Ice cream pioneers in historic market

By Patricia Olsen

Bassetts Ice Cream, a fifth-generation business, is the only original establishment still operating in Philadelphia's historic Reading Terminal Market. "Location plays a key part in a business's success, but you still have to make it work," says Roger Bassett, 52, managing partner. "There are plenty of businesses that have failed here," says Bassett, who runs the retail store in the market, which is popular with locals and tourists alike.

His cousin Michael Strange, 56, president of the company, says Bassett is indeed making it work. "The store is more successful now than it has ever been," says Strange, who heads the wholesale operation.

Bassetts began in 1861, when Lewis Bassett (Bassett and Strange's great-great-grandfather) started making ice cream in his Salem, N.J., backyard. He shifted operations to Philadelphia in 1885 and moved into Reading Terminal Market in 1892. His son Lewis Lafayette (L.L.) Bassett took over in 1906. When L.L. died, his wife, Louise Austin Bassett, stepped in until their son, Lewis Lafayette Bassett Jr., took over in 1925. Next, Ann Bassett, L.L.'s daughter, headed the company, and then her brother, David, ran the store for a few years in the late 1970s when she decided to concentrate on the wholesale end. David's son Roger Bassett took the lead in 1980, while still in college.

Both Bassett and Strange worked in the business as kids, but neither planned to work there as adults. Bassett finished college while running the store but was busy trying out other ventures. Strange worked for what is now PricewaterhouseCoopers for several years before joining the company in 1983.

In 1990 Bassett sold the retail store to Strange so that he could concentrate on his other businesses, including The Original Turkey, which still exists in the market. (He started another there, Market Bakery, in later years.) Ten years after that, Strange had his hands full with wholesale operations, so Bassett took over the store again and has been managing partner ever since.

Bassett says the relationship works because the cousins trust and complement each other. The store is the public face of the company but the wholesale part accounts for 95% of revenue.

Strange has expanded the company's reach way beyond the Philadelphia area. "We now distribute as far west as Chicago, and in the east we distribute to New York, Florida, and along the New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland shores," he says. In 2008 Bassetts started shipping to China; since then the company has entered Anguilla.

Mary Bassett, Roger's wife, works as a jack-of-all-trades, and several sixth-generation family members are being groomed to assume major roles in the company. Bassett's son Eric, 20, works there full-time while handling a full college course load. Strange's nephew Alex, who graduated this year, wants outside experience before joining the company. Another nephew and a niece work in the company during the summer.

Eric Bassett says he's already learned a lot about retail. "I learned to keep things as simple as possible," he says. "If things are complicated, there's more chance of big issues arising. When my father took over, he dropped cheese and sandwiches as products. He said that you should focus on what you're good at and not try to do too much."

Patricia Olsen is a freelance business writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Harvard Business Review online and other publications.

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July/August 2014


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