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Frozen Treats Put Flavor First

Artisan gelato is a big driver in frozen-dessert innovations and Jessica Oloroso exemplifies this trend with clever creations on a stick at Chicago’s Black Dog Gelato. Her whiskey-spiked gelato is dunked in milk chocolate and rolled in crispy, salty bacon. Photo courtesy of black dog gelato. Modern ice cream desserts serve up nostalgic tradition with a topping of artistic innovation

By Katie Ayoub

What’s new in frozen desserts? Despite the scoopfuls of innovation in flavors, inclusions, edible carriers and frozen-dessert forms, the familiar vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice creams remain fan favorites. Indeed, the Ice Cream Reporter says that in 2011, seven in 10 consumers bought one of those three flavors. So why should foodservice innovate in this category? For the other three out of 10 consumers, says the Reporter’s Howard Waxman. “That’s where the real battle for profitability is fought.”

And it’s a battle worth fighting. Technomic reports that the frozen-dessert segment of the restaurant industry achieved sales of approximately $6.1 billion in 2009, and $7.2 billion in retail outlets.

Knowing what entices diners in this category is the key to higher incremental sales and increased check averages. Traditional ice cream concepts, such as Friendly’s Ice Cream and Baskin-Robbins, tap into nostalgia for an emotional connection between their customers and their brands. But innovation is important to their customers, too, and always has been. Flavors of the month at Baskin-Robbins are not new, after all. And beyond adventures in flavor combinations and inclusions, chains showcase limited-time offers and new product launches in the form of ice cream pies, cakes, sandwiches and more.

Indulgence is another factor fueling frozen-dessert sales. But there is a wider offering of better-for-you frozen desserts that attempts to counterbalance the decadent side of the scale. Innovation is perhaps at its finest here. As Stan Frankenthaler, vice president of innovation and executive chef of Baskin-Robbins says, “As an industry, we’ve come a long way since ice milks.”

Another driver worth deeper inspection is artisanship. Where does the frozen-dessert category fit into this overarching trend? From housemade gelatos to small-batch frozen yogurts, craftsmanship colors the outer fringes of the frozen-dessert picture.

Tapping into the institutional memory of two iconic ice cream brands — Friendly’s and Baskin-Robbins — offers historical perspective on frozen desserts in this country. Friendly’s, with 378 units, was established in 1935; Baskin-Robbins, with 2,457 domestic units, opened shop in 1945.

“It’s uncanny how some things just haven’t changed,” says Tim Hopkins, executive vice president of manufacturing and retail at Friendly’s. He calls out the super-indulgent side of ice cream as a solid fixture on the landscape. “There’s an insatiable appetite for packing ice cream full of gooey, delicious inclusions, and I don’t think that will ever go away, but our customers also show a desire for new flavors. That’s part of the gestalt of ice cream — discovering new flavors.”

Friendly’s offers its customers 22 ice creams and 20 toppings. Its core customer is the American family. “Ice cream has a 95 percent household penetration,” says Hopkins. “The highest consumption is families with kids. That’s our wheelhouse. We don’t offer intense sorbets that satisfy adult palates. We sell ice cream.”

But the 2012 family is starkly different than the family of yesteryear. “Kids are more sophisticated today, for sure,” says Michael O’Donovan, vice president of innovation and product development for Friendly’s. He sees today’s families seeking out customization. “They want it how they want it, and they also want to try different flavor combinations,” he says. “Although ice cream will essentially always be ice cream, I see a growth in demand for unique presentations and flavors.”

A recent answer to unique spins on ice cream is the Waffle Sundae line, which Friendly’s rolled out last March. It boasts four builds and one build-your-own waffle sandwich. Designed for portability, the sandwich sees two scoops of ice cream between crisp Belgian waffles. One of the sundaes is the Nutty Caramel Waffle Sundae, starring two scoops of Nuts Over Caramel ice cream between a Belgian waffle and finished with caramel, almonds and whipped topping.

Friendly’s line of Waffle Sundaes offers four varieties plus a build-your-own option. Its Nutty Caramel version features layers of Belgian waffle with Nuts Over Caramel ice cream, caramel, whipped topping and almonds. Photo courtesy of friendly’s. ICED INDULGENCES
“Ice cream is one part of the menu that is delightful and can really reflect changing trends,” says Baskin-Robbins’ Frankenthaler. “But it also represents nostalgia in the deepest ways emotionally.”

The sweet spot is when you can hit both innovation and nostalgia. One example is the seasonal offering of Gingerbread Man Ice Cream — gingerbread-flavored ice cream with a background of warm spices, soft gingerbread pieces and a cinnamon-caramel ribbon. “It’s loaded with memories and offers great winter flavors,” he says. “It’s something new, but taps into nostalgia and stimulates an emotional reaction.”

It’s worth mentioning that the gingerbread ice cream has 50 percent less fat and 20 percent fewer calories than regular ice cream. As part of Baskin-Robbins BRright Choices line, it’s a prime example of what Frankenthaler calls “Flavor first — with benefits.”

Indeed, Baskin-Robbins has been at the forefront of offering its customers choices that fit into the health and wellness trend. January’s flavor of the month was Berry Nut Honey Frozen Yogurt, a honey-and-vanilla-flavored frozen yogurt with a triple-berry ribbon and sweet honey-oat/almond pieces. The new flavor comes in at 140 calories per 2.5 oz. scoop, 4.5 grams of fat with live and active cultures. “We’re leading with flavor first, and we’re finding that customers do want these lighter choices,” says Frankenthaler.

Its new line of Cake Bites speaks to innovation in mini indulgences, a huge trend in the dessert category. Rolled out nationally last fall, these are bite-sized versions of the classic Baskin-Robbins ice cream cakes. With six varieties (four featured at a time), customers can purchase them individually or buy four-packs. “They offer a moderated sense of indulgence,” notes Frankenthaler. “And they’re fun!”

Other multi-unit menus are also ramping up the fun in their frozen-dessert innovations. Cracker Barrel recalls American comfort cues with its Frozen Mug Sundaes, served with hot fudge, caramel, chocolate, strawberry, blackberry or sorghum molasses, and topped with whipped cream and roasted almonds.

Outback Steakhouse’s take on a sundae is its Sydney’s Sinful Sundae of vanilla ice cream rolled in toasted coconut and topped with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a fresh strawberry. At Carrabba’s Italian Grill, the John Cole is a gluten-free offering of vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce and roasted cinnamon-rum pecans.

Iconic ice cream shops and family-friendly restaurant chains offer great insight into the psyche of today’s frozen-dessert consumer. Typically, though, fringe trends move into emerging trends at the independent level. For instance, phenomena like salted caramel and bacon-topped chocolate made their debut on independent menus. A quick sampling across the field shows delicious innovation, including nostalgic, carnival-inspired and diner-style frozen desserts.

Dominique Perez, pastry chef at Story in Kansas City, Kan., makes ice cream in caramel popcorn, root beer and red velvet cake. At Allium Restaurant, housed in the Four Seasons, Chicago, Executive Chef Kevin Hickey serves up PB&J floats, as well as wild-foraged sassafras ice cream floats and miso-butterscotch milkshakes.

Chicago’s Naha changes its house sundae six times a year. Summer might bring a bourbon ice cream sundae with raspberries, wood-grilled peaches, pecans and caramel sauce, with pecan sandies alongside. In the fall, ice cream flavored with Great Lakes Brewery porter beer is nestled in a sundae glass with caramel hazelnuts, chocolate cookie crumbs and a dark chocolate “magic shell.” A Nutella panini buddies up.

“Porter beer brings a nice maltiness to the dish,” says Craig Harzewski, Naha’s pastry chef. He reduces the beer with vanilla, which intensifies the flavors and cuts through the fattiness of the ice cream. “It’s immensely popular,” he says. “It’s everything you want in a sundae — creamy, crunchy, gooey — but with unexpected flavors and combinations.”

Gelato is another frozen form making inroads into this country’s dessert culture. “It’s richer in flavor than ice cream,” says Carlo Cavallo, chef/owner of Sonoma-Meritage Martini Oyster Bar & Grille in Sonoma, Calif. “I try to keep it very simple in number of ingredients, so as to extract that particular essence.” Currently, he’s featuring a housemade Zinfandel-poached pear gelato served in an edible bowl made out of cookie tuile.

At Black Dog Gelato, a gourmet gelateria with two retail locations in Chicago, chef-owner Jessica Oloroso sells to more than 30 foodservice accounts. Flavors range from Mexican hot chocolate and goat cheese-cashew-caramel to malted vanilla and sesame-fig-chocolate chip. And beyond her out-there flavor combinations, her latest innovation moves gelato from the cone into a bar presentation. Whenever featured, her Whiskey Gelato Bar sells out faster than you can say “crispy, salty bacon.” It stars whiskey-spiked gelato dunked in milk chocolate then rolled in — you guessed it — crispy, salty bacon.

In Chicago, Naha’s innovative house sundae features caramel, hazelnuts, dark chocolate and porter beer ice cream. Alongside, a Nutella panini offers complementary flavor and texture. Photo courtesy of naha. FRO-YO LESSONS
The frozen-yogurt landscape looks a lot different today than it did 15 years ago. From self-serve brands like Yogurtland to curated flavor experiences like those offered at Pinkberry, one of the driving forces of its renaissance is customization.

Pinkberry has a clear brand narrative, a strategy that certainly keeps customer retention and growth squarely in the crosshairs. Laura Jakobsen, senior vice president of marketing and design, offers her insights on this category’s success.

“How you own flavor on your menu is a brand choice,” she says. “You have to define who you are and how you’re going to tell that story through flavor.” Pinkberry, now with 175 units throughout the world, launched in 2005. It came into the marketplace as a yogurt company, not an ice cream alternative. “We have never had a frame of reference for ice cream,” she explains. “We offer a fresh product with a balance of sweet and tart and a nice clean finish. Our job is to host that discovery.” Indeed, Pinkberry’s original flavors reflect its positioning as a tart, fresh yogurt destination: pomegranate, green tea and original.

Customization options lay in abundance, but the people behind the register, whom Jakobsen christens “tastemakers,” guide the experience. The younger demographic, she says, seeks out a premium yogurt experience. “We hand cut our fruit every day. We use real yogurt, real milk, handcrafted fruit purées. These are values that are important to our customers.”

Seasonal flavors also communicate a premium experience. Currently, Peach Classic gives customers a peach-cobbler inspired combination with fresh peaches and cinnamon streusel atop peach yogurt. Another flavor, blood orange, “is an emerging trend,” Jakobsen says. “People know what an orange is, but might not have tasted a blood orange. They then try it and it’s magical. We’ve hosted a discovery, which is a big part of our brand identity.” They can try the flavor as a blood-orange yogurt topped with blood-orange purée and blood-orange segments, or perhaps combine the yogurt with the original-flavored for an orange-cream experience.

“At Pinkberry, we focus on emerging trends,” says Jakobsen. “We don’t focus on niche trends. Over time, the emerging trends go mainstream and then everybody wins.”


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About The Author


Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.