Ice Cream – America’s Favorite Treat

A handful of giant companies, including Unilever and arch-rival Nestle, dominate the $20 billion U.S. ice cream industry. But it’s also true that the nation is awash in little guys churning out some of the best frozen treats in the land.

And Americans are eating it up. We annually consume about 6 gallons of ice cream per person, which is roughly 19,200 calories, for those who are counting.

In every part of the country, regional dairies compete with the multinationals for shelf space and customers.

In fact, about 500 companies make and distribute ice cream in the United States, according to Shannon Arnold’s “Everybody Loves Ice Cream” (Emmis Books, 2004). And that doesn’t include mom-and-pop cone shops where they make their own for on-premise licking.

Among the best-known (and biggest) of the regional manufacturers is Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell, which sells more than $300 million of ice cream in 14 states. It’s a favorite of the First Family, along with everyone else who’s tried it.

Like microbrewers and small-scale chocolate makers, entrepreneurs are drawn to ice cream as a labor of love.

“Nearly everyone in the ice cream business started out small,” writes Arnold. “Founders started making a few gallons in the back of the store, the kitchen or wherever, and over time, their great ice cream gained a following.”

Although it’s a challenge for small manufacturers to get their product into mass retailers like Sam’s Club or Costco, there’s plenty of room for little guys to carve out niches.

Unlike many other product categories, consumers have time and again shown themselves willing to try new or unfamiliar ice cream brands, just because they taste great. In this business, startup dreams can sometimes come true.

And here’s the sweetest news for high-quality ice cream makers: For all the low-carb-no-carb-soy-based delights that spring from food factory laboratories, most people still prefer the good stuff — precisely what the smaller players are best at making.

Sales of premium and superpremium styles account for some 42 percent of total industry revenues, versus barely 15 percent for all the “light” formulations combined. While periodic diet fads may trigger sales blips, growth in the full-flavored categories has been continuous since the 1980s.

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Jason Lexell

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