A Family Legacy in Every Bite

By Jeff Hutton, Iowa Soybean Association

Four generations later, an Iowa woman’s snickerdoodle recipe yields more than cookies. Thelma’s Treats is home to premium ice cream sandwiches and a touchstone to her family.

The opening page on the Thelma’s Treats website says it best: “Thelma’s is love, sandwiched between two delicious cookies.”

And this love has grown over the past decade after Dereck Lewis and his mother took his great-grandmother’s snickerdoodle recipe, added a large scoop of vanilla ice cream and created one of the country’s premier desserts.

Homemade and handcrafted in central Iowa, Thelma’s Treats has grown from a small stand at the Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market to a specialty frozen dessert now found at nearly 5,000 outlets across the country.


Dereck Lewis , CEO of Thelma’s Treats (right) named the company after his great-grandmother (left). Her snickerdoodle cookie inspired the business. Photo Credit: Thelma’s Treats

It all Started with Thelma

“She made a snickerdoodle cookie everyone in my family really liked,” says Dereck, CEO of the company named for his great-grandmother Thelma.

“It was the kind of cookie that didn’t get much attention from the national manufacturers; it was something different.”

Indeed, Thelma’s snickerdoodles were different than the traditional sugar or chocolate chip cookie flavors (don’t worry, they have those, too!).

But the snickerdoodle ice cream sandwich simply began as a warm cookie.

Dereck and his mother Lana would bake cookies and deliver them warm with milk throughout the Des Moines area, like a sweet and edible alternative to delivering flowers.

But warm cookies are not as appealing during the dog days of summer under a scorching Iowa sun.

“Business demanded something else during the summer months,” Dereck says. “That’s where the idea got started.”

A premium ice cream cookie sandwich was born and is now enjoyed nationwide.


Dereck Lewis and his mother Lana would bake cookies and deliver them warm with milk throughout the Des Moines area, like a sweet and edible alternative to delivering flowers. Photo Credit: Thelma’s Treats

Expanding Retail Opportunities

Dereck borrowed a small countertop ice cream machine from a friend with Jersey Freeze Ice Cream in their hometown of Monroe. He and the family went to work, crafting homemade vanilla ice cream, pressing the sweet concoction between two cookies, wrapping them tight in plastic wrap and applying for a spot at the Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market.

With their pushcart in tow, Dereck and Lana, along with a supportive family, traveled to downtown Des Moines. The response was overwhelming.

“Customers asked where they could buy the ice cream sandwiches,” Dereck says.

At that point, Dereck and the family wanted to expand opportunities without opening a storefront.

Without any guidance, Dereck began the push to expand Thelma’s by walking into a Hy-Vee in Urbandale, asking if the multistate grocer might be interested in selling the family’s ice cream sandwiches.

After receiving advice from Hy-Vee’s Dan Van Gundy on how to get into grocery stores and other outlets, the Lewis family began their foray into retail.

Creating the sandwiches in a leased commercial kitchen with his mother at night, Dereck began cold calling and reaching out to potential retailers during the day.

He also served as delivery man working out of his truck, creating invoices on a desktop printer and designing displays to catch consumers’ attention.

As business picked up, Dereck and family began to outgrow their leased kitchen, subsequently making a few moves until they purchased their current Des Moines location in 2016.

Over time, production of snickerdoodle cookies with a vanilla ice cream center expanded to other flavors, including:

  • Chocolate chip with vanilla ice cream
  • Peanut butter chocolate chip with chocolate ice cream
  • S’mores sandwich featuring a chocolate cookie, a graham cracker cookie and marshmallow ice cream
  • Sugar cookie with strawberry ice cream
  • Cayenne chocolate chip with vanilla ice cream
  • Banana peanut butter sandwichSeasonal favorites like pumpkin spice, egg nog and peppermint double chocolate

Thelma’s also has a line of edible cookie dough consumers can purchase.


Hard Work, Farming Roots and Wholesome Ingredients

Growing from a pushcart filled with ice cream sandwiches to now offering their products to customers in nearly all 50 states has been a lesson in patience and perseverance.

Dereck says while he received business training at Iowa State University, his family’s business acumen on the farm really proved valuable.

“Everyone would ask ‘How did you learn to be an entrepreneur?’” he says. “I was raised by farmers. They are extreme entrepreneurs.”

The fact that farming has so many variables one cannot control, forces farmers to be creative, adjust on the fly and make decisions quickly, Dereck says.

With steady growth, Dereck says Thelma’s Treats still maintains and holds on to the quiet determination his great-grandmother exhibited throughout her 108 years.

Thelma, Dereck says, would certainly be proud of what has become of her snickerdoodle cookie recipe and how it is the basis of a thriving business.

From barely affording to pay their first full-time employee to now employing 45 people has been one of the most gratifying experiences for Dereck and his family.

It’s also been a chance to display Midwest workmanship to thousands of customers nationwide.

“It’s cool to see something you made in places all over the coun

try, just to see it on the shelf and know it’s made from scratch.”

While the company is now large enough that mechanization is part of the process and not just a KitchenAid mixer, much of the process still features an individualized touch.

Every sandwich is still hand-filled with carefully crafted ice cream which goes between each cookie.

The ingredients remain as wholesome as when Great Grandmother Thelma was baking – eggs, sugar, flour and the dairy base for the vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream.

“We get our ice cream base from Anderson Erickson, just two blocks away,” Dereck says, adding that because of Thelma’s growth, the company also works directly with mills and other producers instead of third-party distributors.

Crafting a Premium Product

Challenges remain, of course, and Thelma’s Treats is no exception.

Input costs have risen, like eggs, for example.

A case of eggs used to cost $250, but then skyrocketed to $1,500 per case over 90 days.

“It was the perfect storm of regular pricing increases plus the recent avian flu outbreak,” says Dereck, noting prices are starting to flatten out.

Thelma’s also decided to try to follow a path of slow but steady growth.

“I always feel like we dance on that line. It’s been a good pace. Some years, we’ve had 20-30% growth, other years 100% growth,” Dereck says.

“We’re keen not to bite off more than we can chew. We are strategic about staffing, cash flow and equipment.”

In the end, Thelma’s Treats, has been and will always be a great ice cream sandwich and how it has become a touchstone not only for Dereck and his family but for those who hunger for something wholesome.

“Other manufacturers in this market may be cheaper, maybe lower end, smaller and more mechanized in how ice cream sandwiches are made,” he says. “We took a craft approach to an idea that existed and improved on what we saw in the market. We like to compare it to the craft beer movement – sometimes you want something different, a little more premium.”

Thelma’s Legacy Stands the Test of Time

While there are thousands of outlets where Thelma’s Treats can be found, Dereck says the company still holds true to its small-town roots and will often sell its ice sandwiches at smaller venues and events.

 Thelma’s Treats are often available at events like RAGBRAI, and the Hinterland Music Festival. This year, they will be at the Iowa State Fair. Photo Credit: Thelma’s Treats

While no longer at the Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market, Thelma’s continues its reach elsewhere beyond grocery and convenience stores.

“You’ll see us at RAGBRAI, the Hinterland Music Festival, the Minnesota State Fair, and this year, at the Iowa State Fair,” he says.

Thelma’s Treats is not just a job for Dereck, and it’s not just about a sweet delectable goodie. It’s a love letter to his great-grandmother, whose inspiration served as the impetus for the company and its products bearing her name.

“It’s cool it has my great-grandmother’s name on it,” he says. “It’s also neat for my family, both sides were farmers from Jasper County, so it’s fun to think it’s also about the agricultural connection.”

So, if you pick up one of the original snickerdoodle ice cream sandwiches, or the more exotic cayenne chocolate chip, Dereck says he hopes consumers will be left with one thing.

“Just know it was made with care, thoughtfulness and by a great local team,” he says.

Thelma could not have agreed more.

For more information, go to: http://www.thelmastreats.com