What are ice cream processors thinking? They are opening plants as production plummets. Annual ice cream production has been dropping steadily, from 891 million gallons in 2007 to 785.3 million gallons in 2012. During that time, the number of ice cream plants rose to 406 (in 2011) from 357 in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statistical service.

Retail sales of ice cream in the last year increased a scant 0.3% to $5.5 billion, despite a 4-cent-a-unit decrease. Sales were helped by an increase in unit sales of 1.4% in the 52 weeks ended Aug. 11, 2013, according to Information Resources Inc., the Chicago-based market researcher.

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The best-selling ice cream — private label — fared poorly. Sales dropped 4.7% to $1.1 billion with units down 3.9% to 352.7 million. On the other hand, certain processors did quite well in the last year. From a vendor level, Nestle Dreyers Ice Cream Co. boosted sales 4% to $1.08 billion and unit sales increased 6.75% to 276.9 million.

Blue Bell Creameries increased sales 5.4% to $558.5 million. Blue Bell was the only vendor in IRI’s top five that was able to get a price increase (5 cents) in the last year.

A new product every month

Ice cream processors continue to innovate. According to the Dairy Foods 2013 Ingredients Study, ice cream processors say they plan to develop an average of 13.4 new products in the next 12 months. The top five flavors they plan on using are strawberry (82%), mango (64%), raspberry (59%), banana (57%) and cherry (56%). The study did not ask about chocolate or vanilla flavors, but 66% of respondents said they plan to increase purchases of cocoa, chocolate and other ingredients.

Which is the more popular flavor: chocolate or vanilla?  That depends. According to a 2013 survey of International Ice Cream Association member companies, vanilla is the most popular ice cream flavor.  A Harris Poll this summer, on the other hand, found that chocolate holds the edge over vanilla (27% to 23%).

The top three flavors in the ice cream association survey are vanilla, chocolate and butter pecan, with coffee, tri-flavored Neapolitan and Rocky Road (with nut inclusions) tied for fourth place, according to the companies participating in the survey.

Harris found that after chocolate and vanilla, cookie dough/cookies and cream are third at 22%. Women’s preferences are chocolate (29%), mint chocolate chip (23%) and cookie dough/cookies and cream (22%). Men prefer vanilla (27%), chocolate (26%) and cookie dough/cookies and cream (21%). Harris Interactive surveyed 2,242 adults online in July.

Exotic or ethnic flavors are finding their way into the ice cream aisle. Whatever the reason, look for more tropical fruit flavors, such as mango, coconut, pineapple and lemon. Also, look for these flavors in combination with others.

Mikawaya Mochi Ice Cream, Los Angeles, has a new line called Exottics that it said was inspired by authentic Asian cuisine and fruits. Flavors include Black Sesame, Green Tea Matcha, Lychee, Taro and Yuzu Sorbet.  The line is packaged in pints, bars, 3.6-ounce cups and ice cream sandwiches, as well as 5-quart pails and 3-gallon pails for foodservice customers.

In addition to exotic flavors, ice cream makers followed the ethnic trend into products. Most notable was Nestle’s premium ice cream brand Häagen-Dazslaunch of gelato in February. It could be argued that the Italian treat is mainstream now. Still, no other national ice cream brand has a gelato product. Häagen-Dazs offers all seven flavors in 14-ounce cartons, with Sea Salt Caramel and Vanilla Bean also sold in 3.6-ounce cups.

Talenti Gelato & Sorbetto, Minneapolis, drew upon the popular Hispanic flavor dulce de leche for its Argentine caramel. Other new flavors introduced in March were Alphonso mango, German Chocolate Cake and butter pecan.

Cake and (and in) ice cream

Rhino Foods, Burlington, Vt., is a baker of cookie dough inclusions and cake pieces, and a processor of ice cream sandwiches. Corporate Research Chef Dale Conoscenti said the company is seeing “lots of energy around ginger, honey, and cinnamon.  Latin influences continue to be strong and Asian influences on ingredients and flavor developments are strengthening.”

“Customers are asking for unique and new ingredients while maintaining a connection with consumer preferences,” Conoscenti said.  “We see a real willingness to stretch beyond usual comfort zones in the evaluation stages of new flavors and concepts. Customers use these unique offerings as a way to keep their brands fresh and relevant across multiple product and consumer segments.”

Ice cream processors also borrow ideas and flavors from other dessert items, especially cakes. Birthday cake and red velvet cake flavors and inclusions have been popular. Iowa-based Wells Enterprises even commissioned a licensed line of ice cream with celebrity chef Duff Goldman (of the cable show “Ace of Cakes”).

Following the success of Anniversary Cake, Birthday Cake, Groom’s Cake and Red Velvet Cake, Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell developed Italian Cream Cake. This limited-time flavor mixed vanilla ice cream with pieces of Italian cream cake, shredded coconut, roasted pecans and a cream cheese icing swirl. 

Pumpkin pie and cheesecake inspired Rita’s Italian Ice, Trevose, Pa., to develop a seasonal Pumpkin Cheesecake Cream Ice that combines cheesecake and pumpkin pie flavors.

Conoscenti said “creating ‘desserts inside desserts’ concepts has been well-received” and gives a consumer a more “dynamic experience.  Our S’mores ice cream flavor has been one of the most well received examples of this type of concept.”

Co-branding and licensing

Dairy Foods found that branded ice cream companies are teaming up with other food brands on new products. Each brand gains from the additional exposure. For example, Mars Ice Cream, Burr Ridge, Ill., will launch a 2.6-ounce Starburst sorbet stick bar in February 2014, said Mars Ice Cream General Manager Craig Hall. Starbust is a candy brand owned by Wrigley, which in turn is owned by Mars. 

Working with well-known brands requires some additional effort in packaging graphics so that consumers know what they are buying. In February, Mars will introduce new graphics and package designs for Snickers, Milky Way and Twix brands of ice cream.  Hall said research found that some consumers thought the single ice cream bars were frozen chocolate bars. “The new single design more clearly communicates ice cream,” Hall said.

Roba Dolce, Pomona, N.Y., co-branded pints of gelato and sorbet with Ocean Spray using the fruit cooperative’s Cherry Craisins Dried Cranberries. (See page 21.) The inclusions are paired with dark chocolate in a gelato. The sorbet line includes a cranberry raspberry lime flavor.

Unilever’s Popsicle turned to Sanrio’s ubiquitous Hello Kitty for a new branded line of ice pops shaped like stars, triangles and moons. Flavors include cherry, watermelon, berry and grape.

Novelties are new

Ice cream processors are rounding out their frozen dessert offerings by entering the fruit bar market or by expanding their offerings. For example, Pierre’s Ice Cream, Cleveland, launched a new line of fruit bars under its popular ¡Hola Fruta! brand this summer. Assistant Marketing and Communications Manager Matthew Thornicroft said the “snack-sized” dairy-free fruit bars are available in pomegranate raspberry, raspberry blueberry and strawberry flavors.

Blue Bell extended its fruit bar line with mixed berries (strawberries, blackberries and raspberries) and Dipped Coconut, sold in six packs. Each all-natural bar is made with real fruit. 

The fruit bars “appeal to consumers of all ages, but especially those health conscious consumers who are focused on healthier eating,” said Blue Bell Director of Marketing Carl Breed.

While the fruit bars are nonfat and low in calories, Blue Bell went the other direction with its Dipped Coconut Fruit Bars, a 190-calorie treat with 11 grams of total fat. It took its existing Coconut Fruit Bar and loaded it with flakes of fresh coconut and dipped in a thick layer of dark chocolate.

Edy’s Outshine is the new name for the fruit bar products from Edy’s. The Nestle Dreyer’s Ice Cream Co. brand in April rolled out 60-calorie Coconut Water bars in two flavors: banana and pineapple. It also sold for a limited time its raspberry and peach flavors (available February through August) and grapefruit and blood orange flavors (September through December).

Europe-based international food giant Unilever brought its Fruttare fruit bars to the United States in June. The dairy-based varieties come in strawberry, coconut, banana and peach flavors. The juice-based bars are sold in strawberry, orange, mango and lime flavors.

Following the introduction last year of the premium ice cream Magnum bar, Unilever rolled out Magnum Gold bars. The vanilla bean ice cream is swirled with sea salt caramel and dipped in a golden Belgium chocolate coating.

Friendly’s Ice Cream Co., the processor and restaurant operator, entered the novelty market with sticks, cones and sandwiches sold in four- and six-packs. The 10 flavors from the Wilbraham, Mass.-based ice cream company include Strawberry Cake Krunch and Chocolate Cake Krunch bars, black raspberry bars and fudge and caramel cones.

Yolo Pops, Las Vegas, a maker of alcohol and nonalcohol ice pops, launched a line of all-natural, nonalcoholic flavors in July. Sold in 100-milliliter (about 3.4 ounces) single-serve tubes, the flavors included blackberry, strawberry and cherry.

Beyond the dip stand

As any baby boomer would attest, the original food truck was the Good Humor truck that rolled through urban and suburban streets in the summer time. That idea has been updated. What’s Da Scoop? is a food truck concept from Two Trucks LLC, Dallas/Fort Worth, that served premium ice cream in the Texas metroplex area this summer. Flavors included Fat Elvis (ice cream with organic banana puree with chocolate chips and peanut butter chunks) and Blue Suede Shoes sundae (Fat Elvis ice cream with candied bacon bits and whipped cream).

Unilever’s Good Humor brand drove trucks throughout the Boston area this summer on what it called a “Share the Love” tour. The ice cream novelty brand gave away thousands of sandwiches, bars and cones. In New York, Magnum built a pop-up shop in midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park where customers could design their own flavor combinations with toppings and chocolate coatings.

Blue Bell reaches its customers with a QR (quick response) code added to its ice cream packages. By scanning the code with a smart phone, consumers can join the Blue Bell Country Club to receive monthly coupons and other benefits. “We’ve seen sales of our frozen novelties are trending higher this year. We attribute some of this growth to an updated packaging design,” Breed said.

Finally there is an app from Häagen-Dazs that distracts consumers until ice cream has reached its peak temperature for dipping and eating. The Concerto Timer app launches a two-minute video of a Bach violin and cello work when an iPhone is pointed at a symbol on a carton. For each download of the app, the company donates $5 to research colony collapse disorder in honey bees.

Who’s to say if any of these gimmicks will boost the ice cream category. As long as brand sales increase, ice cream processors will be humming a happy tune.   


Ice cream processors are talking about:

  • Tropical fruit flavors
  • Cake-inspired flavors
  • Fruit-flavored novelties
  • Licensing well-known candy brands
  • Reaching consumers through technology
  • Marketing with food trucks