Hilke’s Ice comes ‘full circle’ with production expansion

By Neal A. Johnson, UD Editor
Posted 10/14/20

FREEBURG — Hilke’s Ice Co. owner Laron Hilke announced last week that operations at Freeburg would be expanded by 80 tons per 24-hour cycle — from 120 to 200 tons — by the end of the …

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Hilke’s Ice comes ‘full circle’ with production expansion

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FREEBURG — Hilke’s Ice Co. owner Laron Hilke announced last week that operations at Freeburg would be expanded by 80 tons per 24-hour cycle — from 120 to 200 tons — by the end of the year.
“For the last three years, business has steadily improved and we’ve struggled to keep up with production,” said Hilke. “The demand is unreal.”
Currently, the company has two 20-ton and one 80-ton machine, and the newest unit will have an 80-ton capacity, all purchased from Vogt Machines in Louisville, Ky.
“We’ve always used Vogt Machines,” said Hilke.
Tom Howat of Modern Ice Equipment & Supply in Cincinnati, Ohio, which recently inked the deal with Hilke, has been part of the family’s history since 1974.
“He got my parents started in the ice business,” said Hilke. “He sold Dad a 400-pound ice machine, an ice chest, a box of bags, and a scoop.”
This new machine, like the others already in use, dwarf the production from that era but Hilke is known for its tube ice, and about a year ago, Hilke said he knew something would have to be done.
“I can store 700 tons of ice in four freezers,” said Hilke, who has three in Freeburg and one in Cuba. “We moved ice very fast last summer and I could have moved another 1,000 tons if I’d had more production, so we decided to do something about it.”
Hilke added that he knew the only options were to add another cold-storage facility south of town or add production. In July, he started making inquiries and the deal came together relatively quickly.
With the new ice machine, Hilke said the roof will have to be raised six feet, which was done in 2007 when the last 80-ton machine was installed. Verslues Construction handled the job then and will do so again.
“We have a great relationship with Verslues,” said Hilke. “They do a fantastic job.”
It’s also important that every piece of equipment used by Hilke Ice is homegrown.
“I’m making damn sure that everything going into this business is made in America,” he said of augurs, evaporators, and receiver tanks.
Should demand continue, Hilke said he can add another 80-ton machine.
“We could go to 280 tons of capacity overnight if need be,” he said.
In that event, another roof will have to be raised and if business continues to improve, Hilke said he could see adding another machine in a couple of years.
Hilke Ice offers seven and 20-pound bags of tube cube, the ice with the hole in the center, and 10-pound block ice, though that is not nearly as popular.
“Block ice accounts for about one percent of my business,” Hilke said. “It’s a generational thing. Young people don’t even know what block ice is or what to do with it.”
Once the new machine is up and running, Hilke will look at next summer to see what changes need to be made with his workforce. “We may from 6-8 hour shifts to 12-hour shifts,” he said. “It would be nice to put more people to work because I refuse to do automation. We won’t know what will happen until we get there.”
At this time, Hilke expects to have 45 employees working next summer.
“We’re fortunate that business picked up,” he said. “About 10 years ago, corporate ice companies tried to run the independents out and we didn’t know what would happen to us. About six or eight years ago, we fought back and slapped corporate down. These corporate outfits can’t give service like independents can.”
Of particular interest is where the new machine will be placed, since the building which will house it was once the site of a car wash operated by the Hilkes. Now that Laron and Donna Hilke own the car wash in Freeburg, located across from Holy Family Parish, the circle is complete because what stood there long before the car wash was Hilke’s Cafe, operated by John and Marie Hilke.

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