With Memorial Day in the rearview mirror and the summer on the horizon, we’re thinking more about frozen desserts. Whether it’s ice cream, sorbets, gelato, frozen yogurt, or offshoots like ice cream sandwiches, bars, pops, paletas, and cakes, customers are looking for cold treats to beat the heat.
And increasingly, they want premium, modern frozen-dessert choices.
“The growth in frozen desserts, and particularly premium frozen desserts, is part of the small luxuries trend that’s developed since the end of the recession,” says Elizabeth Friend, consumer foodservice strategy analyst with Euromonitor International.
As the economic recovery progressed, consumers wanted to return to treating themselves but were hesitant to go overboard, Friend says. Instead, they opted for small delights, like international street-food items, pour-over coffee, and premium frozen goodies.
“American consumers want the experience of indulgences without a high price tag,” she says. “They’re still price-sensitive and looking to make the most of their dining-out dollars.”
For many, that means trying new places, seeking restaurants that feature local and organic ingredients, and opting for items with unique flavors—including dessert items.
Frozen-dessert sales at foodservice outlets increased 2.4 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to Euromonitor. That’s on par with the overall restaurant industry, but Friend says premium items performed even better.
A microcosm of the wide variety of upscale flavors and ingredients available across the country can be found in Austin, Texas, home to both Lick Honest Ice Creams and Amy’s Ice Creams. At the three-unit Lick, which opened its first location in 2011, customers can choose ice cream flavors like chocolate spiced with cayenne pepper and chipotle, roasted beets and mint, and an interpretation of local dessert favorite Texas sheet cake.
“We started with the idea of introducing very local, very Texas-centric, and all-natural ice cream to the Austin community,” says Diana Vassar, operations manager. That includes Texas-sourced milk, cream, and sugar. “The inspiration for flavors is what’s available around us,” she says. “These are influenced by the salads we eat, or desserts, or even alcohol.”
Take, for example, Lick’s tequila lime pie, which melds lime curd made with local limes and eggs, graham cracker cookies, and local organic tequila.
“We’re seeing these interesting flavors all over foodservice,” Friend says. “It’s most apparent in beverages, especially carbonated drinks, experimenting with savory, bitter, herbal, and sour—basically everything that goes beyond the typical sweet and fruity.”
Amy’s is an older, bigger chain with 15 units in Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. It features seven standard flavors and many others daily from a rotating list of about 300 creations. Guests can customize with toppings and sauces.
“No two stores will ever have the same flavors at the same time,” says Joe Morris, purchasing manager. The top-selling item is a vanilla ice cream that uses Mexican vanilla rather than the more widely employed bourbon vanilla.
The toppings—candy, fruit, and nuts, as well as the company’s own cookie dough and brownies—are hand crushed when customers order their ice cream.
Like many other frozen dessert shops, Lick and Amy’s have several vegan ice cream options and also feature frozen cakes.
Ice cream itself is being made in more ways. In addition to traditional churning, some operators get more immediate results thanks to a mix of gastronomy and science.
Shops like Cauldron Ice Cream in Santa Ana, California, use liquid nitrogen to make ice cream almost immediately. Another, Churned Creamery in Tustin, California, employs machines from Italy that churn ice cream in a matter of minutes.
“We slow-churn a batch right in front of the customer,” says Jay Yim, a partner at Churned, as well as at nearby Creamistry. Churned has eight machines with two blending barrels each, allowing customers to view their ice cream as it’s being made.
In addition to employing different methods to produce ice cream, Cauldron and Churned Creamy each feature innovative menu options—the OG Puffle at the former and CroCreams at the latter.
The puffle is a twist on waffle cones, says Desiree Le, Cauldron’s co-owner. The cones are in the style of the popular Hong Kong street food gai daan jai, a waffle made with eggs, milk, flour, and sugar, featuring round indentations.
“We’re Asian, so we took this from our background and formed it into a cone,” she says. “It’s traditionally served flat and plain, not with ice cream.”
The OG Puffles—OG stands for original, as others mimicked the concept—are Cauldron’s biggest seller. “The waffles come out warm, so it’s a nice contrast with the cold ice cream,” Le says. The shop typically has 12 ice cream flavors daily, including varieties like Earl Grey tea lavender. Numerous toppings are available, and scoops can be formed in the shape of a rose.
Churned Creamery’s CroCream similarly pairs warm and cold. It’s a fresh croissant stuffed with one of 20 daily flavors of homemade ice cream, then topped with various mix-ins and sauces.
“The croissant is from a family recipe,” says Yim, whose background includes the bakery industry. “It works very well with our ice cream, which, because of the way we make it, is very velvety and creamy.”
Pistachio ice cream, using a California pistachio purée, is among the shop’s most popular flavors, while other varieties include panna cotta and whiskey and cream. There are also vegan options and seasonal fruit sorbets.
Ice cream sandwiches are a long-time frozen-dessert favorite, but operators are increasingly making these into premium items by using freshly baked cookies for the carrier, giving customers a choice in pairing cookie and ice cream varieties.
This idea is at the heart of CREAM. In fact, the Millbrae, California–based chain’s name is an acronym for Cookies Rule Everything Around Me.
The family business’s roots are in homemade cookies that co-owner Gus Shamieh’s mother made for her children, who created ice cream sandwiches with them. Years later, in 2010, they turned that into a concept.
Everything is made to order, and the menu includes 16 cookie flavors and up to 22 different ice creams, along with toppings and sauces, Shamieh says. “They can pick the same or different cookies and any flavor ice cream in between,” he says.
Popular cookies include chocolate chip and snickerdoodle, while the top ice creams are cookie dough and vanilla, Shamieh says. CREAM also features the Cream Taco, a waffle cone shaped like a taco loaded with ice cream and toppings.
New York–based OddFellows Ice Cream Co. is doing its own version of cookie ice cream sandwiches, particularly at its Manhattan location that is referred to as the Sandwich Shop.
Using cookies baked in the Sandwich Shop’s kitchen, customers can choose a signature ice cream sandwich or create their own from a choice of five cookie varieties, a scoop of one of 10 ice cream flavors, and toppings. There are also OddPockets—brioche stuffed with ice cream and toppings and heated in a panini press.
“The thought process that went into this is to have a sandwich specialty shop,” says co-owner Mohan Kumar. “You can have thousands of different combinations.”
The flagship OddFellows in Brooklyn features more than a dozen rotating flavors of ice cream—including prosciutto melon or chorizo caramel swirl—and sorbets. Frozen desserts also include a foie gras drumstick—foie gras ice cream in a dark chocolate-lined sugar cone—and alcohol-infused popsicles.
At Sweet Cow Ice Cream, based in Louisville, Colorado, ice cream is the main feature, and the chain uses fresh cookies for its ice cream “Sammies,” short for sandwiches.
“We bake our cookies in-house,” says partner Drew Honness. The most popular ice cream sandwich is made with triple chocolate chip cookies—using both regular and white chocolate chips—and either vanilla or coffee ice cream.
The coffee ice cream, featuring local Ozo coffee, is one of nine ice cream staples served daily, along with 11 others and four non-dairy varieties. Sweet Cow’s menu items also use spices, cupcakes, beer, and other ingredients from nearby shops and breweries. “When we have the opportunity to source locally, we grab it,” Honness says.
Pops are another popular frozen dessert, and, like ice cream sandwiches, are being sold at numerous up-and-coming brands.
New York’s Popbar, launched in 2010, features crafted gelato on a stick with flavors ranging from traditional chocolate and vanilla to newer green tea and passion fruit. Customers choose their specific dips and toppings for the bars.
“Usually toppings are added to the gelato bars first, but it depends on the combination,” says Reuben Ben Jehuda, co-owner of the 12-unit chain. With more than 20 flavors of gelato, sorbet, and yogurt bars available daily, along with five dips and seven toppings, “you can come up with many, many combinations.”
A popular choice is strawberry sorbet half-dipped in dark chocolate. An interesting twist is Hot Chocolate on a Stick, which is a hard cube of chocolate on a stick that is placed into a cup with hot milk poured on top, melting the chocolate as it’s stirred with the stick.
Miami food truck HipPOPs has more than 100 gelato, sorbet, and frozen yogurt bar flavors, 15–20 of which are offered daily. Customers choose the bar and then have them dipped in one of three types of Belgian chocolate with various toppings added.
“We’ve been really successful as a one-item business,” says the modern ice cream truck’s owner, Anthony Fellows. He says each regular bar is about 5 ounces, with baby pops weighing in at about 1.5 ounces.
The pops can be turned into drinks with the addition of other ingredients, like the Sippers made with blended sorbet pops, water, and fruit.
A Mexican version of pops are paletas, made with milk or fruit. The low-sugar treats, along with a less-sweet Mexican ice cream, can be found at shops across the U.S., like Diamonds in Columbus, Ohio, which has more than 40 ice creams and 90 paletas.
“We make about 26 varieties of paletas per day, and we do that throughout the week,” says Rene Flores, a manager of the store owned by Guadalajara, Mexico, natives whose family runs frozen-dessert shops throughout their native city.
Among the paleta flavors are cactus pear with chili and papaya, pico de gallo, and pine nut. “Making these is like being a cook or chef,” Flores adds.
With all these new frozen-dessert outlets, there’s pressure for traditional premium ice cream operators to innovate, something that continually occurs at Canton, Massachusetts–based Baskin-Robbins.
“What we like to do is provide a lot of choices for our guests with our flavors, not just traditional ones, but new things,” says Weldon Spangler, senior vice president.
That includes ice creams like Cookie Jar Mashup—made with vanilla ice cream; Oreo, Chips Ahoy, and Nutter Butter cookie chunks; and a chocolate ribbon—as well as warm cookie ice cream sandwiches that “bring back memories to me of being a kid,” Spangler says.
The cookies are a new item for the 70-year-old company, which has 1,300 premium ice cream flavors in its vault. There are four types of cookies, which are “heated to order, so they’re warm when we put them with ice cream.”
Baskin-Robbins’ more traditional frozen dessert is its ice cream cake, made with a combination of chocolate or vanilla cake with a choice of ice cream.