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GAIL WHITE Book explores the sweet success in Isaly's history



Published: Fri, July 6, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Working for the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society, Brian Butko of Pittsburgh touches history every day.

In 1992, he came across a 12-foot-long, green-and-white neon Isaly's sign.

"It sparked something in me," Brian recalls, acknowledging he has a "soft spot" for roadside icons.

Previously, a spark to his "soft spot" had prompted the books "Diners of Pennsylvania" and "Pennsylvania Traveler's Guide: The Lincoln Highway."

"It seems we know more about the Roman Empire than 50 years ago," Brian laments, explaining the driving force behind his work.

He thought Isaly's would be a simple research project. It turned into a nine-year journey.

"I couldn't believe that nothing had been written about Isaly's," Brian marvels. "They had hundreds of stores and thousands of customers that loved them, and it was all just fading away."

Latest work: His third book, "Klondikes, Chipped Ham and Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly's," is the result of his years of research.

In his book, Brian traces the history of the dairy chain from a one-milk-wagon operation founded in 1902 in Mansfield, Ohio, to 400 delis and dairies in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. He analyzes the reasons for the company's great success and the causes of its eventual demise.

"Isaly's story perfectly captures the trends of the past century," Brian contends. "William Isaly began 100 years ago by selling his milk door-to-door; today's Klondike is owned and operated by a huge corporation, made in factories, and marketed and sold nationally."

William Isaly's generosity was key to his success, Brian says. He "really cared about quality and value. ... He was generous but smart."

Brian cites the example of the skyscraper cone.

"The skyscraper cone looked tall," he explains, "but it was really not much bigger than a cup cone." Still, customers felt as though they were getting a better deal.

Determination: Through research, Brian found that William was determined to serve his customers better than anyone else.

"While his competitors watched the bottom line, William plowed profits into better equipment and service," Brian said. "William constantly asked the question, 'How can we do the right thing and still be successful?' "

After William's death in the early 1920s, his four sons took over the company, upholding their father's business beliefs. Brian's favorite quote is by Henry Isaly: "Let's give the profits to the customers, not the stockholders."

Unfortunately, three of the four brothers died of heart attacks at an early age. "Every day, they would visit the dairy plants and taste-test all the products," Brian said his research revealed. "This was before all the heart-disease information we know today."

As the sons died, the company lost focus, and its demise began.

"Nieces and nephews took over, and it coasted for a while," Brian says. "But the industry was changing." Isaly's new leadership didn't keep ahead of the changes.

Sale: In 1972, the family sold the company to a group of investors who decided to close most of the Isaly's restaurants and focus on Isaly's ice cream novelty -- the Klondike bar.

Ten years ago, Unilever, a large dairy conglomerate, bought Klondike, and the Isaly's name was removed from the wrapper.

It is this "erasing" of history that drives Brian into years of research to restore it.

"A story about Henry Isaly can explain why," he reiterates. "During a strike at the dairy plant, Henry went out to the picket line and invited the workers inside. 'Go ahead and take anything perishable,' he told them. 'We may be on different sides, but this will be settled someday. Keep an eye on my building; it's still your home and always will be.' That's both smart and prudent, and that sums up Isaly's."

Brian will be at Barnes and Noble in Boardman on Sunday, at 2 p.m. to speak about Isaly's and sign copies of his book.

gwhite@vindy.com




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