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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.