The Cold War: Frozen Treats versus Ice Cream

The chilly relationship between rival upstate New York ice cream truck operators got out of hand this season, with Sno Kone Joe trying to chase Mr. Ding-A-Ling out of the market.  Gloversville police told local media outlets two Sno Kone Joe operators face harassment and stalking charges after heated confrontations last month that included one of them yelling “This is my town!” at Phillip Hollister, a Mr. Ding-A-Ling driver.  And in New York City, Mister Softee brought a sugar cone to a knife fight resulting in two frozen treat slingers being arrested after getting their licks in during a midtown turf war that could have become a stabbing.  For centuries the frozen treat, or ice cream market has been identified with creative, colorful, veracious and boldly flavorful marketing tactics, but is competition really come to this, all-out war?

The evolution of ice cream can be traced to the Persian Empire, where people would pour grape-juice concentrate over snow, in a bowl.  Enjoyed primarily when the weather was hot, using snow saved in the cool-keeping underground chambers known as “yakhchal”, or taken from snowfall that remained at the top of mountains by the summer capital, Hagmatana, Ecbatana or Hamedan of today. It serves up a new perception to the phase, “going out for ice cream.”

The first ice cream parlor in America opened in New York City in 1776. American colonists were the first to use the term “ice cream” and in n 1851, Jacob Fussell in Baltimore established the first large-scale commercial ice cream plant.  The first ice cream mold and scooper was patented on February 2, 1897, but it wasn’t until 1926, that the first commercially successful continuous process freezer for ice cream was invented by Clarence Vogt.  In 1904 the walk-away edible cone made its American debut at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and the competition in the frozen treat market was joined.

Nearly 1.53 billion gallons of ice cream and related frozen desserts were produced in the U.S. in 2011 generating total revenues of $10 billion in 2010, with take-home ice cream sales representing the largest section of the market, generating revenues of $6.8 billion or 67.7 percent of the market’s overall value.  The majority of U.S. ice cream and frozen dessert manufacturers have been in business for more than 50 years and many are still family-owned businesses.  Ice Cream is as much a part of the American culture as baseball, Mom and apple pie (subjects for another time), that President Ronald Reagan designated July as National Ice Cream Month and the third Sunday of the month as National Ice Cream Day.

But after decades of dominating the market as America’s favorite frozen dessert, ice cream’s reign appears to be coming to an end.  According to The Daily Ticker, innovative competition and healthy trends are playing against the industry. Ice cream sales are poised to hit their lowest level as consumption rates continue to drop.  Instead of reaching for ice cream, consumers are reaching for frozen yogurt instead. Between 2011 and 2012, the number of “froyo” shops featuring frozen yogurt soared by 24 percent and It’s not just frozen yogurt that’s pulling away ice cream lovers, consumers are also enjoying gelato, Italian ice, custard, smoothies and other frosty concoctions.

Ice cream was America’s dominant frozen dessert for decades because new products consistently offered diners new types of experiences. The Dairy Queen Blizzard and Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors (one for every day of the month) were early ice-cream improvements on the two or three standard flavors offered at a typical mom-and-pop ice cream counter. In the 1980s, super premium ice cream such as Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s turned everyday dessert into a luxuriant niche. In the ‘90s, new arrivals such as Cold Stone Creamery added a customized touch by blending your chosen flavor and your add-ins right in front of you.  The ice cream industry isn’t ready to wave the white flag just yet as more chains are trying to regain their “cool” factor by establishing gourmet flavors or expanding into ice cream cupcakes and adding funky ice cream flavors such as, beef, pizza, corn-on-the-cob, avocado, and pear blue cheese.  To regain the cool factor, some chains are enriching their own offerings.  Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a small Ohio-based chain, has helped establish a new gourmet segment with flavors such as goat cheese with red cherries and Riesling poached pear.  At Haagen-Dazs, the latest menu addition is gelato. Dairy Queen recently introduced fruit smoothies, including a “light” version. The latest delicacy at Ben & Jerry’s isn’t ice cream, but a lineup of Greek frozen yogurt in flavors such as vanilla honey and pineapple passion fruit.

With the frozen-dessert market more crowded than ever, ice cream brands are finding new ways to stay competitive. Classic concepts are leaning on their popular product lines and loyal customer bases while rolling out new offerings. Many have learned from frozen yogurt’s use of novelty and are making their products more customizable than ever.  To extend their reach and engage with consumers, ice cream makers have ramped up their efforts in social media marketing and advertising. To mark the National Ice Cream Month celebration in July, TrackMaven and iStrategyLabs have released an infographic to show the most popular ice cream makers in the U.S. in terms of fans and followers on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Klout.

Consumers are always looking for something new and different, and the ice cream stores and the ice cream specialists that have maintained their sales have been the ones that continue to innovate, to promote and offer new treats.  “Ice cream is so entrenched in the American culture that it’s not really even close at all to being transplanted as being what people want, whether it’s after dinner or after seeing movies,” says David Wild, director of franchising for Sloan’s Ice Cream. “I don’t think that it really stands a chance of being overthrown, just because it has so many roots in American culture.”

The dessert wars are turning out to be a bonanza for diners so long as seekers of cool delights don’t get caught in the cross-fire between the nasty men of good humor.

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