Sign at closed Maryville Kay's
photo by John Shearer
Kay’s ice cream may seem like a part of the past in Chattanooga – except for the store still remaining in Soddy-Daisy – but it has been very much a part of the present in Knoxville this summer.
Several weeks ago, the large Food City grocery chain – which has numerous stores in the Knoxville area – began selling Kay’s ice cream after several years in which it was not produced or sold anywhere.
While that was some good news for lovers of Kay’s ice cream, some sad news also surfaced when James Suddath “Nutty Buddy” Alexander Jr., who had headed the Kay’s operation in Knoxville for a number of years, died July 22 of congestive heart failure at the age of 74.
As one who has long been familiar with Kay’s proud heritage in Chattanooga, particularly when the Kollmansperger family ran the company, I became curious to learn exactly how the separate Knoxville operation fit into the story.
According to Mr. Alexander’s son, 50-year-old James Alexander III, who served as vice president of the Knoxville firm, the connection dates back a number of years.
Frank Kollmansperger opened the first Kay’s ice cream store and plant in April 1934 on Brainerd Road in a Tudor-style building built by the Williamson Milk and Ice Cream Co.
The building was a landmark in the 3700 block of the street until being torn down in the early 1990s to make way for a Food Lion grocery store.
When Kay’s was started, it was named for the first letter of Mr. Kollmansperger’s last name.
Mr. Kollmansperger -- who evidently had the financial help of a friend when he started the business at the age of 32 – had been reared in Iowa and graduated with a dairy science degree from Iowa State University. Shortly after graduation and on the day after marrying Freda Sutherland, he moved to Chattanooga to work for the George K. Brown ice cream and candy company, which had a popular dessert eatery in downtown Chattanooga.
He later became superintendent of Southern Dairies after that firm purchased the Brown firm.
Initially, Mr. Kollmansperger, who was affectionately nicknamed “Tiny” because of his large stature, made and delivered the ice cream, while his wife served it at the store. They also lived for a number of years just across Brainerd Road.
A man who evidently knew how to create business as well as quality ice cream, Mr. Kollmansperger soon had branch stores on Dodds Avenue and Glass Street.
The business soon branched into other communities as well. An old newspaper article said that he or his company had opened similar operations in Knoxville in 1936 and in Roanoke, Va., in 1949. He also bought the Grant-Patten Milk Co. and was a backer of the popular Dairy Gold restaurants, which were headed by his son-in-law.
Mr. Alexander said he believes that the Knoxville operation had been started once and then went dormant before his grandfather, James Blevins, became involved.
Mr. Blevins had been reared in Decatur, Tenn., and worked for Sealtest. As a result of his employment in the dairy industry, he knew Mr. Kollmansperger.
He made a suggestion to Mr. Kollmansperger that he would like to go to Knoxville and see if he could grow the Knoxville operation. As part of the agreement, Mr. Blevins asked for one-third ownership in the operation.
Mr. Kollmansperger agreed, so Mr. Blevins moved to Knoxville in 1956. Another man was also involved in the partnership initially, Mr. Alexander said.
Under Mr. Blevins’ leadership, the Knoxville operation really took off.
Mr. Alexander remembers that his father, who married Mr. Blevins’ daughter, came to work in Chattanooga about 1960 at the Brainerd Road plant when the younger Mr. Alexander was only about 4.
Unfortunately, Frank Kollmansperger and Mr. Blevins had some kind of falling out, Mr. Alexander said, so the two companies split operations. As part of the split, the Knoxville firm was not allowed to open an ice cream shop south of Cleveland, he said
The Chattanooga operation began calling itself Kay’s Kastles about this time to differentiate it from the Knoxville business, which remained Kay’s.
Both businesses had a number of ice cream shops as well as giant ice cream cone signs in front of them. Mr. Alexander said one of the Knoxville firm’s tall signs was featured in Time magazine.
While the Chattanooga firm quit making its own ice cream after selling that branch of its operations to Mayfield in 1970, the Knoxville firm continued to make its ice cream at a plant on Pleasant Ridge Road in Northwest Knoxville. It was sold in such stores as Red Food Store for a number of years.
Kay’s was considered one of the first companies that offered flavors besides vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.
Later, Charles Kollmansperger, Mr. Kollmansperger’s son, took over the operation of the Chattanooga Kay’s Kastles and grew the number of stores.
What Chattanoogan from that time period does not remember enjoying a hot dog with chili and mustard slaw or a barbecue sandwich, and then finishing off that tasty meal with a hot fudge sundae, hot fudge cake, banana split or ice cream cone?
I frequented both the Kay’s Kastle on Hixson Pike across from Central Baptist Church as well as the one on Dayton Boulevard across from the current Red Bank Middle School. Or occasionally – after I visited my favorite Chattanooga attraction of my youth, the Incline Railway – we would go to the one in St. Elmo.
Mr. Alexander said that after Charles Kollmansperger began running the Chattanooga business, friendly relations resumed with the Alexanders and Mr. Kollmansperger agreed to let the Knoxville operation expand closer into the Chattanooga market. He also talked about having the Knoxville firm start making ice cram for them.
He unfortunately died at middle age in 1977, however, and those plans never really materialized, Mr. Alexander said.
The Kay’s Kastles in Chattanooga later changed hands, and eventually the units were sold separately.
In 1990, the Kay’s operation in Knoxville was sold to C.F. Sauer Company of Richmond, Va. Its ice cream manufacturing operations eventually were halted, and the stores were sold off.
One on Chapman Highway in South Knoxville remains, and a closed and empty one in Maryville, Tenn., still has the signage.
When Food City sought to bring back the Kay’s ice cream formerly made by the Knoxville company, it asked Mr. Alexander III who had the rights to the product. Through legal channels, the grocery chain was able to bring it back from the Sauer firm, and Mr. Alexander was involved in the initial taste tests.
Food City President and CEO Steven Smith said in news reports that the ice cream was an ideal product line for his stores to sell.
"Like our company, Kay's Ice Cream was also a local family-owned operation and we're excited to bring back such a popular line of top quality products," he said.
In Chattanooga, one can still enjoy the Kay’s Kastles shop in Soddy-Daisy.
Manager Christine Dent said that owner Cathy Petty has changed little about that Kay’s since buying it 20 or so years ago.
“Everything here is still original,” said Ms. Dent. “We still have the hot dogs and the hot fudge cakes. The only thing we have added since she bought it is pizza.”
That is enough to make my heart – if not my ice cream – melt.
New Kay's ice cream carton
photo by John Shearer