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    Inside the Evolution of the Frozen Treat Category

  • Experiencing a return to indulgence, ice cream brands are innovating with dairy-free delights, hand-held vehicles, and Asian inspirations.

    Taiyaki NYC
    Taiyaki NYC is named after the Japanese fish-shaped cake, which the brand repurposed as a waffle cone.

    For a space that was once dominated by fro-yo self-serve shops, the frozen treat category seems to have been taken over by two new breeds of brands. The first is the well-curated ice cream scoop shop with flavors that are intentional and diverse. These brands, like Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream and Coolhaus, play off nostalgia and delight with adults-in-mind menu items like Brandied Banana Brulee and Maker’s Manhattan.

    While their packaging and branding is bright, playful, and well-captured on social media, the other breed of brand, Insta-savvy concepts like The Baked Bear and Taiyaki NYC, are especially winning over the followers. Baked Bear’s feed features photo after photo of just-scooped ice cream perfectly smooshed between two crave-worthy cookies, and Taiyaki NYC is known for its unique waffle cone, inspired by a Japanese dessert, that is shaped like a fish with its mouth open for ice cream.

    Even established players like Marble Slab Creamery and Maggie-Moo’s Ice Cream and Treatery have started to play the “extra” ice cream game by offering Majestic Shakes in flavors like Cotton Candy topped with a full rainbow-swirl lollipop. With the help of social media platforms, ice cream has found its way from health-conscious Pinkberry fro-yo to over-the-top indulgence.

    Dairy-free draw

    For the upscale scoop shops, ingredients matter. Jeni’s and its 36 locations partner with local dairies in Ohio, where the brand is based, to ensure the highest-quality product. “If you want to know how we get our buttermilk frozen yogurts so impossibly creamy, here’s the answer: Arps Dairy,” says founder Jeni Britton Bauer. But, with more customers requesting dairy-free and vegan options, there is a race among brands to achieve that perfectly creamy, just-as-inspiring dairy-free line.

    Britton Bauer launched hers in March 2019, hoping to give vegan, dairy-free customers something to scream about, too. “Each dairy-free flavor is made with the purest, highest-quality coconut cream—and it’s that simple. No ‘food hacks’ or innovation required, just the best ingredients we can find and the voluptuous flavors we’re known for,” she says. Full-body, vegan flavors include Texas Sheet Cake and Dark Chocolate Truffle.

    Coolhaus’ line, on the other hand, sold at its three scoop shops and 10 trucks, is the result of some major culinary innovation. The brand blends peas, brown rice, and cocoa butter to create vegan ice creams that are not only delicious, but also rich in amino acids. Coolhaus created dairy-free flavors that are both twists on already popular flavors, like Milk & Cookie Crumb, but also flavors that are unique to the line, like Mocha Marcona Almond Fudge, says Natasha Case, CEO and cofounder.

    And Salt & Straw, with 19 locations, is revamping its entire menu to adhere to a new promise to have 20 percent of all its flavors be vegan. “We feel like our customers are particularly excited about our vegan flavors because we can bring a sense of wonderment and indulgence to vegan ice cream that no other companies have done before,” says Tyler Malek, head ice cream maker. The brand’s vegan line includes flavors, like Roasted Strawberry Coconut, that lean into the flavors that serve as base.

    Cone, reinvented

    Beyond just the flavors in the ice cream, brands are paying more attention than ever to the vehicle carrying their frozen treats. Take, for instance, Jeni’s Buttermilk Waffle Cone, “a recipe unique to us that has been decades in the making,” Britton Bauer says. The waffle cone is the perfect pairing for ice cream, with a slight saltiness that highlights the sweetness of ice cream. “A cone can focus you in a powerful way—on the ice cream, of course, but also on what’s happening in front of you,” Britton Bauer says.

    Then there are the concepts like Taiyaki NYC that are redefining what that cone looks like. Taiyaki is named after the fish-shaped cake from Japan that is often filled with red bean paste. The brand, with five North American locations, offers the taiyaki fish as a waffle cone that can be filled with different soft serves and toppings.


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    Just as popular is the hand-held movement that often comes in the form of a cookie ice cream sandwich. At Baked Bear’s 25 locations, cookies are baked in-house for the customer to build his or her own creation, using flavors like Cinnamon Roll or Mexican Hot Chocolate paired with ice cream. And Afters Ice Cream, with 27 locations mostly across the West Coast, differentiates itself with the Milky Bun, a warm doughnut filled with ice cream. This hand-held dessert quickly gained notoriety through social media, says Scott Nghiem, CEO, leading the brand to have sold more than two million Milky Buns.

    Future flavors

    Looking to the future of ice cream, experts see worldly inspiration on the rise, especially from Asian countries. Flavors like traditional matcha and black sesame ice cream are popular with the red bean paste–adorned taiyaki cone at Taiyaki NYC, and the brand is seeing a lot of interest in its Japanese Souffle Pancakes, too. One of Coolhaus’ most innovative flavors on the menu right now is the Halo My Name Is with a base made from ube (a purple yam popular in the Philippines), macadamia condensed milk swirl, mochi, black sesame, and coconut shavings.

    Part of the allure of these Asian-inspired desserts is that these interesting presentations and flavors create an experience for guests. “That’s just it—they want an experience,” Coolhaus’ Case says of customers. “It’s not just about the flavor and the packaging. ... It’s about the feeling, the culture, the brand, the story.”