Sub Zero Ice Cream serves up theater, science, and frozen desserts, bowl by individual bowl. Each Sub Zero customer selects one of six bases, which include higher-fat premium, custard, or classic, as well as healthier options: low-fat, yogurt, or lactose-free rice and soymilk. Next, the customer selects flavors and mix-ins, then watches as they’re combined with the liquid base in a metal bowl and blasted with -321-degree liquid nitrogen. The concoction freezes instantly.
Aside from the unusual freezing method, cofounder Jerry Hancock says, Sub Zero is one of the only ice cream concepts covering a range of dietary needs in a wide array of flavors. “Because we start with everything unfrozen, we can mix flavors and make new flavors,” he says. “The combinations are endless. Of course, we have ideas people can pick from, but if someone wants to be creative, they can.”
Popular combinations are peanut butter and chocolate, as well as anything with cake batter, Hancock says.
Since the ice cream is frozen in 15 seconds or less, milk molecules remain small and water particles don’t have time to grow into ice crystals. This results in a smooth, creamy product. Rapid freezing also preserves nutrients in the cream, yogurt, soy, or rice milk, Hancock says.
Prices at Sub Zero range from $3.50 for a 2-ounce serving to $4.60 for the largest 10-ounce size. Three other sizes exist, with volume measurements representing pre-frozen liquid. Volume after freezing varies based on how hard the customers want their treat frozen; hard ice cream has greater volume than soft serve. A flavor and mix-in are included in the base price, and added mix-ins cost 50 cents each.
The short answer Hancock gives when asked why Sub Zero Ice Cream freezes its product with liquid nitrogen is, “We couldn’t afford freezers.” The long answer involves his background as a chemistry major, Air Force Reserve mechanic, software engineer, and husband of a teacher.
Sub Zero Ice Cream
Cofounder & CEO: Jerry Hancock
HQ: Provo, Utah
Year Started: 2004
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Franchise units: 23
All of those experiences made Hancock a problem solver, so when he entered foodservice in 2003 with a burrito franchise in Orem, Utah, he tried to overcome the monetary losses sustained in the first six months by asking customers what they wanted. They wanted ice cream, so Hancock started tinkering with the idea until he had something unique and sellable.
“Ice cream manufacturers told me not to add ice cream unless it was different,” he says. “They told me people would pass us by and go to the brand-name ice cream places.”
At the same time, his wife Naomi, cofounder and CFO of Sub Zero, discovered articles on liquid nitrogen and food production. “At the time, what was being done was not commercial,” he says. “So I started trying to figure out how to make it consistent and sellable. It took four years of development to get it right.”
The Hancocks divided their restaurant counter in two, selling ice cream on one side and burritos on the other. In 2008, they opened the first Sub Zero in Provo, Utah.
Finding an affordable supply of liquid nitrogen and a system to dispense it accurately was a challenge. It was also difficult to adapt recipes to make single servings of ice cream. But once all systems, recipes, and formulas were in place, Sub Zero began franchising and slowly began to grow, opening four stores in 2008.
“In 2009, we opened a few stores but not many,” Hancock says. “It was kind of a plateau year, where we worked on our systems again because when you have more than five stores, you have distribution issues you didn’t have with one.” Growth began again and by late 2012, Sub Zero had 16 stores.
This year, it was hit with a shark attack. A January 2013 appearance on the ABC television show “Shark Tank” didn’t net a deal for Sub Zero, but it did give the concept national publicity and a sales boost.
“We saw a tripling of sales the week after the show in some stores,” Hancock says. “And some have maintained a good increase since the show aired in January.” The “Shark Tank” appearance also increased the number of inquiries Sub Zero Ice Cream received from potential franchisees.
Hancock says Sub Zero will “easily get to 50 stores in the next year or year and a half.” In addition to its home turf of Utah, there are locations in Idaho and Indiana and openings planned for Florida and Minnesota.
Hancock expects as many as 400 stores in five to 10 years, but despite this aggressive growth plan, he never forgets his chemistry education or his wife’s teaching background. He goes to schools and gives presentations and wants to produce educational videos that can be used in schools.
“It’s a unique aspect of our business that we can relate it to a science class,” he says. Hancock says while he is the most frequent guest science teacher in the company, Sub Zero has a training process so franchisees can give school presentations, too.
The kids all get ice cream at the end of these presentations, often leading them to beg their parents to take them to Sub Zero.
“When we were starting out, we thought people would come back to Sub Zero for the show,” Hancock says. “But we found out freezing with liquid nitrogen doesn’t just have a visual impact, it creates a very high-quality ice cream.”