Harbor Bars are back and Mainers are once again enjoying their favorite ice cream treat. The revival of Harbor Bars is in itself an interesting story and builds on the fascinating history of the original product, which had its start in the Northeast Harbor home of Mr. Curtis Blake of Friendly ice cream fame. We now relate the history of the original Harbor Bar as told by Mr. Curtis Blake himself:
Keith, I’m pleased to sit down today and record my thoughts about the history of Harbor Bars. I am inclined to be very detailed about this. Over the years that I’ve been in business, which is about 72 years, lots of myths and misinformation have been spread around, so I look at this as an opportunity to record the definitive history of Harbor Bars.
In July 1935, my brother and I—I was 18 and he was 20—opened our first Friendly ice cream shop at 151 Boston Road in Springfield Massachusetts. We had to close during the war for almost four years, and I was in the service overseas for almost two years. But then after the war we reopened the 2 prewar shops and continued to expand steadily until we had 625 company-owned and -operated family restaurants. In July of 1979 we sold the entire company to the Hershey Food company for cash.
Now, turning to Harbor Bars. In 1974 I married my present wife, Patricia, who had three children, Joe, Anne, and Jim. Several years after we married, Anne changed her last name to Blake. Then in 1993, she changed it again to Anne Blake Garrymore after marrying a very nice guy named William Garrymore. I put that detail in because Anne is the Queen of the Harbor Bar.
We always thought that children should work and not just play all summer, and all the children had had jobs in the summer. So in the spring of 1977, we were talking to the family about a summer project for Anne, who had expressed the idea that she’d like to do something.
In May or June of 1977, we took a trip to California to see my daughter Susan, by my first wife, and during that time we discussed that project. Susan said there was a wonderful product out there called an It’s-It bar—an ice cream sandwich with two cookies, dipped in chocolate. So we went around the corner to the local convenience store and bought some. We were very impressed with the product and decided that a similar product would be Anne’s summer project at our summer home in Northeast Harbor, Maine.
It was my job to provide production facilities; in one stall of our garage, I covered a workbench with oil cloth and devoted this area for her to produce the product. Anne drove the family station wagon to Waterville, Maine to the nearest Friendly to pick up half gallons of Friendly ice cream. Anne and her mother would make cookies in our kitchen, starting with just chocolate chip cookies. I got hold of a hot fudge warmer, and Anne would assemble a bar and use a pair of tongs to dip the bar in the warm chocolate. After the bar was frozen, she wrapped it by hand and included a small label marked “Harbor Bar.”
Anne then went to the local pharmacy in Northeast Harbor (now gone), where the pharmacist had agreed to retail the product. I believe she sold them to him for 47 cents, and he retailed them for 75 cents.
They caught on like wildfire. She’d make a batch and rush them down there. Two hours later the store would call to say the Harbor Bars were all gone. Sometimes we would be making the product until midnight.
Harbor Bars became a very chic thing. People were giving nice dinner parties in Northeast Harbor and serving Harbor Bars for dessert.
By the end of the summer, I asked Anne, who was attending Colgate University, to let me know by Christmas if she wanted to continue the project the following summer or go on to something else. I told her if she wished to continue I would provide a proper facility with more sophisticated equipment
I knew that if I waited until Christmas, however, I wouldn’t have time to find the proper real estate and produce everything required by July 1, so in September I decided to take a gamble and purchase an abandoned restaurant site in Trenton, Maine named Jolly Joe’s.
At Christmas, Anne said that she’d like to proceed with the Harbor Bar project. My architect and I designed the building, which is now the Acadia Welcome Center.
Meanwhile I began to design in my head two important pieces of equipment: the machine to slice the half gallons and the dipping machine to enrobe the bars. We took a cheese slicer and rewired the cutter to suit our needs. I designed a simple dipping machine and produced it in my cellar shop in Connecticut. It had six stainless steel arms attached to a merry-go-round that dropped the product into a dip tank.
Anne opened the store in July 1978. She hired Jim, her younger brother, to drive the refrigerated truck to procure gallons from the Friendly facility and also to establish a wholesale route. Anne experimented with different flavors of ice cream and different cookies. It went well in 1978, and Jim decided that he would like to take it over the following year, which he did. Then Jim spent two years at it and then went on to other things.
I had told the children that if they could show a profit in the fifth summer, I would be pleased. It turned out that in the fourth summer they actually turned a profit. And I thought that was pretty remarkable considering that there was all this overhead and there were only twelve weeks of the year at the most for operation.
I hired someone to manage the operation but wasn’t enthralled with the way things were running, so I decided that I would go back to work. I was 65 years old then and had been pretty well retired from Friendly although we still hadn’t sold the company
I decided to take the concept to Connecticut and develop it into a “proper” year-round business. I purchased a new building and enlarged it to house a large freezer room. And then I went back to the man who had modified the cheese slicer and said, let’s design a serious production line. The design goal would be to make fifty thousand bars in an eight-hour shift. This man, John Jones, really deserves the credit for this production line. We opened the plant with five small pick-up trucks with refrigerated bodies to establish a wholesale network.
We realized that to achieve a large volume we would need to sell our product through supermarket chains. We were frustrated in that effort because large supermarket chains require so much discounting that it was impossible to make a profit. So we decided to concentrate on convenience store chains, which worked out very satisfactorily. After three years of “going back to work,” I decided to cut back and take life a bit easier, so I sold the company, the Harbor Foods Company, to my sales manager, Tom Melkus.
I conclude this history by saying the Blake family is delighted that you’re doing this and we can’t help but wish you well. We sure look forward to knowing you better and keeping in touch.
And the proud new owners of Harbor Bars conclude with a quotation from the King of Ice Cream himself, Curtis Blake, “Eat a Harbor Bar and be happy.”