Some 70 years after the introduction of the refrigerator, an ice supply company continues to remake itself.
Ernie Camentz is on a Promethean quest, but it sure doesn't involve fire. For 60 years he has sought to produce a perfectly clear block of ice.
Camentz, 70, is the laconic co-owner of Grocers Ice Co., a 19th-century brick fortress on Louisville's Main Street, five blocks from his boyhood home. Inside Grocers' icehouse the air hangs heavy with ammonia, as Camentz -- ever vigilant for anything that might cloud his product -- trolls the perimeter of what looks like Paul Bunyan's ice-cube tray. Below him water burbles, roils, and freezes into 300-pound blocks. "We have one of the newer tanks, though it looks like it comes from a Dickens novel," says Ron Turnier, 36, Grocers' vice-president. (Mollie Turnier, 33, Ron's wife and Camentz's daughter, is president and co-owner.)
Ice was a consumer staple when Camentz's grandfather Ernst helped found the company, in 1906. But after home refrigerators debuted at the 1934 Chicago World's Fair, icehouses started closing their doors. Ernst's son, Walter (then Grocers' president), was dubious about the upstart appliances. "His logic," says Ron Turnier, "was they were too expensive, and no one would ever buy them." So in 1947, Walter built another ice tank -- this one state-of-the-art.
CUBIST MASTER: Ernie Camentz makes cold, hard cash from the perfect block of ice.
The wisdom of that capital investment was thrown into question over the next two decades as Grocers lost all its residential accounts. But oh, thank heaven for 7-Eleven. Convenience stores flourished in the 1960s and, with them, bagged ice. Twenty years later a surge in the popularity of ice sculptures -- for which Grocers supplies the raw material -- pointed to an even more crystalline future.
Then in 1991, a few years after Ernie Camentz dropped a $1-million insurance policy, fire nearly gutted the plant. Grocers' slow resurgence got a boost when Camentz developed a nearly clear block of ice. Coveted by frosty Rodins for its texture and clarity, the product can fetch up to 10 times what industrial users pay for plain old ice.
Grocers does $700,000 in annual sales, but that figure is dwarfed by the family's recent venture: Creation Gardens, a $5.2-million specialty-produce supplier for upscale eateries. "I have a passion for business," says Turnier with a shrug. "It could be ice, or it could be shoestrings. Ernie, luckily, sits in the drawing room and thinks about ice."