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Pint of Ice Cream Markdale rallies round beloved Chapman's Ice Cream plant
CHAPMAN CRISIS | GTA | Markdale rallies round beloved Chapman's Ice Cream plant

Markdale rallies round beloved Chapman's Ice Cream plant

Chapman’s ice-cream factory, Markdale’s primary employer, burned on Friday. David Chapman, CEO, promised to `take care of’ his employees until he can rebuild. (Sept. 9, 2009)

"It hurts. Like a member of the family going," says long-time employee

Sep 10, 2009 04:30 AM

MARKDALE, Ont.–There remain at least two corporate bigshots whose employees unabashedly revere them, whose vague reassurances are taken as ironclad guarantees, whose word is gold.

Meet David and Penny Chapman. Their factory just burned down.

The fire began with a spark from the torch of a welder. This was Friday morning. By Friday night, the gleeful cone-licking cartoon kids on the Chapman's Ice Cream façade seemed suddenly tactless. Below them walked men with hard hats and stern faces. Behind them and beside them were hulking ruins.

Yesterday morning, most of the 350 employees of Canada's largest independent ice-cream company, many of them distressed, gathered in its dry storage facility behind the destroyed plant. Before them stood David Chapman, company CEO.

He told them the plant would be rebuilt in the village of Markdale, 35 kilometres south of Owen Sound. He told them his startling success story would find a way to succeed anew. And he told them Chapman's insurance company would pay salaried employees in full for one year, hourly employees for four months – and he would "take care of" them beyond that.

On this last promise, Chapman offered no specifics, according to several employees who were at the meeting. None of them particularly cared. David Chapman had made a commitment; David Chapman, they were nonchalantly certain, would keep it.

Line worker Gloria Fawcett, 64, said she plans to draw employment insurance after the four months expire. She expects Chapman will "top up" her government payments, though he never explicitly said he would do so.

"I feel much better now. We know that we're going to be looked after," said Fawcett, an employee for three years. "Mr. Chapman said he would take care of us. So we're going to be fine."

By yesterday, the shock and fear that prevailed in Markdale on Friday had largely given way to a cautious optimism. Nonetheless, the owners of the stores in its small downtown were still concerned that an extended delay in Chapman's production could trigger a ripple effect that would hurt the local economy; Dave Patton, who worked for the company for nearly 20 years beginning at its inception in 1973, compared its local economic importance to that of the entirety of Bay St. in Toronto.

And few seemed quite ready to comprehend a Markdale absent the factory. It is impossible to drop a banana split on Toronto St. without tripping someone who works for Chapman's, used to work for Chapman's, or is related to someone who works for Chapman's. Markdale, pop. 1,400, is an ice-cream town.

"It hurts," said Patton. "It hurts. Like a member of the family going."

Markdale residents, many of them carrying cameras, wandered around the off-limits fire site yesterday. The Chapmans live in the area, but David Chapman said it was too early to say how long it would take to rebuild; after the company's remaining supplies evaporate in two or three months, he said, it will continue to supply some of its customers by paying other ice-cream companies to produce its products. Penny Chapman, the company president, declined to predict how the fire would affect revenues.

"What kind of revenues? I can't sell much if I don't have anything," she said with a smile.

Chapman said she believed her husband could "work a miracle" and somehow expedite the resumption of production so that employees are not out of work much longer than four months. If he cannot do so, she said, Chapman's will indeed ensure they do not suffer during the temporary layoff.

"We've got to keep our word," she said. "We've kept our word to them for 36 years."

Fawcett and her colleagues are not small-town folk ignorant of the machinations of the titans of industry. In the past year alone, the town has lost two major employers. But the Chapmans, who launched the company when they bought a creamery more than 100 years old, have earned a devotion rare in the recession-wracked Ontario of 2009.

To ask a Markdale resident about them is, invariably, to hear loquacious praise – for their donations to the annual ice-cream festival and to the town's new hospital, for their approachability, for their Christmas bonuses, for the time they did this or that minor favour for this or that employee.

And, thus, while the Chapmans rally around their working-class employees, visitors to Markdale are treated to an eyebrow-raising spectacle: a working-class community rallying around people who tool around town in a Rolls-Royce.

"I can truthfully say I haven't been hugged by so many women in my life," David Chapman said.

Lee Ann Shaw, the co-proprietor of Markdale's Chilli Willi's ice-cream parlour, casually said she would shut down the store more than a month before season's end if Chapman's is unable to supply her.

"As far as I'm concerned, Chapman's has done a lot for this town. They've put us on the map. The only way I can show my appreciation is to stay true," Shaw said.

"And if by chance something happens and they can't come back next year ... I would have to go with another company for next season, but I'll put a big banner across my building that it's only temporary."

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chapman ice cream, economic system, employment, ice cream factories, ontario

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