While ice cream shops continue to innovate and expand offerings, frozen yogurt concepts have experienced more challenges.
Although both frozen desserts, the ice cream and frozen yogurt segments have taken seemingly divergent paths over the years. While ice cream remains a reliable seller, with unique flavors and updated and innovative production methods giving it a boost, frozen yogurt faces the challenges of a mature, competitive market.
“When things settled down after the pandemic first hit, ice cream shops moved to pint, quart and home delivery,” says Steve Christensen, executive director of the St. Louis, Mo.-based National Ice Cream Retailers Association. “What many did was offer a quarantine pack or make-your-own sundae at home kit comprised of four pints, plus hot fudge or caramel sauce and sprinkles. They did very well.”
Ice cream concepts that were able to change walk-in models to walk-up ones with an exterior window, as well as those with drive-thrus, are making it through the pandemic virtually unscathed, according to Christensen. Also, operators making their own ice cream and selling it wholesale to supermarkets and/or to catering businesses continued with a decent revenue stream, he notes.
Unfortunately, with many frozen yogurt shops’ self-serve model, this segment experienced more challenges over the past year. “There was an influx of secondary equipment available in the froyo space as many struggled during the pandemic,” Christensen says. “While some were pinting it up and got through, others who relied on dine-in service had issues.”
Strong operators continuing in the frozen yogurt segment maintain a rotating flavor assortment along with specialty items.
Yogli Mogli, which has four stores in the Atlanta area and one in Niles, Ill., offers a rotating roster of 23 nonfat, 16 low-fat, 11 no-sugar-added, 5 premium and 4 tart frozen yogurt varieties. Also on its menu are a variety of gelato and dairy-free sorbet flavors, custard, and chocolate and vanilla plant-based frozen desserts.
“Our top sellers are Cookies and Cream and Cake Batter Delight yogurt and Pomegranate Raspberry and Mango sorbets,” says Hussein Abdallah, owner of Yogli Mogli’s Niles location. “Our fruity bubbles, which pop in your mouth, are by far our most popular topping, along with frozen cookie dough bites and brownie bites. We also have a wide variety of fruit that sells well.”
The store’s current protocol includes sanitation stations for customers to use prior to filling their cups from wall dispensers. Abdallah also will provide plastic gloves upon request. The toppings bar was formerly self-serve but has been manned by staff since the pandemic restrictions took effect.
“Our store has 8 machines with 16 flavors; 8 of these are swirled,” Abdallah says. “We keep 8 all year long and rotate the other 8 weekly or every two weeks.” Product arrives frozen in 64-ounce cartons. These are stored in a cooler for three days prior to being loaded into the self-serve machine.
A number of ice cream shops have also integrated frozen yogurt into their offerings. For example, Marble Slab Creamery, based in Norcross, Ga., offers three froyo flavors — vanilla, chocolate fudge and birthday cake. Popbar, a 15-plus store chain based in New York City, also offers frozen yogurt bars as an option.
Small Batch Success
Ice cream shops generally follow one of three business models, per Christensen. The minimal buy-in is when operators have a site that sells and markets a large-scale producer’s product. Rather than being culinary driven, these concepts are more about creating a community spot for dessert consumption.
“Then there are those operators who purchase a dairy base and add proprietary flavors to create a more signature product,” Christensen says. “These are the majority of today’s ice cream shop concepts.”
The third type, which is gaining steam, is the microcreamery. “This is where flavors are made in-house, in small batches, typically with locally sourced ingredients,” Christensen says. “It takes a page out of the microbrewery process, where ice cream is high end with proprietary flavors.”
A microcreamery in operation since 1983, Marble Slab Creamery is an original creator of the frozen slab concept. Customers choose their ice cream flavors from a dipping cabinet along with mix-in ingredients. A staff member then mixes everything together on a cold marble slab.
The chain operates 261 stores, with 123 of those co-branded with Marble Slab’s sister concept Great American Cookies. In these stores, customers can order cookies and ice cream separate or a combination of the two.
“With our ice cream, we don’t charge for any mix-in ingredients; that’s our signature,” says Pam Maxwell, Marble Slab’s vice president of operations. “Customers can order as much add-ins as fits in their cup.”
The chain has offered between 18 and 30 ice cream mix-ins, like candy, fruit, cookies and granola, for free for the last five years. Marble Slab’s ice cream is made daily in small batches. In addition to traditional flavors, limited-time offers are available.
Marble Slab mixes its ice cream in batch freezers before extracting the product and placing it in two-door freezers, where it cures for 24 hours. This ensures the flavor is prominent before operators display it in the dip cabinet for sale. “We have 22-slot dip cabinets and offer more than 55 ice cream flavors,” Maxwell says. “We’re in the process of updating our ice cream displays for better customer visibility.”
Marble Slab’s flavors range from peppermint and pistachio to cheesecake and chocolate amaretto. Staff use waffle makers to prepare cones by hand and blenders to make shakes.
Maxwell describes the ice cream as similar to gelato, with a very high butterfat content. In addition to pursuing bolder flavors, Maxwell notes more customers are seeking dairy-free options. “We have a dairy-free sorbet and are looking to grow these options,” she says. “We also offered sugar-free ice cream in the past and are in the process of recreating this because it wasn’t up to par.”
In addition to partnering with third-party delivery companies and offering curbside pickup, Marble Slab sells ice cream kits for at-home consumption.
Alcohol and Ice Cream
According to Christensen, there has been an increased interest in alcoholic ice cream in the last couple of years.
One such concept, Clementine’s Naughty and Nice Creamery, which opened in the St. Louis area in 2015 and now has four locations, offers traditional ice cream as well as flavors with alcohol.
Because the ice cream is classified as a food and not a beverage, it does not adhere to age restrictions due to the alcohol content. Clementine’s chooses to card all customers for age verification with both purchases and sampling, though. “Our process to infuse alcohol into ice cream is a trade secret,” says owner Tamara Keefe. The shop offers “nice” non-boozy ice creams, such as Italian Butter Cookie and “naughty” selections like the Manhattan, made with whiskey.
Keefe explains that while grocery store ice cream has 100% overrun, which signifies the amount of air whipped into the ice cream, Clementine’s contains less than 30% overrun. “Our pints weigh more because our ice cream is so dense,” she says.
Butterfat also plays into the equation. While traditional ice cream has between 10% and 12% butterfat, Clementine’s is between 16% and 18%. “It coats the tongue and has a great mouthfeel,” Keefe says. “The flavor stays with you, so you don’t need a lot of it.”
Clementine’s most popular flavors include Gooey Butter Cake, Salted Cracker Caramel and Italian Butter Cookie.
The creamery has also expanded its offerings to include a vegan product. Clementine’s Midnight Pleasures vegan ice cream includes chocolate coconut fudge with a coconut milk base. “We recognized early on that there is growth in vegan ice cream,” Keefe says. “There also is a growing segment of the population with special dietary needs seeking high-end frozen desserts who can’t have dairy.”
Clementine’s creates all its ingredients in-house, including chocolate and caramel sauces. Products come from Clementine’s 5,000-square-foot central kitchen off-site. This includes areas for baking as well as research and development. Clementine’s freezer truck delivers product to its locations every day from that central kitchen.
“We also have a mix production area with five 20-quart ice cream machines and one 40-quart ice cream machine, and many walk-in freezers and coolers, a big back-of-house area for dishwashing and two big warehouses for storage,” Keefe says. “We’re in the middle of doing a complete kitchen infrastructure expansion, building 2,000 square feet of frozen storage.”
This expansion comes in preparation for ramping up Clementine’s wholesale business. “During the pandemic, our pint production went through the roof,” Keefe says. “Before we expand into grocery stores, we want to make sure we have the frozen capacity.”
In addition to boozy ice cream, Keefe notes nondairy is a big trend. “This is the fastest-growing segment in the superpremium frozen dessert space right now,” she says. “We’re also seeing an influx of tea-based ice cream, which we offer, as well as savory flavors.” Some of Clementine’s offerings in these spaces include chai and black tea variations, manchego cheese with truffles and honey, and a barbecue flavor that incorporates candied meat.
Another alcoholic ice cream concept, New York’s Tipsy Scoop, also created in 2015, got its start in wholesale before opening a brick-and-mortar store in 2017. Its second location in Brooklyn opened in 2019. “This past year, we’ve kept stores open for takeout and delivery,” says Rachel Chitwood, Tipsy Scoop’s director of sales and marketing. “We used to have classes and in-person events for businesses, which we can’t do right now. Instead, we’re holding virtual ice cream cocktail classes. We send participants the ingredients, and we have someone instructing online on making cocktails.”
Tipsy Scoop’s popular flavors include Dark Chocolate Whiskey Salted Caramel; Cake Batter Vodka Martini, a vanilla base mixed with cake batter-flavored vodka and amaretto; and Mango Margarita Sorbet, infused with tequila. Upcoming flavors in 2021 include Champagne and French Fries, which combines vanilla ice cream infused with champagne and shoestring french fries; Wine and Cookies, infused with red wine and made with crushed chocolate chip cookies; and Scotch and Sprinkles, infused with Scotch whisky and made with confetti cake and sprinkles.
Tipsy Scoop uses a co-packer to make its wholesale ice cream. Stores utilize batch freezers that can produce three batches at one time.
“We’ve seen a rise in spirit infusions, with Häagen-Dazs launching its spirit- inspired flavor line that has less than 0.5% alcohol,” Chitwood says. “Also, with the rise of Halo Top and other supermarket dietary brands, there is definitely a market for these lines as well as nondairy options.”
In addition to offering a nondairy sorbet, Tipsy Scoop recently added its first nondairy ice cream flavor — piña colada with a coconut milk base — to its lineup.
Because Tipsy Scoop’s alcoholic ice cream is certified as a non-beverage by the federal government and has an alcohol content of less than 5%, it is not governmentally regulated. “As for the rules in selling to stores, it depends on the region,” Chitwood explains. “With our website sales, we treat it like an alcoholic product.”
In addition to innovative microcreameries and alcoholic ice cream, there has been creativity in other aspects of this segment. “More shops are doing ice cream flights with four or five small servings — similar to those with wine, beer and sushi — to provide a tasting opportunity,” Christensen notes.
Unique formats and creations continue to become more prevalent. One example is Popbar. The concept was established in 2010 when Reuben BenJehuda, CEO and founder, wanted to bring gelato from his home in Italy to the U.S. in a way that could be customized.
“Customers can tailor-make their pops any way they like, dipping it in dark, milk or white chocolate with any topping,” says BenJehuda. “We’re an all-natural product, and our pops are very visual.”
In addition to gelato, Popbar offers sorbet and frozen yogurt pops in a variety of flavors. It has expanded its offerings to include hot chocolate on a stick, where customers can dip chocolate pops in hot milk to create hot chocolate. Its gelato shakes are served in containers resembling throwback-style milk bottles with an ice cream cone on top filled with whipped cream.
Best-selling toppings include pistachios and sprinkles. House-made waffle cones are also popular. Favorite flavors include hazelnut gelato and strawberry sorbet.
Popbar’s stores have 10 seats or less, which means they are positioned mainly for takeout. Its large display cases are lower than a traditional ice cream display case. “We put all our pops in an Italian display case that’s designed for kids to easily see inside it,” BenJehuda says. “It has a square look that fits with our product.”
Popbar’s back of the house is minimal, with no venting or gas utilities. Staff produce the gelato in small batches to make 26 pops at a time. These are compartmentalized in trays and stored in upright freezers. There are refrigeration units for toppings as well.
Ample Hills Creamery, a 10-store operation which opened up its first shop in 2011, is a large-batch producer with a central production facility. Its on-site equipment is limited to large dipping cabinets, walk-in freezers and refrigerators.
The creamery is known for honoring pop culture and whimsical flavors with its offerings. Its limited-time-only items have been inspired by “Star Wars,” such as The Force, which balanced the dark and light sides with white and dark chocolate pearls in sweet cream ice cream swirled with chocolate fudge. God Save the Cream, its take on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding cake, featured elderflower butter cake with buttercream frosting cubes layered into lemon-ginger ice cream.
In addition to growing its dairy-free line, the creamery seeks to work with brand partners, including charitable or value- or purpose-driven organizations.