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The Iceman Is Already Here

Tue, 07/25/2023 - 06:51
Al Vigneau held up one of his perfect ice "spheres" outside the Hamptons Ice factory and warehouse in Southampton.
Jennifer Landes

Imagine your favorite beverage -- an iced tea, some kind of soda, or lemonade. Maybe it's something stronger like Scotch on the rocks, or a cocktail with premium mixers, fresh squeezed juice, and top-shelf liquor. 

Now picture it poured over ice. What does the ice look like in the glass? Is it cloudy? Oddly shaped? Does it melt too rapidly, watering everything down? What about clear flawless cubes, ready for a magazine layout, and placed just so in the glass? Or a perfect sphere, looking not unlike the glass orb in that controversial Leonardo image of Christ as the savior of the world?

In the United States, beverages are big business, and apparently more and more people have become discerning in their experience of them. People who care about craft cocktails or other artisanal drinks care about ice too. Albert Vigneau knows this and he has brought that concern -- he might say obsession -- to the South Fork with his company Hampton Ice.

The colorful bags, bearing the logo "HI" with stripes of color that allude to the sand, sea, and sky of the area, began appearing at parties around the South Fork last year. Mr. Vigneau has supplied the ice for a number of high profile events this summer as well, including recent large events like Rufus Wainwright's birthday concert at the Montauk Lighthouse, the Hamptons Fine Art Fair in Southampton, and somewhat smaller gatherings for summer residents like Donna Karan and Gwyneth Paltrow.

"I grew up in Rhode Island where every beach town had an ice house. Before we went to the beach, we went to the ice house," he recalled recently. When he came to the South Fork 15 years ago, he asked "where is the ice house? I never went to the beach without getting ice for my coolers." He found his only nearby option were the five-pound bags at convenience stores.

Mr. Vigneau is known for gatherings of artistically minded friends at his 2.5-acre property across from the Surf Lodge in Montauk. "I've had a lot of events at my house. I have a pretty big crew in Montauk. We constantly needed ice and had nowhere to get it."

He estimates that the average person thinks about ice three times a day. "You go to your fridge, get ice water, iced coffee, ice in your cocktails at night. You need it." When he's staying at a hotel that doesn't have an ice machine and he has to order it from the front desk, "you gotta see me freaking out, because I chew it too. It's a real passion."

As people become choosier about the quality of their beverages, more are looking for premium ice with both clarity and a strong visual appeal. Dalton Portella

He complained about the issue constantly until Nicholas Vigliarolo, his now business partner, told him that he had a blueprint for an ice company he was considering building out from his HVAC business (Hamptons Quality Heating and Cooling in Montauk). All that was missing was the site.

They discovered that the old Berkoski ice factory on Mariner Drive in Southampton was available, and they went for it. Mr. Vigliarolo handles the operational side and Mr. Vigneau, everything else, including marketing and learning the business so he could train others. "At year one, I wanted to do everything to figure out the logistics."

The Berkoskis had been handling ice in the area for several decades, then Bill Berkoski, the most recent proprietor, died suddenly in 2011. His family ran the business for a year, but then sold it to a much larger Long Island ice company.

The partners replaced the ice-making equipment, but the water pipes and freezers only needed a refurbishment. They were up and running last July and have been building the business ever since. Speaking in the factory office (which looks like frat house party room with a bar, fish tank, a futon set up for crashing, and a worn red velvet sofa), Mr. Vigneau said that it took a while for the new machinery to arrive from China and then they needed time to perfect the process and the product. 

Their equipment filters tap water with a reverse osmosis process and then sanitizes it with UV light. The ice is formed from the bottom up in layers, which gives it that clarity. Each batch in the machine yields 400 pounds. At the time of the visit, they were in the process of making enough to have 50 tons (100,000 pounds) ready by Memorial Day. "It sounds like a lot, but it isn't," he said. They met the goal and have been cranking out more ever since. 

During the interview, the ice machine's noisy process of creating cubes and automatically dropping them into bags was evident until there was a pause. Bryce Linker, one of four employees hired from Eastern Suffolk BOCES, held a flawless cube up to the light for Mr. Vigneau's inspection. The production continued. They make bags of eight, 20, and 50 pounds (for catering). Although the regular bagged cubes are perfect for drinks, special two-by-two inch square cubes and the spheres are made there as well. The ice can also be personalized with stamps.

Their blocks of ice can chill a fisherman's cooler for three days. Ice luges, into which channels are cut to pour alcohol for parties, can be made to order. They now have dry ice and ice sculptures as well. The ice sculptures can be specialized with something as simple as a logo, or, for the more grandiose, formed into a D.J. booth for a party in August.

Mr. Vigneau, who is in his 40s, spent a couple of decades working with hedge funds involved in the health care industry. Seeing him now, in his dark skinny jeans, high tops, a chambray shirt, and a bandana tied around his head, he looks more ready for frisbee in the quad than a conference room or a trading desk.

Still, that business background helps him understand the market and the margins. Last year, Hampton Ice sold 100 tons, even with the late start. He needs to triple that amount to break even. Through the first half of July, he said they have already matched last year and are on track to do 400 or even 500 tons by year's end. They're benefitting from 15 retail freezers -- at marinas, delis, and liquor stores such as Bottle Hampton, Maidstone Harbor Marina, Water Mill Liquors, and the Montauk Anglers Club and Marina -- and the block and specialty ice operation, none of which were ready last year. Parties and events will continue to be a big part of the equation. With a premium in-demand product, as long as "you show up on time and don't screw up, that's it," he said. Ice can be purchased directly from the Southampton factory's loading dock on weekends with warehouse pricing, too. 

Looking beyond beverages, he is working with a company called Ice Barrel to offer cold therapy ice baths. That company has ice barrels to rent out for events and to health and fitness establishments. Over the July 4 weekend, Mr. Vigneau hosted a Wellness Wonderland event with workouts and recovery services that also featured the ice baths. 

There are a lot of ways to expand, including selling purified water, but he said his current focus is on the core business. "I need to master that and then move on to the next thing." For now, that means marketing. "I've hit up every storefront, every restaurant. And I come in pretty happy," he said with a laugh. "I'm pretty chill, always smiling, always selling my ice."

The company's four employees are strategically placed with coolers from Southampton to Montauk. They're ready to answer the call when a restaurant's machine breaks down or can't keep up with demand. Last summer, he responded himself a few times, supplying emergency ice to places in Montauk in a matter of minutes, not hours. 

Given the South Fork's remoteness and incessant traffic during the summer, residents and businesses are accustomed to poor and expensive service. Mr. Vigneau aims to keep his product affordable and easily accessible -- "my target audience is everyone." He wants the company's number on the speed dial of every bar, restaurant, and caterer, and to put more of those freezers out there. 

"It seems as though every time you sell a freezer to someone it's like a lifetime membership," he said. "The goal is, I want to be here forever."

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