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What's Hot: Ice Cream

The inside scoop on how ice cream franchises are going beyond the vanilla.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

How does the coldest product on the market become one of the hottest businesses in franchising today? By providing exactly what American consumers are craving and tapping into some emerging trends.

One of the strongest trends today is Americans' desire for comfort. Whether it's manifesting in the boom in home redecorating or the growing interest in home cooking, it's clear consumers are looking for things that feel safe, familiar, happy. Ice cream fits nicely with this desire for comfort. "Everybody loves ice cream," points out Lynda Utterback, publisher of The National Dipper, a retail ice cream trade publication based in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. "People have good memories related to it, like walking to the local store as a kid on a hot summer day to get ice cream."

Also boosting the trend are families, typically a captive audience for ice cream retailers. "It's a very affordable treat--people can take their families to an ice cream store and spend just $10 or $12. They can't do that at a baseball game or a movie theater," says Utterback. "Then they sit down at a table and visit with each other, so it's a family-oriented outing."

Carvel Corp. knows about the connection between ice cream and families--the company was founded in the '30s and has seen its classic ice cream cakes like Fudgie the Whale become birthday party staples for families on the East Coast. A recent acquisition by Atlanta-based private equity-firm Roark Capital Group has this franchise primed for nationwide growth, using that family experience to its advantage.

"This experience--spending time with family and friends and eating comfort food--has become a very important part of our society again," says Chris Prasifka, vice president of operations for Carvel. "We're seeing a lot of family outings, going to the ice cream shops--these types of activities [are resurging]."

Not content to rely on its past success with families, Carvel is taking the next step to reach out to this market with a new menu, featuring items like smoothies and coffee drinks to appeal to a broad audience, and a new store design with kid-friendly extras. "We're trying to add to the experience, so we have interactive games on our counters for kids, and we're looking into a new sprinkle bar where the kids can add their own sprinkles," says Gary Bales, Carvel's vice president of marketing. "We're really interested in making the whole Carvel experience something special."

Other chains are joining the trend of serving up equal parts ice cream and entertainment. MaggieMoo's Ice Cream & Treatery, which specializes in fresh-made ice cream with mix-ins like fruit and candy, differentiates itself with the help of "spokescow" MaggieMoo. Each store in the chain is decorated with drawings of Maggie and her friends, known as the Girlz in the Herd, and stores sell merchandise and treats emblazoned with Maggie's image.

"People go out to eat ice cream when they're looking for an indulgence and an experience, and we provide an environment that caters to that need for them," says Richard J. Sharoff, who purchased MaggieMoo's from its original owners in 1996 and until recently served as president and CEO.

Part of that environment includes one of the biggest trends to hit the ice cream business in years: personalized ice cream. Cold Stone Creamery popularized the mix-in craze that's currently sweeping the nation. "People who want certain types of ice cream that are not commercially made can go into a store and order a specific candy or cookie or whatever they want to mix in the ice cream," Utterback says.

How powerful is that niche? To witness the trend firsthand, you only have to watch customers line up along Cold Stone's counters as servers blend together fresh-made ice cream and ingredients ranging from fruit to brownies. Not only are customers ooh-ing and aah-ing over the creative process--they're also charmed by the singing servers. "Today, it's not just about good service--it's about entertainment. It's about customers feeling special, like they're being taken care of," says David Andow, executive vice president for Cold Stone. "We understand that, and when someone walks into a store, we're doing everything we can to provide this 10-minute vacation, this ultimate ice cream experience. That makes a big difference."

It's not just the mix-ins that consumers are interested in. Freshly made ice cream is also a major draw. "[Ice cream is being made] in store, and [storeowners] are very particular about the ingredients they put in," Utterback says. "The ice cream in the store can be two or three days old, whereas the ice cream in the grocery store can be a couple of months old. Consumers are getting a high quality product."

The popularity of ice cream is so strong, even the anti-fat movement and national obsession with counting calories isn't enough to deflate it. "When [consumers] want dessert, they're going to save up the calories and have the kind of ice cream treat they want," Utterback says. "The premium and super-premium brands are selling better than the low-fat ice creams are. When people want dessert, they go for the good stuff."

The good stuff has long been the focus of Ben & Jerry's, perhaps the grandfather of ice cream "entertainment." Long before the live mix-in became widespread, the franchise was renowned for its unique combinations, including Chunky Monkey (banana ice cream with fudge chunks and walnuts) and Everything But The... (chocolate and vanilla ice cream with Heath Bar chunks, white chocolate chunks, peanut butter cups and chocolate-covered almonds). "It's a very different experience when you taste Ben & Jerry's. It's what I call the 'Oh my gosh' factor. Somebody takes a bite of our ice cream, and there are a lot of things going on," says Richard Wenz, brand manager for retail of the South Burlington, Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's. "It's just very experiential."

And customers do take notice. "People have grown up with Ben & Jerry's in the landscape of Americana," Wenz says. "The fact that we have a lot of different choices of flavors on the shelf and in the Scoop Shops [benefits the brand]."

Regardless of whether they're going for a family excursion or a personal treat, whether they're ordering fresh-made with mix-ins or themed cakes, people love ice cream. "Ice cream is an amazing product. About 90 percent of the total population eats ice cream," Wenz says. "I can't think of any product but water you make that claim about."