While we have the entrepreneurial spirit alive and well in Rhode Island, it is comforting to know that there are some certainties in life. One of those simple joys in life is Gray’s Ice Cream. Located at the historic Four Corners in Tiverton, owner and ice cream maker Marilyn Bettencourt knows a thing or two about how to keep this Rhode Island tradition alive. Gray’s Ice Cream started serving in 1923 and has changed hands a few times since. In 1981, Marilyn bought Gray’s after it had been under foreclosure with its previous owners. “Gray’s was always a very special place to me,” Marilyn says. Thirty-one years later, she’s proven that this Rhode Island staple is just as important now as it has ever been. It’s not just business: it is personal. “It’s my life, my heart, my soul.”
The mantra she lives by is clear in her approach to her business. It is even clearer in the loyalty of her employees, who often come on as young teens, work with her through high school, come back from college during the summers to work, and from time-to-time in this fickle economy, stay on after graduating. “I have kids who work for me whose parents worked for me. I’m on the third generation now!” In a work environment where everyone tries to outdo one another in sundae-making and where the employees have a hand in naming their resident dairy cows (whose milk is not used for their ice cream), Gray’s is a beacon. Even Marilyn’s three daughters worked with her at one point. Everyone knows that when you work for your parents, you’ve got to work harder than everyone else. “I’m very proud of my daughters,” she says. “They are all good people, and I am very proud to say that.” One of her daughters will be visiting from out of state to help her mother keep up with Gray’s holiday demands. Marilyn clearly has a knack for nurturing things to fruition with the end results being able to stand the test of time.
Part of the nurturing involves actually making the ice cream. She runs the “Cadillac” of ice cream makers. Her two industrial-strength Emery-Thompson ice cream machines are run for 40 hours per week – minimum – during peak season.
Gray’s serves between 3,000-4,000 customers on any given Sunday. However, “any day the sun is shining, we’re busy. I don’t count how many hours I am there. I don’t have weeks or weekends. I just have Gray’s all the time.” That mentality is also apparent in the community, where Gray’s served as a place of comfort after a tragedy struck Tiverton High School. The entire football team gathered at Gray’s for solace. “It’s things like that that show you where you belong.”
And speaking of comfort, one does not go into an ice cream parlor without some preconceived notion of what classic flavor to savor. The Tiverton location’s top flavor is Coffee, followed by Vanilla; the Bristol location’s top seller is Chocolate, followed by Cookie Dough; the Fall River location is too new to know what is the top seller. “My flavors are the old-fashioned ones that people expect,” Marilyn says. It is also important to note that she will sometimes eat the ice cream right out of the machine, in a moment of pure, wholesome, indulgence. Her favorite flavors are Coffee, Maple Walnut, Pistachio & Hot Fudge, Ginger (when she’s making it) and finally, Coconut. “You have to have passion for what you’re doing. Owning a small business takes having that passion, doing the best you can, and then constantly trying to improve yourself. My goal is to make sure Gray’s Ice Cream continues with its life. Rhode Island wouldn’t be the same without Gray’s. It’s a landmark, and our customers expect us to be here.”
Historic Four Corners, 16 East Road, Tiverton. 401-624-4500
Open 365 Days a year with summer hours Mon-Thurs 6:30am-7pm, Fri- Sun 6:30am-10pm.
On the Dock, 259 Thames Street, Bristol.
Open Mon-Sun 12pm-10pm.
Borden Light Marina, One Ferry Street, Fall River.
Open Tue-Sun 12pm-8pm, closed Mondays except for the holidays.