A longtime dessert favorite, ice cream continues to gain popularity among U.S. consumers, pushing frozen treat restaurant operators to think outside the box with more innovative and unusual flavors.
In the year ending April 2012, nearly two billion servings of ice cream were ordered at U.S. foodservice outlets, a figure that was up 2 percent from the same period the year prior, according to The NPD Group’s CREST research. And while an International Dairy Foods Association survey found that tried-and-true vanilla still remains the most popular flavor among consumers, it's no surprise that nontraditional varieties are piquing the interest, and taste buds, of consumers nationwide.
Among restaurants in the frozen treats category — which includes ice cream, yogurt, gelato and Italian ice — unique flavors are a clear trend, according to Jana Mann, director of menu trends for Datassential. After examining a database of more than 4,800 chain and independent restaurants, Mann found nontraditional flavors such as mango, green tea and key lime pie were showing up on more restaurant menus in 2012 than they were the year prior.
Peanut butter topped that list of flavors, which included but is not limited to lemon, peach, pumpkin and watermelon.
Offering flavors outside the traditional realm of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry is a way to appeal to a diverse cross section of consumers, particularly during the summer, operators say.
“Usually the summertime is a great time to showcase [nontraditional flavors],” said Ray Karam, senior tastemaster at Cold Stone Creamery. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based chain, which has 1,086 U.S. locations according to NRN’s latest Second 100 report, currently offers such unusual flavors as mojito and key lime pie, both on Dataessentials list of growing flavors. Karam says they serve as a great way to generate excitement among the brand’s customers.
“Not only are they good flavors, but they are attention grabbers, drive trial and customers can talk about them and share information with their friends,” he said. “Foodies and experimenters, especially among the younger crowd, want the ‘wow’ factor and can’t wait to try the newest sensation.”
Donna Smith, vice president of marketing for Franklin, Tenn.-based Tasti D-Lite, whose more than 100 flavors currently include trending varieties such as crème brulee, key lime and cotton candy, also says that unique flavors are a good way to target specific areas or demographics.
“Key lime traditionally sells well in Florida and similar states,” Smith said. “In addition, stores that are located close to schools or have a larger representation of children in the area tend to do well with the more kid-friendly flavors like bubble gum and cotton candy.”
But beyond marketing, ice cream is a big business — generating $10 billion in revenue in the U.S. in 2010, according to MarketLine, a business information provider — and restaurants must understand the importance of appealing to tastes beyond the norm.
“[We] recognize that no customers area alike, and that every customer should be able to enjoy their favorite flavor every day and at any time,” Smith said.
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