With this feature, the editors of Dessert Professional magazine are proud to honor the Top Ten Frozen Dessert Retailers of America 2012. This award is presented to businesses that offer exceptional frozen desserts served in a unique, memorable environment, including walk-in shops, stands, and even trucks. The enjoyment of a frozen dessert, whether it’s ice cream, gelato, frozen pops or custard, is a special experience that involves more than just the product. Frozen desserts are best eaten when they are served, so the shop’s ambiance and service are almost as important as the product itself. We have taken this into account in choosing our list of ten.
This year’s honorees include six ice cream shops (one of which specializes in organic ice cream combined with homemade cookie dough), two gelato shops, one slushie truck (forget everything you thought you knew about slushies), and one shop that serves vanilla frozen custard, it all its glorious permutations. Some companies are large, some tiny, but all are devoted to making exceptional frozen desserts, and serving them with pride.
We also include a Q&A with our honoree for the 2012 Frozen Dessert Retailers Hall of Fame, Andrew Seabury of GTI Designs. GTI is a consulting and design service for food service operations, and Andrew has worked with some of the best-known ice cream and gelato retailers in the world.
Congratulations to this year’s Top Ten retailers and our Hall of Fame honoree.
Business profile: Our menu combines traditional soft-serve ice cream with non-traditional toppings, such as wasabi pea dust, olive oil and sea salt, dulce de leche and many other rotating offerings. All of this is dispensed the way ice cream should be – with humor and good cheer.
How it all began: It was all a fluke. A few years ago, Doug was on the hunt for a strange summer job that kept him in NYC. He is a classical musician and was tired of traveling for work. He found an ice cream truck to borrow, because it seemed like one of the weirdest options available, and thus the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck was born. I was working in corporate training/meeting and event planning, and relished the idea of planning out the truck’s modernized menu. Maybe it was some sort of mid-life crisis? Most guys get a convertible; we got a beat-up ol’ ice cream truck. Things got weirder with the shop when we got a bigger kitchen and giant unicorn mural.
What you’re trying to do differently: The company began as a rented ice cream truck in July 2009 that we christened the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. The original philosophy when we started our truck was to be different than all the other NYC ice cream trucks. Mainly 1) offer a fun experience with great customer service and 2) modernize the soft-serve truck menu. Ice cream trucks in NYC have had the same menu in place for decades and we thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to update things our own way.
Number of flavors: Under 10 actual ice cream flavors. Keeping with the soft-serve truck ethos, we stick with vanilla and chocolate. From there it’s about what we do on top of the ice cream with different toppings and sauces and combinations. Now that we have a shop, we have been creating some daily flavors, such as coffee, peppermint, and brownie batter. We made beet too, but we were the only ones that ate it. We loved it! Most popular flavor: The Salty Pimp® is our most popular item. It’s a vanilla cone that we coat and inject with dulce de leche, sprinkle on sea salt, and then dip into chocolate. We have sold about twenty times more Pimps than our next biggest seller.
Favorite ingredients: Salt – we both love sweet/salty combinations. Mexican chilies for heat and smokiness. Biscoff spread is pretty addictive. Beets. Brownies. A great sweet cream base is a perfect blank slate. Pistachios. Kumquats. Cinnamon. Ginger. Bourbon and tequila. (Oh wait, we were talking ingredients?!)
Favorite flavor to eat: For me, it’s our shakes. It’s such a classic treat and deceptively simple. So few ingredients and easy to mess up. My current favorites are Horchata, ginger-curry, and chai. For Doug, it’s probably our brownie better soft serve. We aim for it to be as close to licking the bowl as possible. Funfetti optional.
Favorite flavor to serve: We both love making the American Globs since it’s the most interactive item we make. It’s fun to run and squish the ice cream around in crushed pretzels before dipping it the whole thing in chocolate. I guess you could call it our “Coldstone moment” – without the horrible tip song. Plus customers love watching it get made.
How often do you change flavors? We always offer the basics and then try to have special flavors, seasonal sundaes, and specialty shakes as often as we can. That balance of menu staples plus new items and specials can be tricky. We want to ensure people can come in and get their favorites (or for first timers, what they’ve seen on TV, or read about), but then we also want to keep people tuned in to new things we are excited about – which also keeps our most frequent customers engaged in the business.
Weirdest flavor you ever made: Two items come to mind right away: 1) Choinkwich, which is an ice cream sandwich with chocolate ice cream and a layer of bacon marmalade between two chocolate cookies, and 2) Nuclear Winter, a sundae we do as an occasional special: chocolate ice cream, red chili roasted pistachios, sriracha, and Awesomesauce (our spicy hot fudge) – which we serve with a pickle, of course.
Did you serve it to customers? Of course! We have pretty adventuresome customers and they’d probably be upset if we didn’t.
How much product do you eat per week? Have you seen our waistlines?! Too much!
Signature products: We have a number of signature cones and sundaes that have become mainstays on our menu over the years. In addition to the Salty Pimp, we have the Mermaid (a sundae with key lime curd and graham crackers), American Globs (a cone we did for the writer Neil Gaiman with crushed pretzels, sea salt, and chocolate dip), our Gobbler sundaes (fruit butters with crushed pie crust and other sauces, such as bourbon-butterscotch or rich Grade B maple syrup).
Display case: Actually, we don’t have any display cases in our shop — but we do have a life-size unicorn mural on our wall that’s bedazzled with over 6000 Swarovski crystals.
Best compliment you ever got about your ice cream? Andrew Zimmern said that our Salty Pimp was a “cone you wanted to be alone with.” We can’t think of a better compliment than that!
Best part of the business: The ice cream, naturally – and being able to have fun and put out the type of product we love. After twenty years of working for other people, we are having a blast running our own business.
If you weren’t making frozen desserts, what would you be doing? Doug would be traveling to Mexico with a band of theremin-wielding gypsies. I’d still be in a midtown office being driven crazy by my coworkers and the guy down on Seventh Avenue doing saxophone solos all day long.
Motto: There’s no food more fun than ice cream, and this is our idea of fun.
What’s next: Hopefully a few more shops, probably a book, and definitely more adventures in ice cream!