Building an Ice Cream Business: Scoop Your Way into America’s Heart

Moving into its third century, America’s love affair with ice cream isn’t cooling off — it’s only getting hotter. Artisan ice cream shops are dishing up ever more extreme flavors (bacon, corn, fish sauce), commercial brands are jumping on the salted caramel bandwagon and the DIY crowd is going old-school with vintage hand-crank ice cream makers.

Looking to add frozen treats to your restaurant’s repertoire or start your own ice cream venture? Here are some tips for building an ice cream business without losing your cool.

Favorite Flavors

“I’ve made brie ice cream, tomato garlic sorbet and beet ice cream,” says Susan Soorenko, owner of Moorenko’s in Silver Spring, MD, which makes ultra-premium hormone-free ice creams using milk from local dairies. These particular flavors were created mostly at the request of local chefs, but customers dig them, too.

Extreme flavors have their place, but tried and true still rules. Moorenko’s always has vanilla, a perennial top seller. Other standards include bittersweet chocolate and salted caramel with house-made pralines. “We typically have 25 to 30 flavors at any time,” Soorenko explains.

Choosing the flavors you make available at any time is a mix of available space and anticipating customer demand. Soorenko’s suggestions:

  • Always have chocolate, vanilla and strawberry
  • Offer kid-driven flavors with cookies or candy
  • Consider your audience. A foodie neighborhood or clientele will require more sophisticated flavors
  • Test-drive new flavors or use excess custom orders as limited editions to get customer response

What's the scoop?

Perhaps the single-most important tool for serving up ice cream is the scooper. Self-defrosting gel-filled aluminum scoopers are the way to go. Soorenko prefers this style because it’s “easier on the server. There are no repetitive thumb movements and it’s easier to scoop, so there’s no stress on the wrist.” The hand’s warmth heats the gel, allowing the scoop to slice through the ice cream’s surface. If you plan to mix in ingredients as part of your service, pick up a flat ice cream spade to incorporate candies, fruits and nuts into prepared ice cream.

Serving Suggestions

Should you go with tasty cones, disposable cups or specialty bowls? Select service items that work with your concept. Serendipity Ice Cream in McMinnville, OR, is located in a late 19th-century building, and the shop oozes Gibson Girl charm. Glass candy jars line the shelves and frozen treats are served in old-fashioned tulip glasses and sherbet dishes. The shop makes its own waffle cones and offers sugar and wafer cones, sundaes, milkshakes and floats.

It’s important to offer several size options, too. Jacey Lorenzen, Serendipity’s assistant manager, says every order has a series of questions. “What type of cone, what size scoop and, most importantly, which flavor do you want on top?” Scoops come in three portion sizes: regular, large and kid-size. “Anyone can order kid-size,” she notes.

Moorenko’s offers similar options, plus a frozen tasting flight. “Our sampler, three one-ounce scoops, is great for the undecided,” says Soorenko.

Mix It Up

At Serendipity, shakes are made with a traditional spindle mixer, using stainless malt cups for mixing. This is Soorenko’s preference in her shop as well. “There’s absolutely no comparison to a blender. The texture is completely different.”

Ice cream isn’t the only icy treat that’s trending. Frozen yogurt is big, particularly self-serve shops. Sweet Mutiny Froyo & Cupcakes in Pullman, WA, caters to students at Washington State University. “Frozen yogurt is a bit healthier, it’s easy for self-service and it’s a lot of fun for people to make their own combinations,” says manager Sarah Daoud. Four machines churn two flavors each, with a third option being a swirl of the two. Customers fill disposable cups and add fresh fruit, sauces or dry toppings like cereal and candy. Scales at the register determine each creation’s cost.

Mind the Bottom Line

America’s passion for ice cream makes it an appealing business pursuit. But as with all financial decisions, you need to do your homework. “The fragmentation of the sector — regular, dairy-free, milk-fat percentages, soy-based, etc. — has made it extremely competitive,” says Soorenko.

Foot traffic is critical, as is the financial wherewithal to manage seasonality. Some shops diversify to draw customers year-round. Sweet Mutiny offers cupcakes, and Serendipity serves two soups daily. “It makes a big difference to us in the winter months,” says Lorenzen.

To be a part of America’s love affair, find your niche, stock the right supplies and scoop your way into customer’s hearts.

Anne Nisbet has spent her career working with chefs in restaurants, catering and culinary event production, absorbing their tips, tricks and tales along the way. She is the culinary director for the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, OR, where she lives and dreams of someday raising chickens and honeybees. You can find her on Google+.

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