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    Can Ice Cream Survive?

  • Old favorites, new strategies keeping ice cream alive as fro-yo explodes.

    flickr/stu spivack
    Ice cream brands new and old are upping the ante on innovation.

    Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is one upstart ice cream brand pushing the limits of what kind of innovation is available in the category. The company hand-makes or hand-picks nearly every component of its ice creams, from Ugandan-imported vanilla beans to cream from grass-fed cows to salted caramel that’s made in-house over an open flame. The high-quality ingredients are used for flavors like Whiskey & Pecans, Wildberry Lavender, and Juniper & Lemon Curd.

    Jeni’s executives say frozen yogurt’s recent success isn’t even on their radar.

    “We don’t think we are competing in any way with the frozen-yogurt shops that have sprung up everywhere,” says John Lowe, CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. “We’ve done absolutely nothing to change what we’re doing. We don’t focus on what others are doing. We are simply trying to make the best ice cream as possible and serve it with an unparalleled customer-service experience.”

    It seems to be working; Jeni’s has grown to 10 units in Ohio and Tennessee, with online distribution as well as wholesale partnerships with grocery stores across the U.S. And Lowe says the brand’s steady climb won’t detract from its innovative flavor development.

    “At the end of the day, it’s what’s in the cone or in the [bowl] that matters,” Lowe says. “And that’s where others can’t match.”

    Some ice cream brands are finding that sticking to the classics still has its draw among consumers. After experimenting with new product add-ons, San Francisco’s Mitchell’s Ice Cream found that its history and tradition were the main draw. Owner Larry Mitchell says he’s seeing more premium ice cream brands popping up offering higher-quality products like his ice cream blend made with 16 percent butterfat.

    “We brought in coffee and yogurt and dropped them both. We don’t need it,” he says. “Ice cream is so much better. It’s such a nicer dessert to eat. People like this kind of ice cream and they don’t mind paying more for it.”

    Baskin-Robbins is attempting to bridge the gap between innovative and classic ice cream products. Bill Mitchell, senior vice president and chief brand officer of Baskin-Robbins U.S., says the company is bouncing back with the help of a wide array of products that provide something for all customers. In addition to traditional ice creams, stores offer low-fat and no-fat ice creams, as well as a live cultured yogurt.

    Baskin-Robbins also gives nostalgia a nod with the re-entry of flavors like Lunar Cheesecake, which first debuted in the 1960s and made another landing in 2012 with the release of the movie “Men in Black 3.”

    The array of flavor options, along with Baskin-Robbins’ new store designs, have helped the brand enjoy six consecutive quarters of growth, Bill Mitchell says.

    One leg up frozen yogurt has on ice cream is its nutritional value. With lower-fat and lower-calorie options, the yogurt market earns a reputation as a lighter dessert. But experts believe that ice cream can make a run with healthfulness, too. Consumers continue to rewrite their own definitions of healthy, and some may view ice cream shops that offer all-natural products or locally sourced ingredients as being in line with what they desire health-wise.

    “Every consumer is viewing health in their own way,” says Eric Stangarone, creative director at The Culinary Edge, a San Francisco–based consultancy that works with both ice cream and frozen-yogurt brands. “People will make their concessions in all kinds of ways.”

    And those shifting attitudes are allowing both ice cream and frozen yogurt to carve out their own niches in the customer base, Stangarone says. “The two in my opinion are really living in harmony,” he says. “They’re competing for different consumers and different needs of those consumers.”

    Further, frozen yogurt’s success might ultimately be beneficial for ice cream, Stangarone says. “Because of the popularity of one or both of them, I think people are becoming more interested in them as a whole,” he says. “And consumers are willing to trade between the two pretty seamlessly.”

    Stangarone believes the future of frozen desserts will be built on the backs of more specialty and artisan concepts that specialize in very specific items instead of multiple menu options.

    Everyone has a place in the frozen-dessert category, Mitchell says, especially ice cream.

    “I don’t think the landscape is crowded yet,” he says. “Just look at the burger industry or the pizza industry and see how crowded they are.”

    The Rise of Fro-Yo

    Ice cream may still reign as the top frozen dessert, but frozen- yogurt shops are eating into that market share.

      Sales (thousands)   Units
    Top Frozen Dessert Chains 2012 2011 % change   2012 2011 % change
    Dairy Queen 2,440,000* 2,450,000* -0.4   4,465 4,488 -0.5
    Baskin-Robbins 509,967 502,200 1.5   2,463 2,457 0.2
    Cold Stone Creamery 354,296 365,520 -3.1   1,031 1,086 -5.1
    Braum's Ice Cream & Dairy Store 312,000* 312,000* 0   278 278 0
    Rita's Ice 132,000* 122,500* 7.8   624 579 7.8
    Yogurtland 126,000* 100,000* 26   185 152 21.7
    Pinkberry 125,000* 115,000* 8.7   145 113 28.3
    Freshens 123,000* 130,500* -5.7   850* 850* 0
    Carvel Ice Cream 121,000* 122,500* -1.2   409 414 -1.2
    Menchie's Frozen Yogurt 119,000 89,700 32.7   236 138 71
    Red Mango 99,500* 76,000* 30.9   211 151 39.7
    Ben & Jerry's 96,500* 103,000* -6.3   297 298 -0.3
    Häagen-Dazs 95,000* 100,000* -5   227 233 -2.6
    Tastee Freez 92,000* 93,000* -1.1   357 365 -2.2
    TCBY 84,000* 98,000* -14.3   359 405 -11.4
    Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt 76,500* 49,000* 56.1   217 123 76.4
    Marble Slab Creamery 57,214 66,500* -14   231 250 -7.6
    Bruster's Real Ice Cream 56,000* 59,000* -5.1   210 214 -1.9
    Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt 50,000* 62,000* -19.4   93 96 -3.1
    Tutti Frutti 45,000* 22,500* 100   275 100* 175
    Fosters Freeze 44,000* 43,500* 1.1   91 91 0
    sweetFrog 42,000* 15,000* 180   180* 100* 80
    Total 5,199,977 5,097,420 2.0   13,434 12,981 3.5

    *Technomic estimate / Source: 2013 Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report