From Classroom to Cone

From Classroom to Cone

“We make the greatest ice cream in the state of Tennessee!”

Student pours milk into an ice cream machine

Grace Powell’s face lights up as she talks about making ice cream for the UT Creamery. It’s a joy not unlike what creamery customers must experience when they take their first licks of VOLnilla Bean or Go Big Orange ice cream—made and marketed by UT students.

“For us as students it’s really cool to be a part of the reboot of the creamery,” says Powell. “We’re a new generation, but we’re sticking to the history and tradition that the creamery has on the campus. It’s very educational to have such an opportunity to see the process through.”

The retro-inspired ice cream shop, which opened its doors in fall 2023 at the former UT Visitors Center on Neyland Drive, is a partnership between the Herbert College of Agriculture’s Department of Food Science and the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences’ Rocky Top Institute of Retail program in the Department of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management.

“This gives the students an opportunity to showcase a product they created and sent to market,” says Creamery Manager Nathan Miller, “all the while giving them the hands-on experiential learning to prepare them as they leave UT and enter the workforce. Our goal is to give our students the competitive edge they need to make them more successful as they start their careers.”

Students involved with the creamery get a wide range of experience in everything from research and development of ice cream and merchandise to design and branding. Along the way they also learn the ins and outs of supply and demand.

The idea of students making ice cream and selling it on campus has deep roots at UT, stretching back to 1869 when the university was designated by the Morrill Act as a land-grant college with a mission of teaching agriculture and mechanical arts.

UT’s Cooperative Creamery was established in 1915 and shortly after began producing butter. In 1923, Thomas Harrison, a professor of dairy manufacturing, started making ice cream in the creamery in Morgan Hall.

The manufacturing of dairy products continued until 1989, when the creamery shut its doors because of economic constraints and changing consumer demand. Though studies in food science continued, it wasn’t until 2013 that conversations resurfaced about bringing back the experiential learning opportunities from the old creamery. Shortly afterward, All Vol Cheese began production.

UT's Cooperative Creamery is opened in 1915 and soon began making butter.


A student pours milk from a giant pail into a machine

In 2021, alumnae Sue Conley (’75) and Peggy Smith, co-founders of the Cowgirl Creamery in California, stepped up to support the renewed efforts to revive UT’s creamery operations. In addition to high-quality ice cream, Conley and Smith suggested a sharp focus on retail strategies, sales, branding, customer service, and merchandise.

That’s where the undergraduate fellows of the Rocky Top Institute of Retail came in.

“We designed all the merchandise such as T-shirts, bags, and drinkware starting with pencil drawings, then picking fabrics and colors, meeting with vendors, and actually picking up boxes of finished products. It’s been super fun and creative,” says senior Natalie Scott of Kingsport, Tennessee.

The project immersed the retail students in business development through teamwork that included market research, product development, brand engagement, social media marketing, operations, finance, and other roles.

“To be competitive and fresh we have to have new products in the pipeline that are coming in on a regular basis. We have a road map and a pipeline for the next five years,” says Assistant Professor of Practice and RTIR Director Myra Loveday.

The retail students conducted market research to choose the colors for hats and T-shirts, which come in pastel hues the students gave monikers like butter, grass, and sunkissed orange. They also chose the UT-themed names for the flavors developed on the food science side.

Torchbearer’s Chocolate, Smokey’s Strawberry Kisses, Mint Champion Chip, VOLnilla Bean, Good Ol’ Cookies and Cream, Midnight at Hodges Coffee, 1794 Birthday Cake, Peppermint Chocolate Chip, and Go Big Orange ice cream are the nine flavors sold at the creamery year round along with other flavors added seasonally.

When the UT Creamery was first announced on social media, there was a wave of nostalgia with many fans of the old creamery wondering if their favorite flavor would be served or would still taste the same. There seemed to be a particular demand for peppermint ice cream.

The team did interviews with the previous creamery manager and workers to recreate the fan favorite.

“They couldn’t remember everything, but they got pretty close to what it was,” Miller says.


students collaborating with each other inside the creamery

Ideas for new flavors come from faculty, staff, students, and the general public. While Miller does a lot of the calculating of ingredients, the creamery students do the actual hands-on work of making the ice cream.

But they’re rewarded for their hard work with the fruits of their labor. “We do get to try a lot of the ice cream
when we do research and development,” says Powell, a junior majoring in agricultural leadership, education,
and communications. “We’ve tried 24 different kinds of ice cream in a day.”

The students give their opinions about flavors and what they would add or take away. Powell says they particularly struggled with how much citric acid to put into the Go Big Orange flavor but are happy with the results—as are the customers.

The research and development experience is valuable for sophomore food science major Emma Whitney, who came to UT from New Jersey.

“I’m going to need this experience later in life when I’m actually in a lab and doing this as my real job,” says Whitney, who hopes to work in research and development in the coffee industry. “It gives me firsthand experience and an advantage. I’ll know what to expect and how to perfect what I’m doing because I’ve done it before.”

Powell, who was raised on a farm, has an ultimate goal of connecting consumers and producers and sharing research that UT is doing to help support farmers. She says working with the creamery will help her engage with people from different backgrounds and understand more about the food industry.

“In general, it’s making me a lot more aware of what food packers go through,” Powell says. “And it makes me a lot more conscious whenever I go into conversations with folks that are needing more help or looking for more research to better
their operations.”

First-year student Will Doty is a supply chain management major in the Haslam College of Business. Miller invited him to be a part of the creamery work to begin building a foundation for a wider variety of majors to benefit from the experience.
This, in turn, helps set both the students and the business up for even more success in the future.

But Doty isn’t working with numbers on a spreadsheet yet; he’s learning how to make the product.

“I came in happy to do both,” says Doty. “Making ice cream sounded like a fun process itself, and I knew getting experience with my major would be beneficial in the long run.”

Miller says the breadth of experience that Doty and the other students are getting is setting them up for success after graduation.

“They can see how marketing interacts with research and development, how they both interact with sales, or how we all interact with supply chain,” says Miller. “Then when they go to a job interview, they can say ‘This is what I did’ instead of giving theoretical answers.”

The same is true for students on the food science and retail sides. Loveday says the creamery and the Rocky Top Institute of Retail are providing her students with advanced skills in a real-world setting.

A worker stocks products on a shelf inside the creamery

Lauren Werner, a junior retail merchandising and management major from Louisville, Kentucky, says the entire experience has been valuable for her future. “To be introduced to the business side and get to see how the financials work and see how the employees work with each other and how the customer experience comes in—that’s something that I’m going to be able to take out into the workplace,” Werner says.

And when students do start their careers, the feedback is positive. “Ultimately we hear back from retailers how advanced our students are when they start their jobs,” Loveday says.

Scott’s and Werner’s experiences at UT have certainly paid dividends. During the fall 2023 semester, Scott received a job offer from Belk department store to be an assistant buyer. And Werner will be spending the summer interning at PepsiCo as a sales intern.

Scott says one of her most thrilling experiences was the creamery’s grand opening last fall.

“Watching them cutting the ribbon, I remember thinking this whole operation is student run,” says Scott. “We had to think about the layout of retail sales per square feet of the creamery, the vendors who supplied merchandise, training staff, everything. And it was amazing to see it come full circle.”

Additional reporting supplied by Linda Billman and Accolades magazine

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