advocate ellen_2012It’s after 9:30 on a Sunday night, and I’m craving that awesome coconut-chocolate-walnut frozen yogurt from Braum’s. When I call the Lake Highlands store, a human being answers. Good news: Braum’s is open until 10:30 on Sunday nights.

And for about the millionth time I wonder: “How do they do it?”

It all starts on the farm. Ice cream comes from milk, and milk comes from cows, and cows birth calves so they can produce milk, and cows eat crops such as alfalfa and grains. At Braum’s 10,000 acre farm in Tuttle, Okla., farmers grow the grain (fertilized by the herd, no less), produce the feed, milk the cows, and load the trucks to deliver the products to Braum’s stores, all located within a 300-mile radius of the facility.

Back in 2005, when Braum’s began selling produce in its grocery section, I wondered how it could possibly offer perishables that wouldn’t molder on the shelves. According to braums.com, freshness is insured by deliveries of all stock every two days.

But does Braum’s really sell enough produce to be profitable?

“Absolutely,” says Greg Kulp, manager at Braum’s on Greenville. I asked him what happens to the unsold stock. “We put it on reduced sale,” Kulp says. His voice exudes efficiency and confidence, which squashes my naïve notion that ice cream and produce might not be a natural retail fit.

What about the baked goods Braum’s sells, such as bread? For me, the biggest surprise is the brand name: Braum’s. Does that mean it contracts with a generic bread brand, and then put on its own label?

In fact, since Braum’s opened its bakery in 1978, it has produced all the baked goods sold in its stores, from hamburger buns to ice cream cones.

But how does Braum’s compete with McDonald’s for hamburger sales, grocery chains for milk sales and dedicated ice cream stores for profits?

Part of the answer is that the family-owned company is free to follow the business model built by its founder, Bill Braum. In the 1940s, Braum studied business at the University of Kansas, and then returned home to help his father, who was producing and selling butter. Eventually the family began to produce ice cream. They called their first brand “Peter Pan.” In 1968, they sold off the Peter Pan brand in the state of Kansas.

As a condition of that sale, Bill Braum agreed not to compete in the ice cream business in Kansas. So he put his dairy cows to work in Oklahoma, and built the Braum’s ice cream brand there.

Bill Braum’s son Drew is the current president of the company. At a 2005 meeting of the Oklahoma City Rotary club, he gave some insight into why the company remains a family business rather than selling shares to the public.

“I’d hate to go to stockholders and say, ‘I spent this much money and here’s my return on investment,’” Braum said. “I would be unemployed.”

So maybe Braum’s isn’t squeezing every possible penny out of its business, but unlike many industrial producers of farm crops and dairy, it is free to reject the pressure to increase production by using hormones and antibiotics on the cows. As a result, its dairy products are rbGH free.

And Braum’s is a good employer.

“It’s a great company to work for,” says Greg Kulp, the Lake Highlands store manager. “It’s a family- owned business, and the benefits are great.” Moreover, Kulp says part-time workers in the stores start above minimum wage, and full-time hourly workers receive benefits.

So for now, I’ll stop worrying that Braum’s might change. At Braum’s, a grown up like me can still order a child-size cone and be just as happy as a kid.