An elderly gentleman walked into Hoffman's Ice Cream and asked for "the usual." Within minutes, he left licking homemade black cherry icecream in a cone.

That man has a lot more licking to do, if he plans to eat the amount of ice cream consumed yearly by the average American -- 14.3 quarts, according to the Southeast United Dairy IndustryAssociation Inc., an industry trade association.

Ice cream, which was introduced to the average American in 1846, is savored in 98 percent of the nation's households, making it the most popular dessert in the country, the dairy association said.

Andwith unseasonably high temperatures, dairy month began Saturday witha marked increase in ice cream sales.

Both Hoffman's and Baugher's Restaurant and Fruit Market, which make and sell homemade ice creamin Westminster, report that they are producing as much as 1,000 gallons of ice cream each week -- nearly twice as much as during the winter months.

Robert A. Hoffman, half-owner of his family's 44-year-old ice cream business, said that on a busy Sunday night his store mayserve as many as 500 people.

Hoffman said that's because "we've been making a good product at a fair price."

"When we first started, ice cream was a nickel a dip," he said. Now, a single scoop at Hoffman's costs 70 cents.

Hoffman, 58, said there have been other changes since he and his brother, Richard, 56, took over the store from their father, Jesse, in 1955.

"We used to peddle ice cream around the streets," Hoffman said. They stopped in 1966, when the brothers opened a connecting convenience store.

As time passed, the brothers experimented with a variety of ingredients, Hoffman said.

"Over the years we've tried a lot of different flavorings," he said. "We've pretty much settled on the ones we think are best."

Among the finalselections are fresh strawberries and bananas -- in season. In some fruit flavors, ingredients include frozen and canned fruits, which Hoffman said are specially processed for ice cream.

Across town, chunks of fresh fruit can also be found in the ice cream at Baugher's. Seasonal fruits, such as strawberries and apples, are frozen, to be added to the ice cream during the off-season, said Stephen P. Nace, 41,the store's general manager.

Both stores buy a prepared ice creammix of milk, cream and sugar, with 12 percent milk fat, from CrowleyFrozen Desserts, a company formed from the recent merger of Green's and Penn's dairies in Pennsylvania. The stores add their own flavorings, including vanilla, concentrated chocolate and various fruits and nuts.

Nace said the restaurant, which opened next to Baugher's fruit stand in 1960, started making ice cream as "a way to use up what hadn't been used."

The restaurant is "a natural outlet for our ice cream," Nace said. Two scoops of ice cream are served for dessert with all dinners.

But Nace attributes high ice cream sales to the lowcost of a scoop.

"The main reason," he said, pulling out a menu and pointing to a 60-cent dip, "is price."

"The first five reasons are price," he added. "And we give big dips."

Prices are low at Baugher's because the store doesn't depend on ice cream for its profit,Nace said.

"We feel comfortable with our profit margin on ice cream," he said. "We're not in the business to make a killing."

Nor do they make frozen yogurt or sherbet, Nace said.

But at Hoffman's,homemade sherbet, with only 2 percent milk fat rather than the 12 percent in its creamier counterpart, can also be found in the ice creamcase.

And Hoffman's three ice cream makers -- Robert, his 35-year-old son, Jeff, and Richard -- are responsible not only for making five flavors of ice cream every day but for more than 200 ice cream cakes a week.

The chocolate and vanilla cakes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and a Westminster High School owl. They are decorated by Robert's wife, Charlotte,56, and their 30-year-old daughter, Lori.

While it is not difficult work, Hoffman said, it takes about 12 hours to make the cakes.

"There's a lot of labor involved," he said.

A typical five-gallon batch of ice cream takes about 15 minutes, he said.

Chocolate chipand mint chocolate chip tie for the store's No. 1 cone requests, Hoffman said. Nace said strawberry ice cream, complete with pieces of fruit, is Baugher's biggest seller.

And both stores said they make twice as much vanilla as any other flavor because it is used in shakes, floats and sundaes.

Regardless of the flavor people choose, however, ice cream, which according to the dairy association, averages 160 calories a scoop, remains America's favorite dessert.

"People talk about low-fat, but they still love their ice cream," said Abbie G.Little, marketing director for Crowley Frozen Desserts. "It still gives everybody that warm fuzzy feeling."

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