I have a wonderful person in Rob to take care of the business for me and run the business for me. I could cut back if I wanted to, although you want to be involved. I don’t see myself retiring at all."

Gail Drew
Title: President, Abbott’s Frozen Custard Inc.
Age: 64
Home: Victor
Education: B.A. in English, 1969, and M.A,1971, SUNY Buffalo
Family: Son Brenden, 27; daughters Charlotte, 26, and Georgia, 24
Hobbies: Gardening, reading, traveling
Quote: "I was given this opportunity to work for this beloved company, and a product that is just so enjoyed by people. You run into people who say they used to come here with their family every Sunday after church, or they met their husband standing in line here."

4/13/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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