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Stop whatever you’re doing right now and read Michael S. Rosenwald‘s Sunday A-1 story about the nightmarish business deal that has marred the public face of Gifford’s Ice Cream, a local company that can trace its roots back to 1938. The Post nailed this investigation into the small Silver Spring ice cream chain, whose wholesale business owner, Neal Lieberman, sold the retail operations to the wrong guy.

What Rosenwald’s reporting clearly shows, however, is that Gifford’s brand was in decline even before the transaction apparently dealt a death blow. Here are the pertinent grafs in the story:

The problem is that ice cream isn’t just dessert, but an economic entree, a $10 billion business that in Gifford’s case has grown notably messy. High-end ice cream has not weathered the recession well. Sales in the high-end segment grew only 1 percent in 2008, according to Mintel Research, and sales actually declined by more than 10 percent at some notable high-end chains such as Cold Stone Creamery.

Lieberman, in interviews, acknowledged that some Gifford’s stores were behind on rent even before he sold the shops. The company closed two unsuccessful stores before the sale. Asked whether the retail side of the business had been profitable, Andrew Quartner, one of Lieberman’s partners, said, “Depends what you mean by profitable.”

At the same time, Gifford’s faced increasing pressure from a trademark battle with an unrelated Maine ice cream chain also named Gifford’s, which has asserted in a federal lawsuit that it won rights to the Gifford’s name after the Washington-area Gifford’s went into bankruptcy. Ice cream can be a rocky road.

It only gets worst for the retail stores once Baltimore investor Luke Cooper gets involved. But don’t let me spoil it. Read the narrative yourself as it spills one sad detail after another.

Now, here’s what I don’t understand: People are only too happy to shell out $3 for a gourmet cupcake, $10 or more for an upscale burger, and $12 and up for a custom-made pizza. So why is the fussy ice cream market taking such a hit? I thought people were seeking (relatively) cheap comforts during this ongoing recession, as if a temporary return to childhood could ease the pain of our country’s unemployment woes and our non-existent savings.

Is ice cream just too seasonal? Is it too fattening? Is it too expensive? Or is it, as I suspect, that cold foods too closely reflect America’s environment right now? The economy is stalled. Congress can’t reach a compromise (and it’s only going to get worse next year). Everyone’s shouting at each other on TV, and the comedians have taken over the political discourse. Who wants to put something cold in our mouths to remind us of America’s chilly mood?

Photo by dcJohn via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution License