May 29, 2017 Last Updated 12:22 AM, Apr 14, 2017

Surviving the Off-Season: A Guide for Frozen Dessert Purveyors

Category: Frozen

   The sweet satisfaction of a cool treat on a hot summer’s day, the calming effects of an ice cream; these things are the very reason for our industry’s infamous one hundred day war.

  June, July, and August (the hottest months of the year) are when ice cream queens and kings duke it out in an effort to win the hearts and minds of consumers, customers, and guests alike. Thankfully, as this war ends, it is possible for bitter rivals to allow competition to be their guide to success. But be we pastry chefs, retail managers, scoop shop operators, or wholesalers, there are tools we can use to survive the end of the one hundred day war. The reality is that the ice cream business is, at times, a bitter struggle.  Just ask the experts. Comments Sean Greenwood, public relations director of Ben and Jerry’s, “It’s people’s misconception that ice cream is fun and fluffy, but the truth is, it’s just as tough as any market.  I think in the ice cream business, it’s cut-throat.  At Ben and Jerry’s, as much as we think our product is a great quality product, there are other people who make great quality ice cream too.”  Sean is right; having a great quality product isn’t enough. At Ben and Jerry’s, they invest heavily in socially conscious living; one example of many is that their brownies come from a bakery in Yonkers, NY that provides jobs, housing, and daycare for single and homeless mothers. Even as the seasons change, consumers of Ben and Jerry’s know that their hard-earned dollars are contributing to the greater good. And Ben and Jerry’s stays fresh with seasonal flavors such as cinnamon, peppermint stick, and eggnog.  

   Seasonal awareness is a great tool for a national business like Ben and Jerry’s. But can it work for restaurant and private chefs as they try to find good places for their cold desserts while temperatures begin to drop outdoors? Chef Jacqueline Bruno believes that it can; and, given her professional success, it would be wise for any chef to at least consider that she might be right. Jacqueline worked in restaurants for many years until she decided to shift gears and work on a smaller stage as a private chef.  Now based in San Francisco, Jacqueline has a mentor in Spain and a Sicilian father-in-law, so her perspective is an international one. Despite the balmy air in California, Jacqueline understands how difficult it can be to tempt potential consumers of cold desserts in sweater weather. She suggests that restaurant and private chefs consider using the change in seasons as a source of inspiration for all menu items, especially cold desserts.  For example, Jacqueline might offer guests a dessert involving pumpkins and cranberries if she wished to suggest a connection to fall.

   Furthermore, she is convinced that the power of the seasonal transition out of summer to fall and winter is matched by the excitement of finishing a warm feast with a cold dessert.  Thus, from a certain perspective, the heat of the hundred day war does not ever end, but instead continues in miniature form.  In place of the calming effect of a milkshake in the heat of a piping hot July afternoon, customers and guests are refreshed by cold desserts after the heat of a delicious entrée.  “Let’s say it’s October or November and we’re starting to see nature change its course.  It’s starting to get cold and we’re thinking that we’re not going to have frozen desserts because it’s too cold.  But it’s not so.  In the real world, like my guests, everything is a surprise.  So that’s where frozen dessert is really exciting; that little surprise of a temperature change.  The temperature change is exciting enough that it lasts through all the seasons; it’s a reminder of what just happened, whether it be a frozen pear in the form of a gelato or carrot ice cream.”  

   Still, change is always a little scary and the change of seasons can strike fear into even the most steely-nerved among us.  Chef Jacqueline’s and Ben and Jerry’s evident success suggest that the strategies of investing in community, relying on seasonally appropriate flavor profiles, and celebrating the temperature contrast of cold desserts are worthwhile strategies to consider.  But what else can we do as leaves turn and sweaters come out of storage?

    Running to the hills for inspiration would not be a mistake.  In fact, a proud local ice cream establishment snuggled firmly in the hills of Berkshire County, Massachusetts has succeeded in retaining its local flavor through all twelve months of the year. Danny Mazursky, co-owner of SoCo Creamery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, knows what it is to struggle with a change of seasons that brings with it a noticeable drop in foot traffic. “The Berkshires are so extremely seasonal, it’s really tricky. We depend on the tourist business; it’s highly connected to the cultural events going on.” Danny told me that when fall begins, he offers some savory items (mostly just simple soups and salads) in addition to his much-loved ice creams and sorbets.  “Outside of summer when it’s not just all about ice creams, we add a few items, but not too much.”  SoCo Creamery tempts ice cream lovers with their wildly popular seasonal flavors such as candy cane, marzipan, and gingerbread batter.  They also have retail distribution in supermarkets and grocery stores throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York.  A partnership with Harney and Sons has yielded delightfully authentic tea flavors such as chai and green tea.

     Ever mindful of connectedness, SoCo also strives to maintain congenial relationships with its retail partners in crime. Taft Farm (also of Great Barrington, Massachusetts) knows how to survive the leaner winter months. In addition to their farm-raised produce and abundant baked goods, they offer a carefully curated bounty of gourmet goods. Invested in the local economy, they enthusiastically encourage their customers to try SoCo ice cream. And it would seem that their encouragement yields satisfaction to all involved, SoCo Creamery included. I spoke to Pennie Curry, Taft Farm’s store manager, about why Taft Farm chose to carry SoCo Creamery ice cream and whether or not they felt they had made a wise choice. Pennie told me that as a proudly local institution, Taft Farm saw no other choice than to go with SoCo and that they are delighted with the results. “We felt it was important to sell local ice cream.  We wanted to make sure it was really good.  We talk it up. Customers always come back and say, “You were right!”  They love it.  SoCo is so very inventive, and they are easy to work with.” Like Ben and Jerry’s, SoCo Creamery knows the value of remaining connected to community on a visible, local level.  Community awareness adds value and cachet to any product, regardless of season. Socially conscious business practices offer a seasonless competitive advantage, as does the ability to build relationships with business partners.  It is obvious that Mr. Mazursky knows how to relate; he has effectively partnered with local retailers, Harney and Sons, and distributors alike.  The lesson here is that one’s kindness and connectedness to business partners is paramount if one wishes to succeed in winning the hearts of cold dessert lovers.

    Yet those of us who dwell in cooler climes know that in winter months, people are sometimes boarded in and bound up by massive mountains of snow!  Surrounded by snow and ice, what is a foodie to do for frozen fun in the dead of winter?  That’s where grocery shopping and preparedness come in handy.  Position your product to be available ‘to go’!  Retail, retail, retail!  In addition, grey days do not have to mean long faces. Julie, brand manager for Haagen Daaz shops, told me that enthusiasm is a crucial ingredient in the cold dessert purveyor’s mission plan. Haagen Daaz attracts food lovers of all stripes by offering samples in their shops and recipes on their website to entice people during all times of the year.  Haagen Daaz scoop shop employees select sample flavors of their choosing, ensuring that their passion will come through as they speak with customers. And in January, many hibernating bears look for healthier ways of eating as they anticipate leaving their various and sundry caves; according to Julie, one delicious way for any health-conscious foodie to accomplish the noble goal of eating healthfully is to mix Haagen Daaz frozen yogurt with fresh fruit to create a luscious smoothie. In addition (like Ben and Jerry’s, Chef Jacqueline, and SoCo), Haagen Daaz tempts consumers out of their cars and into the real world with enchanting seasonal flavors (such as Amaretto Brittle and Peppermint) that are different every year.  

    So there you have it. Want to survive the end of the hundred day war? Fearful of falling temperatures?  Not sure what to do? The answer is simple; follow the competition—use the tools they use and you will also be able to build a successful financial future. Invest in your local community and tell people that you do so.  Be easy to relate to; and find a way to easily relate to everyone you deal with.  Instead of fearing the change of seasons, use them as a source of inspiration and create flavor profiles that remind people of what’s happening in nature.  Remember that a chill in the air outdoors need not mean a chill in customer relations; genuine enthusiasm will attract hungry people and create appetites in stomachs where there previously were none. And, last but not least, remember that a wish to repent and avoid unhealthy foods need not mean avoidance of delicious cold desserts; show your customers and guests that there are many, many ways to includes ice creams, gelatos, frozen yogurts, and custards in a healthy diet.

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