If you take a look at what’s popular with ice cream and other frozen desserts, you’ll see trends like sweet and salty, spicy flavors paired with sweet, exotic fruits and other unique flavors, and seasonal offerings. Though these trends are showing up in the frozen dessert aisles at grocery stores, they often begin on restaurant menus.  This is why many processors look for flavor and product inspiration from restaurant chefs and bartenders.

Maybe it’s because consumers are willing to expand their palates for an evening dinner out, or they decide on more out-of-the-box choices when they don’t have to make it themselves.  Whatever the reason, menus are a good place to gauge future trends and get innovative, especially with flavors.

Some of the fastest-growing flavors on restaurant menus across the United States are watermelon, pumpkin, peppermint, spiced, kiwi, Amaretto, pear and pomegranate, according Chicago-based Technomic, a research firm specializing in foodservice trends. (See the infographic on the next page for a breakdown of regional flavor preferences in the United States.)

When it comes to ingredients found in ice cream on menus, some of the fastest-growing include blood orange sauce, kiwi, watermelon and Amaretto. The top five ingredients are fudge, whipped cream, caramel, banana and cherry.

Seasonality, comfort and nostalgia, and twists on classics, are three of five popular trends in desserts, according to a recent Dessert Trends report from Fona International, a flavor supplier based in Geneva, Ill. These trends can definitely be found showing up in the frozen dessert market. Seasonal flavors have been popular for a while on restaurant menus, in dessert/ice cream shops, and with products in the grocery store.

As it states in the report, “Seasonal flavors incorporated into menu items and product launches throughout the year give consumers a new reason to engage with the brand and build excitement.”

Also, the report identifies  the top five comfort flavors as cinnamon roll, peanut butter and chocolate, oatmeal cookie, cheesecake and birthday cake. The top five nostalgic flavors are birthday cake, peanut butter and jelly, cinnamon roll, oatmeal cookie and caramel apple. Plenty of these flavors are showing up in ice cream and other frozen treats, and can definitely be found on menus at places like Baskin-Robbins. This is all good food-for-thought for processors as they look to tap into flavor trends.

Frozen desserts in foodservice, by the numbers

The amount of ice cream items on menus has gone up 14.2% since 2010 (from 1,544 to 1,757 menu items), according Technomic. The number of U.S. stores/outlets that specialize in frozen dessert concepts was 19,336 in 2014, essentially flat (up 0.1%) from 2013. Frozen dessert concepts totaled $7.2 billion in sales in 2014, up 5.8% from 2013.

According to Technomic’s report, 79% of fine-dining restaurants feature ice cream on the menu. Compare that with 71% of casual dining, 66% midscale, 37% quick service and 24% fast casual.

Among frozen desserts, ice cream/gelato ranks No. 1 of the top five items showing up on menus (with 554 items), followed by milkshake/malt (382), sorbet/granite (205), cake/pie (193) and brownie sundae (171). (See more information in the bar chart on page 46.)

So, where are people eating their favorite frozen treats?

The largest chains are Dairy Queen ($3.2 billion in U.S. system-wide sales in 2014, up 7.5% from 2013), Baskin-Robbins ($544 million, up 5.9%) and Cold Stone Creamery ($366.5 million, down 0.7%), according to Technomic. But the fastest-growing among the Top 500 restaurant chains overall are sweetFrog Frozen Yogurt (an estimated $140.2 million, up 30.2%), CherryBerry (estimated $73.7 million, up 18.9%) and Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt (an estimated $132.7 million, up 18.3%).

What’s on the menu?

We spoke with some frozen dessert chains and other ice cream processors to see what’s trending. The response centered on unique concepts and desserts not easily made at home.

Velvet Ice Cream, Utica, Ohio, supplies ice cream for restaurants like Bob Evans, Max & Erma’s and other independent restaurants. Nathan Arnold, marketing manager for Velvet, said that consumers want to order a dessert they can’t easily make at home.

“A trend we see is consumers want a good quality, hand-dipped milkshake,” said Arnold. “The taste of a milkshake using hand-dipped ice cream (non-soft serve, scooped ice cream) makes for a more decadent dessert. It sets a restaurant apart from quick-service restaurants that offer similar choices.”

Arnold mentioned that seasonal flavors are also coming into play, albeit in a slightly different way.

“We see restaurants experimenting with new flavor profiles. Instead of the traditional scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side of a brownie or pie, restaurants are celebrating summer with peach desserts or fall with apple desserts.”

For example the restaurant may serve a peach cobbler-flavored or cinnamon-flavored ice cream alongside the pie, cake or brownie.

The hand-scooped and handmade concept is popular for other restaurants as well.

Carl’s Jr., Mesa, Ariz., (the fast food restaurant chain) is known for using hard-packed vanilla ice cream to make its hand-scooped ice cream shakes and malts, and hand-scooped ice cream sandwiches. Some innovations with sandwiches it has had in the past couple years include an Oreo cookie ice cream sandwich; strawberry Pop-Tart ice cream sandwich; and its recent Hostess Ding Dong ice cream sandwich.

“We make our Hostess Ding Dong Ice Cream Sandwiches inside the restaurants every day, with premium vanilla ice cream that we hand-scoop from the tub, just like you’d get at an ice cream shop,” said Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of Carl’s Jr., in a press release. 

“We’ve introduced some pretty imaginative creations using the vanilla ice cream that we scoop out of tubs by hand, and it’s pretty fun to dream up new ones that no one has thought of before,” said Haley.

Partnering up with popular brand names is another notable trend.

Dave Fenner, director of research and development at Carvel, Atlanta, said “Because people are so accustomed to simply ordering their ice cream in a cone or a dish, unusual ice cream products really stand out on menus.”

Carvel recently partnered with brands such as Nutella and Reese’s to develop new flavors, which have been very successful, according to Fenner. Items such as the Reese’s Hidden Treasure Cone (Reese’s peanut ice cream dipped in a chocolate bonnet, with chunks of peanut butter cups inside the cone) has become a really popular item on the menu and is an example of the “unusual ice cream product” Fenner mentioned above.

This past spring, the company offered a line of Nutella ice cream products for a limited time, including a thick shake made with soft-serve ice cream with the hazelnut-flavored spread and topped with whipped cream and Nutella; and hand-scooped chocolate ice cream layered with Nutella and Carvel Crunchies, then topped with more Nutella. For summer, the company added a line of Reese’s products, including the Hidden Treasure Cone, a Reese’s Peanut Butter shake and Reese’s Sundae Dasher.

What’s most popular for Carvel? Fennel said, “Nutella, Reese’s, pistachio and vanilla.  [And the] most popular products are Flying Saucers [ice cream sandwiches], Sundae Dashers and cakes.” Sundae Dashers feature ice cream layered with toppings, sauces and whipped cream in a tall cup.

Dairy Queen, Minneapolis, is going a different route with new menu items that are available this fall. Its new DQ Bakes feature a hot and cold dessert together. A scoop of soft-serve ice cream is paired with a hot dessert (a triple chocolate brownie, apple tart or fudge-stuffed chocolate chip cookie) and then drizzled in either cocoa fudge or caramel sauce. The concept is something you might see on the dessert menu of a fine dining restaurant.

Flavor innovations

For Canton, Mass.-based Baskin-Robbins the focus is on flavor. The company looks for inspiration from many sources, including food and flavor trends, customer feedback and popular culture. Its flavor-of-the-month program allows room for innovation and keeps a sense of new and different, as customers wait to see what’s next. According to Baskin-Robbins, a lot of its inspiration comes from seasonal flavors (like pumpkin and peppermint), and special holidays, which help them to create “unique twists on flavors,” to keep customers surprised.

Some of the recent ice cream flavors to show up on the menu are: Movie Theater Popcorn (popcorn-flavored ice cream and butter popcorn crisp pieces, mixed with a salty caramel ribbon); Snacknado (the March flavor, which was made with sweet and salty snacks, like chocolate-covered potato chips and pretzels, mixed together with candy pieces, chocolate fudge and salted pretzel ribbons); a S’mores flavor; peanut butter and jelly; peanut butter and banana; and Oreo-themed treats.

The flavor-of-the-month for September is banana split, which has banana-flavored ice cream topped with chocolate covered cherry pieces and almonds, and is mixed with pineapple pieces and strawberry and hot fudge ribbons. Other options available for fall include pumpkin and cheesecake-flavored ice cream with ginger snap cookie pieces, topped with cinnamon cream cheese-flavored ribbon; and Quarterback Crunch, a vanilla-flavored ice cream with rice crunchies in a chocolate-flavored coating. 

Another company finding success thanks to its unique and custom flavor creations is Angelo Gelato Italiano, Franklin Park, Ill. Some of the company’s most interesting gelato concoctions include chocolate bacon, honey lavender, caramel swirl with cheese popcorn, jalapeno, corn on the cob, Guinness beer, and sparkling Champagne. The company produces over 100 different gelato flavors. 

Angelo Gelato originated in the Chicagoland area, but recently expanded into California. It sells gelato and sorbetto to retail chains and restaurants nationwide. In Chicago, the gelato can be found at The Signature Room at the 95th, Cone Gourmet Ice Cream and Quartino Restaurant, to name a few.

Tapping into the seasonal trend, this fall the company is releasing a spicy pumpkin gelato flavor, a green apple sorbetto, and a green mint chip and eggnog gelato. The flavors will be available through December.

Over on the frozen yogurt side, baked goods flavors, like cookies and cupcakes, are becoming more popular in frozen yogurt shops, according to Philip Hipsky, director of R&D for sweetFrog Premium Frozen Yogurt, Richmond, Va. Other popular flavors include soft fruit flavors, like pear, kiwi and blueberry.

He also said there’s a demand for low-glycemic index frozen yogurts, using sugar alternatives like stevia and monk fruit.

There’s a goldmine of trends happening that can benefit frozen dessert makers as they look to innovate. Whether it’s happening on menus, in dessert and coffee shops, or at the grocery store, one thing is clear: consumers are open to experimenting and processors need to capitalize on that. 

Yogurt as dessert is a growing trend 

Dessert-style yogurts are grabbing a share of the stomach in the area of refrigerated desserts. Companies are jumping on the trend of creating yogurts that resemble a dessert, but are designed to be lower in fat, and sometimes lower in sugar. For example, Dannon’s strawberry cheesecake flavor in its Creamery line has 23 grams of sugar per 5.3-ounce cup. Müller’s strawberry cheesecake yogurt flavor has 23 grams of sugar per 5.3-ounce container (see below).Compare that with Ben & Jerry’s strawberry cheesecake ice cream flavor, which has 23 grams of sugar per 1/2 cup serving (or 4-ounces).

Müller Quaker Dairy, Batavia, N.Y., launched two different product lines this year that were positioned as dessert-inspired. It added four ice cream-inspired yogurt flavors earlier in the year, like mint chocolate chip and strawberries and cream. The yogurt is packaged in a fluted-style container, standing out from the typical cups. This summer, the company introduced four new dessert-inspired varieties, packaged in its signature Corner cups with side mix-ins. The flavors are strawberry cheesecake, raspberry brownie, Dulce De Leche and peach cobbler. The yogurt has swirls of fruit or caramel and features mix-ins like brownie bites, waffle pieces and pecan clusters.

Also earlier in the year, Flemington, N.J.-based Johanna Foods, makers of La Yogurt, added a new La Chocolãt low-fat yogurt line to its portfolio. The flavors (seven blended and four on-the bottom flavors) all contained dark chocolate chips mixed in. This, along with the dark-colored striking container, gave it a dessert feel. Flavors included pecan, banana and coconut and mint. 

Last year, The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., launched its Creamery line, which included Greek yogurt that had cheesecake-inspired flavors and was packaged in a low, almost bowl-like container.  The line was designed and marketed as a dairy dessert. The desserts are usually found near the yogurts in the grocery store.

Tillamook County Creamery, Tillamook, Ore., was actually a little ahead of this trend a couple years ago when it launched a Dessert Yogurt line. The yogurt came in Honey Cinnamon Crème Brûlée, Marionberry Cobbler and Peach Raspberry á la Mode flavors.

 As the trend continues to take off, we expect more processors will jump on board with similar concepts.