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Gourmet ice cream boom hasn't melted old-time vendors' sales

If someone wanted to peddle gourmet ice cream from an ice cream truck, suggests a former vendor, ``they'd do a fantastic business.'' People wouldn't be able to resist the immensely popular super-premiums if someone brought the stuff to their front door, he reasons. ``Convenience is the whole thing.'' The bell-jingling ice cream sellers carry very little of the rich, expensive gourmet brands, but their trucks can still be seen and heard cruising along familiar school bus routes, hovering around ballparks, and waiting ``on every corner'' in some places, says Kim Warren of the marketing department at H.P. Hood Inc. in Boston.

Convenience isn't the only thing that's kept the Good Humor image alive in this competitive industry. The ice cream vending business targets a specific and never-failing market. Kids.

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Super-premium, or gourmet, ice creams, which have about 15 percent milkfat compared with the 10 percent minimum needed for a product to be called ice cream, have swept the market in the past two years. These exotically flavored pints - that's about as large as they get - can now be found in almost any convenience and grocery store.

``They're everywhere now, and that's what's helped their growth,'' says Becky Davenport, spokeswoman at the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers. Taste, ice cream fans hasten to add, has something to do with it, too.

Sales of super-premium ice cream in the nation grew between 25 and 30 percent over the last year, in a market where all ice cream sales topped $8 billion, according to the National Dairy Board.

New England alone, where many entrepreneurs have opened shops and introduced gourmet ice cream products, consumed 8 percent more ice cream so far this year, Ms. Warren at Hood says.

Despite this trend toward high-quality food, ice cream trucks and their more traditional fare have gained, not lost appeal. In fact, sales of packaged ice cream, which vendors subsist on, grew 5 percent last year and are enjoying their share of total growth, Ms. Davenport says.

Manufacturers suggest that the tremendous focus on super-premiums in the past year has rubbed off on the entire industry, making all ice cream products more popular.

``If anything, [the popularity of super premiums] has drawn attention to the ice cream industry,'' says Albert Reynolds, manager of market development for Good Humor Corporation, in Fairfield, N.J.

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It is more important, these manufacturers point out, to look at the two audiences that buy these various products. ``Super-premiums are aimed specifically at adults, while ice cream trucks sell mostly to kids and at major events,'' Davenport says. And that's not likely to change much, the ice cream makers say.

``A lot of adults don't feel gourmet ice cream is for kids, because kids don't appreciate it,'' Mr. Reynolds says.

Children may very well appreciate the creamy difference. But the low cost of a Popsicle or frozen cone every day of the summer is a lot easier for parents to stomach than a pint of expensive ice cream, he points out.

Not only that, the ice cream man has a certain appeal to children, an appeal, Reynolds says, that remains intact whether prices go up, other ice creams get better, or families have plenty in the house.

``Even years ago, when almost everyone already had ice cream in their freezer, when the truck came down the street ringing the bell, all the kids came running out into the street,'' he recalls.

That is not to say, others point out, that competition hasn't stiffened. The whole market has become more densely populated, and there's only so much more ice cream Americans can eat. ``This is one of the most perfect examples of where time is money,'' says a former summer ice cream man who is now president of his own company. ``If you take five minutes off, you could lose $25 just because somebody beats you to a specific location.''

The number of trucks has decreased slightly, but their sales volume has gone up, Warren at Hood says. And very few ice cream manufacturers run their own trucks now. Rather, distributors sell the packaged ice cream products to a network of independent vendors who rent their own trucks and do their own selling. While this constitutes only about 5 percent of manufacturers' business, it's an important business. Vendors can do very well, clearing as much as $400 to $500 on a good day, and $200 on an average day, a Connecticut truck vendor says. ``If you go much less than $200, you shouldn't be in the business,'' advises Reynolds.

Which means a motivated and experienced vendor can sell a lot of Hood's or Good Humor's ice cream in one day, and one season. The normal vendor's summer, depending on how warm it is, goes from about March 15 to Oct. 12.

About 50 percent of these vendors are ``lifers,'' says Reynolds, because ``they like being their own boss, being out in the sun, and the good money.''

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