You might not guess that someone who first worked at a recycling center and then co-founded an e-juice company and a CBD oil business would also be a foodie, but hey — stereotypes are made to be broken. I love trying all kinds of food, and this interest inspired my partner and me to come up with our latest enterprise: an ice cream taco shop. (No, not ice cream and tacos; ice cream in churro tacos.)
This means I have been hyper-attuned to dessert trends lately, and ice cream trends in particular. I’d like to share five of my favorite developments in the world of ice cream, and how they can help all of us small business owners keep customers happy.
1. The Night-Owl Crowd
Whose ice cream cravings end at 9 p.m.? Not mine. I love the fact that more and more ice cream shops are staying open late — until midnight and beyond. Clearly, ice cream isn’t just for little kids anymore. In fact, I’ve seen many of these places develop the social vibe of a good bar, just without the alcohol.
Since your phone battery is probably on its last legs by that time of day, here’s another trend I like: phone chargers in ice cream parlors. This brilliant idea keeps customers satisfied and on the premises.
The extra scoop: Every small business can learn from these customer-pleasing features. Do you play music in your establishment? Let customers take turns sharing their playlists. Stock communal tables with Cards Against Humanity (or Trivial Pursuit, depending on your demographic) to get people chatting. Think about what you would enjoy in your favorite hangout, and give it a shot in your own brick-and-mortar location.
Once upon a time, if you wanted ice cream you made it yourself with a wooden container and a hand crank. All that hard work paid off in spades with creamy, fresh flavor. Today’s methods use the latest techniques to replicate that old-time deliciousness, but they add a new twist: completely customizable ice cream made on the spot.
Creamistry and others, for example, use liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze your personal ice cream, built from a base (dairy, vegan or fruit sorbet), flavor and toppings of your choice. As we all know, it’s all about the customer.
The extra scoop: The invention of the internet launched the age of personalization. Keep that in mind when interacting with customers. The more you can tailor their transactions to their needs and preferences — whether by customizing their products, remembering their usual orders, or just calling them by name — the more you’ll see them bringing you repeat business.
Vanilla may remain the best-selling ice cream flavor for the rest of time. However, ice cream today is available in flavors and combinations that we wouldn’t have imagined in a million years. Just look at some recent choices from West Coast trendsetter Salt & Straw: black olive brittle and goat cheese, and dandelion chocolate hazelnut cookies and cream.
You’ll see ice creams made with specialized local ingredients, savory and sweet ice creams, and ingredients you never expected to find in a dessert. Black olives — really? But the out-the-door lines speak for themselves, so watch out, plain vanilla.
The extra scoop: The lesson here is, “Try it; they might like it!” Everything is available at all times with just a click, so you have to differentiate yourself to stand out. Experiment with new twists on your products. Create a positive community vibe by using local vendors and ingredients, or invent special events for different days of the week. Try it; your customers might like it.
4. Global Inspiration
As a huge fan of sushi — both for the flavor and the beauty of the preparation — I’m immediately drawn to all kinds of Asian foods. Well, it turns out I’m not alone. Who knew we’d be finding self-serve mochi bars inside mass-market places like Whole Foods, Safeway and Kroger supermarkets? That’s only the beginning.
The Korean ice cream craze (which actually started in Taiwan) — ice cream made from organic milk, not heavy cream, and topped with honeycomb — has taken root in the western United States, thanks to brands such as Milkcow and Honeymee. Now I’m looking for Taiwanese snow ice and Thai rolled ice cream to become as commonplace as Ben & Jerry’s.
The extra scoop: It’s a big world, and we all need to keep our eyes on more of it. Because the United States is so big, it’s easy to think we’re all that. But there are so many creative, beautiful, functional and ingenious ideas coming from all parts of the globe. We need to look up from our grindstones and our iPhones and pay attention, and then see how we can incorporate those ideas into our own businesses.
5. Thinking Outside The Cone
As you can tell from all of the above, the scoop on a cone is no longer the only ice cream game in town. It hasn’t been for a long time. Ice cream in a taco-shaped shell, ice cream wrapped in a chocolate-chip cookie, ice cream served on a doughnut or on cotton candy — you could probably serve ice cream in a shoebox and start a trend these days.
The extra scoop: Thinking outside the cone applies to all of us, whether our product is edible or not. How are you not just retaining current customers, but attracting new ones? I find that humor and positivity are good starts. Incorporate funny sayings or gorgeous images on your packaging, or post thought-provoking or quirky questions and quizzes on your social media accounts. When you can get people laughing, thinking and sharing, they’ll follow you anywhere.
When it comes down to it, the packaging is (almost) beside the point. The real heart of the matter is the soft, creamy, sweet, cold goodness in the middle. And if you want vanilla, I say more power to you.