Fifty flavors of ice cream, including Ginger Ginger, the most seductive ginger since the one on Gilligan’s Island.
Six flavors of mochi, the sweet, rice dough-wrapped ice cream popular in Asian communities.
There’s also Dragon Eggs (a fudge crumble cookie topped with ice cream and enrobed with dark Belgian chocolate) and MUD (a date-sweetened, non-dairy frozen dessert). And let’s not forget bacon and peanut butter frozen yogurt, for your favorite four-legged friend.
All these products and more are made at MGT Foods in Keyport, headquartered in the former town post office. There is nothing outside the block-long, 10,000-square-foot brick building to indicate what’s going on inside. No sign. No company name.
But low-profile MGT Foods is a major player in the ice cream world.
“We sell more (traditional) Asian ice cream than any other company in the world,” says Michael Emanuele, MGT’s vice president.
The company transformed the post office five years ago into a state-of-the-art ice cream manufacturing facility. Inside, past the glass-fronted offices, you’ll encounter a symphony of sound — glistening stainless steel machines whirring, spinning, stamping, mixing and blending product nonstop.
It’s a “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” updated for the 21st century.
“The most bold and unique ice cream in the world,” the company website proclaims.
MGT Foods is the parent company of Mr. Green Tea and Mr. Mochi. It is also the maker of The Bear & The Rat frozen dog treats as well as private label ice cream for the likes of Trader Joe’s and PetSmart. Mr. Green Tea ice cream — flavors include red bean, chai latte, black sesame, Thai coconut, chocolate and Madagascar bourbon vanilla — can be found in some 5,000 restaurants across the country. In a typical day, the Keyport plant will crank out 2,000 gallons of ice cream.
“We cater to a lot of high-end restaurants,” Emanuele explains. “James Beard nominees. Zagat-rated restaurants.”
Never heard of MGT Foods or Mr. Green Tea? I hadn’t either, until I came across the ice cream in my epic ranking of supermarket ice cream, where Mr. Green Tea came in at No. 14. Emanuele good-naturedly complained Mr. Green Tea should have finished higher.
The company was started by Santo Emanuele, Michael’s grandfather, who flew B-17 bombing missions for the Eighth Air Force in World War II. Pilots and crew who completed 25 missions were awarded membership in something called the Lucky Bastard Club. The missions, deep into enemy territory, were harrowing experiences — only a tiny percentage of pilots and crew members returned to their bases alive after making that many sorties.
Santo Emanuele’s Lucky Bastard membership certificate hangs just inside MGT Foods’ entrance. In 1968, he started a Brooklyn-based ice cream business — Mr. Green Tea — to appeal to the emerging Japanese restaurant industry. The first three flavors were traditional Asian favorites: red bean, green tea and ginger.
Santo Emanuele — who at one point worked for a company called Smiling Foods, a distributor of Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink — wouldn’t recognize Mr. Green Tea, or MGT Foods, today. The main production room boasts an array of shiny, expensive equipment, from a batch freezer and water chiller to blending vats and an in-line blender. Product is kept in a vast freezer, where the temperature is a bone-chilling 20 degrees below zero.
In a nearby 10,000-square-foot warehouse, something called a Thermo-Forming MAP (Modified Atmosphere Packaging) machine makes custom packaging for a variety of food products. It’s a $1 million piece of equipment when you factor in the necessary transformers and pressurized air required to run it.
MGT Foods uses a recirculating glycol system to chill the water that flows through its water-cooled equipment instead of using city water, which would waste thousands of gallons a day. Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka” would have no clue what to make of all of it.
Everything is done on a large scale here. The ice cream base — milk, cream, sugar — comes in 3,000-pound bags.
During my visit, MGT Foods was making frozen yogurt for dogs — 12,000 four-cup packages per hour — for The Bear & The Rat, a Colorado-based company. “Unlike ice cream for humans, our frozen yogurt dog treats are formulated specifically for your pup,” according to its website. “With quality ingredients like real peanut butter, applewood smoked bacon, bananas and digestive enzymes, all it takes is one lick for your pup to fall in love with our cool treats.”
In 2019, MGT Foods produced 7 million 2/3 cup servings of Mr. Green Tea ice cream alone. Food service revenue — from restaurants and cafeterias — is down 50% from last year due to a COVID-19-caused drop in demand, but online sales are up dramatically in 2020, according to Emanuele.
The ice cream, and products made for other companies, are available on thebite.life, MGT Foods’ e-commerce site. Emanuele said the company received a major boost when it was featured on The Profit, a CNBC show hosted by billionaire Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Camping World. MGT Foods hopes to use thebite.life as a platform where entrepreneurs such as Mikey Likes It Ice Cream can showcase and sell their products.
“We want to do for others what Marcus did for us,” Emanuele says.
Pints are available online and at retailers such as Whole Foods, while restaurants are shipped 2.5-gallon containers. The most popular Mr. Green Tea flavor is green tea. The most expensive to make? Vanilla.
“Because vanilla extract is so bonkers expensive,” according to Emanuele, who interestingly enough, has dairy and nut allergies. He can eat the ice cream in moderate doses, but milk and peanut butter, not so much.
“Peanut butter I can’t go near,” he says. “Milk? A little here and there.”
There is one tasty perk to working at MGT Foods. Pints used for sampling are left in the lunchroom freezer. Employees are free to take any of them home.
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Peter Genovese may be reached at [email protected].