Image: Star Spangled Ice Cream cartons
MSNBC.com
Smaller GovernMint and Iraqi Road are two of the flavors sold by Star Spangled Ice Cream. Vice President Richard Lessner says Iraqi road is the most popular flavor based on Web sales.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 2/11/2006 11:15:42 AM ET 2006-02-11T16:15:42

Quite likely, back in the spring of 2003, as the United States was going to war in Iraq and President Bush was very popular and three politically connected friends launched the Star Spangled Ice Cream Co. as the conservative alternative to Ben & Jerry’s (with flavors like Cherry Falwell and Gun Nut), you probably thought to yourself, “Well, there’s a political stunt that won’t survive if Bush’s numbers go in the tank.”

Good thing you didn’t put money on that bet. You would have lost.

It’s nearly three years later, and approval of Bush and his handling of the war hovers around 40 percent. But Star Spangled Ice Cream (“The Sweet Taste of Freedom”) is still going strong.

“We don’t see any slowdown in growth,” said Richard Lessner, the company’s vice president, who said there was no discernible correlation between the popularity of conservative policies and the popularity of conservative ice cream.

In fact, the company, based in Alexandria, Va., is expanding from its thriving Web-only distribution into retail stores. It just recently worked out a deal to put its ice cream in several hundred 7-Elevens in the mid-Atlantic region, and it’s gotten a warm reception in Navy base exchanges, where it expects to expand its presence.

Birth of a notion
It’s a story Lessner has recounted many times by now, but he is happy to repeat it: how he and two old friends were agreeing that Ben & Jerry’s made terrific ice cream but how they couldn’t stomach its liberal politics. So they pooled some capital and started their own.

Like Ben & Jerry’s, they sell their punningly named product in bright, whimsical cartons. Ben & Jerry’s sells Cherry Garcia; Star Spangled used to sell Cherry Falwell. Ben & Jerry’s sells Chunky Monkey and Chubby Hubby. Star Spangled sells Nutty Environmentalist and I Hate the French Vanilla.

Like Ben & Jerry’s, they give a good chunk of their profits to charities and congenial political causes. Ben & Jerry’s gives to groups like the Environmental Health Alliance, Mothers for Peace, Green Worker Cooperatives and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. Star Spangled gives to the Navy League, the Oliver North/Sean Hannity Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund, the Gun Owners Foundation Gun Safety Project (hard-right hard rocker Ted Nugent, a fan, endorses Gun Nut), the USO and numerous other military charities.

So what do the folks at Ben & Jerry’s think of the competition? They didn’t reply to a request for comment — in fact, they’ve never commented about Star Spangled.

“They usually sneer at us,” Lessner said. “Truthfully, they’re a huge company. They’re a multinational, owned by Lever, out of Belgium, and we’re just three guys with an idea.”

A right cross to the sweet spot
Well, not quite.

Strictly speaking, the folks behind Star Spangled are just three guys with an idea. But there’s more to them than that. All three have deep roots in the conservative movement, and they know how to get attention for their causes. This story is probably proof of that.

Lessner, the vice president (a position he was assigned by drawing straws), is an associate in Capital City Partners, a powerhouse conservative consulting and public relations group; he is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union, an intellectual engine of American conservatism. CEO Frank Cannon, former head of Students for Reagan, co-founded Capital City; he ran Gary Bauer’s presidential campaign in 2000 and contributes regularly to The Weekly Standard. President Andrew Stein is a major-league corporate lawyer in New Jersey.

None of them, in fact, know how to make ice cream. They contracted that part of it to a Baltimore dairy called Moxley’s. They say they don’t know owner Tom Washburn’s politics and don’t care, because he makes great ice cream. (More about that later.) As the brand moved into retail stores, they added a second manufacturer, Leiby’s Dairy of Tamaqua, Pa.

Sales from the Web remain strong, Lessner said, even though the necessity to ship the ice cream packed in dry ice overnight puts the online price at $66 for six pints or $76 for four quarts. To get it off the shelf, you have to live in the mid-Atlantic or the Northeast or near a Navy base in a handful of states. There, it runs around $3 a pint, competitive with Ben & Jerry’s.

“More than half of our sales [off the Internet] are reorders,” Lessner said. “And it’s a fairly steep price ... so people must like the product.”

The tasters speak
Lessner said he and his partners wanted to make the best ice cream on the market “and have some fun.”

So just how good is Star Spangled Ice Cream? We ordered six pints and invited anyone in the MSNBC.com offices to give them a try. All of them — Fightin’ Marine Tough Cookies & Cream, Iraqi Road, Smaller GovernMint, G.I. Love Chocolate, Air Force “Plane” Vanilla” and Navy Battle Chip (vanilla with tiny peanut butter cups) — disappeared quickly.

The consensus among our wholly unscientific testers was that the ice cream was tooth-achingly sweet. The base ice cream itself was quite good, although a little chalky, but the mix-ins struggled for adequacy. Overall, they got just an OK rating.

Although Star Spangled wants to go head to head with Ben & Jerry’s, it’s not playing on a level field. Star Spangled is categorized as a premium ice cream, a description based on its butterfat content — at 14 percent, it falls well short of Ben & Jerry’s 18 percent, which bumps it up into the superpremium category.

You also have to factor in the shipping. Our delivery took two days to arrive, by which time all the dry ice had evaporated. Uneven thawing and freezing would likely have altered its texture and sapped the mix-ins of their crunch and freshness.

(Also, all the reviewers were journalists — full disclosure for those of you who believe in a liberal media bias.)

Star Spangled is eager to get feedback like that. It solicits reviews on its Web site, and it posts all of them, good or bad. Notices for the ice cream itself are uniformly favorable, but not so for the political message.

Like: “This is absolutely the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. Why don’t you imbeciles get a real job?” And: “How about ‘Fascist Fudge for Fat Flabby Dumb [Expletive]-ing Yanks!’” And: “How dare you hijack (so-called) patriotism for profit? I’m sure you’ll make a ton of money, especially since your target marKKKet doesn’t think for itself.”

“There are a lot of angry liberals,” said Lessner, who had this advice for them:

“Relax. It’s just ice cream.”

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