For many years, the Klondike — a chocolate-coated ice cream confection sold today at just about every supermarket — was a special treat found only at Isaly’s in Pittsburgh and Ohio.
Pittsburgh lays claim to Isaly’s Klondike, which makes sense as the city housed the most Isaly’s stores and became the brand’s headquarters, said Brian Butko, director of publications at Heinz History Center, who wrote “Klondikes, Chipped Ham & Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly’s.”
It’s even currently competing for the title of Ultimate Pittsburgh Frozen Treat, which you can vote for in this bracket presented by The Philadelphia Contributionship.
But the square-shaped, foil-wrapped delicacy didn’t actually start here. It all began in Mansfield, Ohio, with William Isaly and his Mansfield Pure Milk Company, founded during the early 1900s.
The son of Swiss immigrants, Isaly made milk and cheese, and then set up a storefront called Isaly’s. Shoppers loved it because they could buy from the manufacturer directly, rather than from a middle-man at a traditional market, Butko said.
The earliest reference to the Klondike dates back to a Feb. 5, 1922 article in the Youngstown Vindicator.
“It mentioned that Isaly’s Dairy was making six flavors of Klondike for 10 cents each,” Butko said. “That in itself was pretty interesting because the flavors weren’t at all what we think of. The standard vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, but then also cherry, maple and grape.”
Fruit and nut ice cream flavors were popular in the 1920s, Butko said, but those flavors faded away with standardization as the 1920s wore on and the classic vanilla ice cream-chocolate shell combination took prominence.
It was an influential time for ice cream treats, with Good Humor bars, Eskimo Pie bars, and Klondike bars joining the market within three weeks of each other in winter 1922. Similar to a Good Humor bar, the original Youngstown-produced Klondike came packaged on a stick.
Around the 1930s, Isaly’s storefronts started popping up in Pittsburgh. Each shop was strategically organized into three sections — a deli counter with milk, cheese and ham; an area for ice cream; and a restaurant. That way, Butko said, even people going to sit down for a meal had to walk past the enticing ice cream treats.
Though it’s hard to find people nowadays who remember Isaly’s in the ’30s, Butko found some who remembered Isaly’s Klondikes had a “lucky center.” If you bit into a Klondike and found it had a pink center, that meant you’d get a free one.
“At my talks, the older people (who worked at Isaly’s) would often confess after all these decades they would unwrap the Klondike and chip off some of the chocolate and then if they could see pink, they’d hold that for the pretty girls,” Butko said. “And then the older ladies would blush and say, ‘I always got a pink Klondike!’”
Eating at an Isaly’s was a quintessential Pittsburgh experience (so much so that it’s part of the reason Pittsburghers add an ‘s’ to everything). Back then, Butko said, the chocolate was thicker — “it was like getting a candy bar with your ice cream.”
As Isaly’s expanded over the years, William Isaly’s sons operated manufacturing plants in Ohio and Pittsburgh. In the Mansfield plant, for example, “Klondike girls” used a metal hook to dip the slabs of homemade ice cream into vats of chocolate before hanging each one to dry.
The Pittsburgh plant, located along the Boulevard of the Allies near Magee Hospital, opened on May 18, 1931 — just over 80 years ago. There, an Isaly family member invented a machine called the Polarmatic. It cut the ice cream and poured chocolate over each slice at a rate of 75 Klondikes per minute, equipping the plant to make 11 million bars per year.
The company continued to expand into larger, more efficient factories, such as one in Hanover, which could produce 60 million bars per year, and another in California that could produce 1.2 million Klondikes every day. Yes, you read that right — 1.2 million every day.
The increasing factory output allowed the company to keep up with demand from customers who could buy Klondike’s in grocery stores starting in the 1970s.
When it began nationwide distribution in the 1980s with its iconic “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” jingle, the treat became so popular that the company couldn’t keep up with demand. It became the best-selling novelty ice cream treat in the nation in the ’90s, and sales soared from $800,000 yearly to more than $60 million.
The Isalys sold to investors, and Unilever eventually took over in 1993, at which point the “Isaly’s” name was removed from the Klondike wrapper. Unilever did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
These days, more than a dozen flavors are on the market, such as caramel, mint chocolate chip and rocky road. Now, the sweet treat is easily accessible at any supermarket, an indication of its rapid growth over a century, Butko said, “from Swiss farmers to the Isaly’s plants to the world’s largest family-owned dairy company and then selling it and making the Klondike bar into something familiar in every home.”