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Empire Cold Storage and Frosty Ice corner Spokane market

SUNDAY, SEPT. 8, 2013

Ron Plummer stands in front of about 54,000 bags of ice at Empire Cold storage and Frosty Ice in Spokane. (Dan Pelle)
Ron Plummer stands in front of about 54,000 bags of ice at Empire Cold storage and Frosty Ice in Spokane. (Dan Pelle)

While you were basking in sunny, 90-degree weather last weekend with a fully stocked ice chest nearby, others were laboring away in sub-zero temperatures.

Not in Antarctica – right here in Spokane.

The ice in your cooler probably came from a 110-year-old factory on the near North Side. And it’s likely the meat sizzling on your barbecue spent time in a freezing Spokane Valley warehouse.

Both facilities are part of Empire Cold Storage and Frosty Ice.

You may not know Ron Plummer’s company, but chances are you’ve benefited from his services.

Or you’ve noticed his vanity license plates: ICEMANN. (Someone beat him to the simpler ICEMAN.)

We caught up with Plummer at his 1327 N. Oak St., headquarters. He was chilling out in a floral Hawaiian shirt, looking ill-suited to lead a tour of his frigid ice-making facility.

But like most fellow avid skiers, his attitude is, “Once you get acclimated to the cold, it’s not bad.”

Before showing off his ice vaults, Plummer discussed the career journey that took him from real estate to nursing homes to cold storage.

S-R: When did you buy this company?

Plummer: In 1983. The way I understand it, I’m the third owner.

S-R: Did you have any prior experience in cold storage?

Plummer: No. But it was a double business, so I figured if we had a good ice year, that would probably carry us through a weak storage year, and vice versa. And that’s been true over the years, although revenue is generally split 50-50.

S-R: What is your background?

Plummer: I have a business degree from the University of Montana, and sold real estate for a while. My family was in the nursing-home business in Missoula. We sold to a big chain in the early ’80s.

S-R: Was switching to cold storage a culture shock?

Plummer: People here would say, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” But we made a few changes, particularly in tracking inventory. And I grew the company. When I bought it, there was only this 40,000-square-foot building. Then I bought Polar Cold Storage out by the fairgrounds, then Clearwater Ice in Lewiston, and another guy’s business in Cottonwood and Orofino (Idaho). Now we manufacture all the ice here and truck some of it to Idaho.

S-R: How have ice sales evolved?

Plummer: Back in 1903, they used to make 300-pound blocks. Today we mostly sell it in 7-, 10- and 20-pound bags.

S-R: Do you still sell 300-pound blocks?

Plummer: Yes, for ice carving. Those go for about $46, delivered.

S-R: Did the recession affect business?

Plummer: Oh, yeah. And all the stuff that’s going on in business and health care is a downer. But we’ve had a great summer.

S-R: How much cold storage capacity do you have?

Plummer: Before the fire (in 2008 at the Polar Cold Storage facility), we had 80,000 square feet. Earlier this year we leased a 100,000-square-foot warehouse next to Spaulding wrecking yard, so we’ve more than doubled our capacity.

S-R: Was the fire a major blow?

Plummer: At the time we were taken aback, but in the long run it’s been a positive thing. The insurance settlement gave us the ability to get out of debt, because we only rebuilt part of that facility. But after the fire, Seattle Cold Storage came to town and tried to blow us out of the water. There wasn’t enough business for both of us. In my opinion, they figured I was getting close to retirement and they could take over the territory. When my son Matt said he wanted to keep going forward, they probably figured we weren’t going away, so they pulled out and we assumed the lease on their Valley warehouse.

S-R: Your company also was in the news a couple of years ago when it paid a $67,000 fine for delaying the report of a 2007 ammonia refrigerant leak at the North Oak ice-making facility. Did that incident cause any concern among your neighbors?

Plummer: There was no reaction from the neighborhood. But (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) fined the hell out of us, and that was the negotiated amount.

S-R: The North Oak facility is more than a century old, and spread over four floors. What role will it play now that you’ve leased the much larger, one-level warehouse in the Valley?

Plummer: We’re in the process of closing down this facility, except for the ice side, which is about 15,000 square feet.

S-R: Where do you get water for your ice?

Plummer: We have our own 200-foot-deep well, which someone hand-dug back in 1903. On our bags we say, “See and taste the difference,” and I guarantee you can.

S-R: Do you treat the water?

Plummer: No, but the health department tests it every quarter.

S-R: How long does it take your equipment to turn aquifer water into ice?

Plummer: Fifteen minutes. We can make 80 tons of ice a day.

S-R: Does ice have a shelf life?

Plummer: It does in a way, because it shrinks due to evaporation, just like in your refrigerator. But we keep everything at zero or colder, so we don’t worry about shelf life. And after summer, we keep inventory low.

S-R: How about dry ice?

Plummer: We used to sell it. But it’s constantly evaporating, so you can’t store it. We don’t sell it anymore.

S-R: What’s your busy ice season?

Plummer: We sell probably two-thirds of our ice between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and go crazy in July and August. We might sell 200,000 seven-pound bags of ice cubes in July, compared with 50,000 or 60,000 between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, which people think of as party season.

S-R: Is the cold storage business steadier?

Plummer: Yes, but we store about 2 million pounds of frozen turkey for area grocers between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Plummer: It’s never the same. And the ice side is totally different from the storage side, what with delivery schedules.

S-R: How would you describe your management style?

Plummer: I try to involve all my people whenever we make big decisions. It’s good to delegate and give people a chance. And in this business, the guys we call the engineers – the ones who keep everything running – are really important. What’s nice is that most of my people have been with me a long time. My foreman was here before I bought the business.

S-R: Besides your son Matt, do any family members work here?

Plummer: Matt’s twin brother, Darren, is in medical school studying to be an orthopedic surgeon. My daughter Wendy works for Intel, and my other daughter, Shelle, teaches grade school.

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