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John and Marie Hilke are the founders of mid-Missouri’s biggest ice supply company, with a territory that extends from its base in Osage County roughly 100 miles in all directions.
But it’s a business they never planned to get into.
John Hilke gave up his job as a long-distance truck driver in the 1960s, and he and his wife opened Hilke’s Café in Freeburg. Not long after, the couple opened a car wash on the north side of town.
In 1974, they became dissatisfied with the restaurant’s ice supplier.
“We got tired of waiting for ice,” Marie Hilke said.
Rather than look for another provider, John Hilke decided they might as well make their own, and he drove to St. Louis to purchase a machine that could make 400 pounds of ice a day. Soon enough, word got around that the Hilke’s had an abundance of ice, and before long people were stopping in to buy the surplus.
Not one to ignore an opportunity, John made selling ice an “official” part of the family’s business that July, but a daily production capacity of 400 pounds does not an ice company make.
The family was happy to provide what they could, at times putting their own restaurant in short supply. “In the beginning, I bagged all the ice myself,” Marie Hilke said.
The story of Hilke’s Ice might have ended there if not for a bit of divine intervention.
By late summer, Freeburg’s Holy Family Catholic Church was gearing up for its community-wide Labor Day Parish Picnic.
The Hilkes’ son, Laron, recounts the pivotal event that launched them into the ice business full time: When the parish tried to order ice for the event, “the supplier told them, ‘the Hilkes are in the ice business now; get it from them.’” Envisioning a large crowd sweltering in the heat of late summer, John Hilke knew his single machine wasn’t up to the task at hand. So, true to his problem-solving nature, Hilke got back on the road to St. Louis and returned with not one but two new machines: a second 400-pound cubed ice maker and another that produced 13-pound blocks. The Hilkes might not have been looking for the ice business, but the ice business had definitely found them.
In 1975, the Hilkes moved their ice business to its current location on the north side of Freeburg on property adjacent to their car wash. As the demand for their ice grew, they often added or upgraded equipment to keep up. Eventually the ice business consumed most of the family’s time and energy. In December 1977, the family sold the restaurant to devote more time to its growing enterprise. Marie, who had a job with the State of Missouri, began working for the company full time, producing and packaging the ice. In 1983, the Hilkes closed the adjacent car wash and razed the building to make way for an expansion of the physical plant.
Over the years, Hilke’s Ice acquired 11 other ice companies, enlarging its territory and ensuring future growth. Of the facilities acquired, the company uses one in Cuba for storage but does all of its production in Freeburg.
Distribution from the Freeburg facility extends north to Moberly, west to Boonville, east to Washington, and south to Houston (in Texas County, Mo). From Cuba the company distributes to points 60 miles past St. Louis in one direction and to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park in the other.
The territory includes more than 500 customers. About 95 percent of the customers are resellers, although some of them use ice in the course of their businesses. The remaining 5 percent are restaurants or bars for which ice is a necessity or construction companies that use it in the water coolers they provide for their employees.
As one might expect, the ice business is seasonal. The company runs at full capacity from mid-April through the end of September, producing 120 tons of cubed ice and two tons of blocked ice per 24-hour period, seven days a week.
During the peak season, the company employs a staff of 30. Off peak, the company produces about half as much ice, and 12 year-round employees can handle production and delivery.
Laron Hilke says that during the winter, when there is opportunity for down time, the focus shifts to maintenance, to ensure the company won’t run into unexpected problems during the busiest time of the year. He points out that while the goal is to keep a week’s supply of ice in storage, that supply can quickly become depleted, especially in the event of a natural disaster or extreme heat. During the hottest period of this past summer, when many ice companies were unable to keep up with demand, Hilke’s Ice supplied ice to companies in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas and Illinois.
Hilke’s Ice is very much a family business. John is still the company president, in the office every day, and still very hands-on. Marie works in the office, handling calls and general business duties. Laron manages the two facilities, but his favorite part of the job is dealing directly with his customers; “Produce a bag of ice, and I can move it,” he says. His gregarious nature complements his father’s quiet confidence and mechanical acumen.
Laron’s wife, Penny, handles employee training duties, but her primary job, one she says grew exponentially after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, is ensuring the company is in regulatory compliance. Ice manufacturing facilities are classified as food plants and are subject to the same stringent regulations. Food production was identified post 9/11 as one of eight industries vulnerable to attack or sabotage by terrorists, forcing significant changes to security standards.
Penny now spends most of her time staying on top of multiple regulations from local, state and federal agencies. “When regulations change, you’d better have somebody who likes to read, because the documents can be as long as 400-500 pages, and you have to read every word.” She, too, takes advantage of the winter months to catch up on the latest directives.
Laron has also continued his family’s involvement in regional ice manufacturing associations. John joined the Missouri Valley Ice Association (MVIA) in 1980, and later served as its president. He also served on the board of directors. Marie was the first female board member of the 83-year old association. In 1996, John joined the Southwestern Ice Association. Laron now serves on MVIA committees and is secretary/treasurer of the Southwestern Ice Association.
Laron gets most animated, though, when he describes his role as the chair of the MVIA’s disaster-response program. In that capacity, he’s responsible for contacting the association’s member ice manufacturers and coordinating their joint efforts in response to requests from relief organizations during times of natural disaster. They’ve responded after tornados struck in St. Louis and Carruthersville and during the Oklahoma fires. In response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the association shipped two loads of ice the federal government went on to distribute among the affected cities.
Operating independently, Hilke’s Ice dispatched a semi carrying a 42,000-ton load of ice to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Wilma, where it was met by representatives of a pharmaceutical company desperate to preserve much-needed medications. In times of disaster, the family is able to combine business operations and involvement in emergency, services.