Frozen treats and desserts have been around for centuries, but there may be no more creative period than today. All kinds of new flavors, textures, ingredients, and colors are appearing in iced innovations at limited-service food settings across the country, echoing many ongoing culinary trends and creating some new ones.
“Food is great, but dessert is better,” says Scott Nghiem, cofounder and chief executive of Afters Ice Cream, based in Fountain Valley, California. Frozen desserts are indulgent, “but they’re also fun.”
Frozen treats have long been a category for creativity—not just in ice cream flavors, but also in sundaes, milkshakes, mix-ins, and carriers. Today’s icy concoctions often feature artisanal touches, including the use of local, natural, and seasonal ingredients. Some employ culinary innovations to create intriguing flavors and textures. And these items look great—perfect for the buzz and visuals of social media like Instagram.
Over the past two decades, dozens of creative chefs have come up with ice creams—along with sundaes and milkshakes—that have not just sweet and salty notes, but also savory ones from vegetables, herbs, florals, alcohol, and even meat.
At Scottsdale, Arizona–based Sweet Republic, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in May, chef and co-owner Helen Yung says she tries to work with as many fresh ingredients as possible, and the ice cream base is scratch-made in house.
“It takes a lot of equipment and time and cost to do this right,” she says, which means operators need to be serious about their craft, even if the business is fun. Sweet Republic now has two shops and several other retail locations.
Yung has created ice cream using ingredients ranging from corn to bacon and blue cheese to activated charcoal, with various ethnic flavors. The most popular variety was an early favorite: salted butter caramel swirl. “The longer you’re open, the harder it is to introduce too many new flavors,” she says. “People really get attached to their favorites.”
While Sweet Republic changes a quarter of its menu regularly, New York’s Oddfellows Ice Cream Co., which also makes ice cream from scratch using fresh, local ingredients, changes the menu often. “We want to keep people guessing,” says co-owner Mohan Kumar.
Oddfellows gets its name in part from the hundreds of unusual ice creams it has made, featuring ingredients like beets, cornbread, chorizo, popcorn, and beer. “Meat always surprises,” Kumar says. “So does anything boozy or with vegetables.”
The newest Oddfellows shop, named Coffee and Cream, opened in April and focuses on those two ingredients both separate and together. For example, there’s the Odd-fogato, which is a shot of espresso poured over a guest’s favorite scoop and toppings.
One way ice cream shops create new items is with baked carriers. Afters Ice Cream created the Milky Bun, which puts a scoop of its premium ice cream—the 14 flavors range from French Toast Churro to Peanut Butter S’mores—inside a specially created warm doughnut-like bun that keeps the ice cream cold inside.
“When I saw the Cronut, it gave me an insight into what customers want today,” Nghiem says. The Milky Bun not only tastes great, but it looks good, too, he adds, and it racks up about 40 percent of sales at the company’s 20 Southern California parlors.
Dessert waffles are at the heart of the two-unit Los Angeles enterprise Dolly Llama, and one type is the Hong Kong–originated bubble waffle, a billowy waffle formed into a cone and filled with one of eight flavors of ice cream. Syrup and toppings are added. “I tried one in Europe and the taste was amazing,” says co-owner and European restaurateur Samuel Baroux.
For Churned Creamery, the CroCream is “our most popular item,” says Joanne Truong, operations manager. “It’s what distinguishes us from everybody else.” The frozen treat is a buttery croissant stuffed with one of 16 freshly churned daily ice creams, along with toppings and sauces.
The Southern California company’s ice cream is also unique because it is produced in automated machines from Italy, allowing customers to get freshly churned premium ice cream from the machines. “It’s constantly churning throughout the day,” she adds.
Technology is also key at Creamistry, where employees make dense, handcrafted ice cream in minutes using liquid nitrogen. The brand offers customization from beginning to end in making any of the several dozen ice cream flavors to order and then adding the customers’ requested toppings, says Kenny Cho, marketing director.
Each of the Santa Rosa, California–based company’s nearly 50 units in four states have four or five liquid nitrogen ice cream machines. “There’s no denying their visual appeal, as smoke is billowing from them,” Cho says.
More culturally diverse ice cream is also showing up, such as Thai ice cream that is flattened, rolled, and put in a cup with toppings. Even more popular, and much better known, are Mexican paletas (fruit bars) and ice creams. La Michoacana Premium, which has more than 60 locations in and around Chicago, Southern California, and Nashville, Tennessee, is an example. It features dozens of flavors of water and ice paletas and upward of 73 ice cream flavors that rotate. The paletas can range from strawberry to pine nut to mango with chamoy.
“There’s nothing that is as colorful and tasteful as the paletas,” says Patty Cabezas, a real estate expert who works with the company, noting the products’ big chunks of fruit and other ingredients. La Michoacana Premium units are often near Mexican grocers but draw in a diverse clientele, she says. “They’re a hit with everybody.”