Ice cream, whether enhanced with fresh flavors or sandwiched between layers of pastry, remains the king of frozen desserts.
Five cold treats which make consumers stop and take notice
Thai-Style Rolled Ice Cream
From the street carts of Southeast Asia to the hippest neighborhoods of the U.S. and Canada, Thai-style ice cream is a hit. The quick-freezing technique — in which the ice cream is actually frozen in a sheet right before the customer’s eyes, and then sliced in strips and rolled up with their choice of ingredients — speaks to customer preferences for freshness, customization and the overall foodservice experience.
Ice Cream Sandwiches
Operators are exploring new variations of these hand-held treats, using house-made pastry dough, gourmet doughnuts and other baked goods to create satisfying blends of textures and flavors. These desserts are relatively easy to make and readily lend themselves to cross-utilization of ingredients, notes Maeve Webster of Menu Matters.
Paletas and Popsicles
Popsicles have been around forever, but the expanding presence of the paleta — a Mexican version which often incorporates bits of fresh fruit and Latin American flavors — is driving fresh interest among today’s adventurous consumers. Some traditional varieties which can be found at authentic paleta purveyors include mango with chili, guava, and pitaya (cactus), among others.
Extreme Milk Shakes
Operators all over the country are showcasing extreme milkshakes which are made for sharing on social media. Anything goes, as these novelty desserts are concocted of anything ranging from ice cream topped with cake, cookies, candy and more. The Ultimate Cookie Milkshake, for example, includes vanilla ice cream blended with cookie pieces, placed inside a glass with a vanilla icing frosted rim, topped with chocolate sauce, CHIPS AHOY!, NUTTER BUTTER, and OREO® Cookies.
These frozen Italian drinks — sometimes described as a slushy version of Italian ice — generated some good buzz as a signature summer menu item last year. Granitas offer cool refreshment and often incorporate more sophisticated ingredients than their beach boardwalk siblings. Often made with coffee or various varieties of tea, fresh fruits, almonds, mint or chocolate, they’re a refreshing item to add to current offerings.
In an age when frozen desserts have become social media spectacles appealing perhaps more to the eyes than to the palate, foodservice operators need to separate the flash-in-the-pan fads from the enduring trends. Hit-and-run concoctions generate buzz and can drive short-term spikes in sales, but they disappear as quickly as they arrive.
"I think having these over-the-top creations is great for PR and flash sales," says Andrew Freeman, president of San Francisco-based foodservice consulting firm Andrew Freeman & Co., "but the consumer base is indeed a bit fickle and will go find the next one or go back to what makes them most comfortable."
Ice cream remains the comfort food of choice when it comes to frozen desserts, and it is also a key ingredient in some of the hottest dessert trends, such as extreme milk shakes and ice cream sandwiches. Ice cream also is being crafted with an increasing array of gourmet flavors and in nontraditional ways, such as Thai-style rolled ice cream, a popular street food in Southeast Asia that is making inroads in the U.S.
Freeman cites Portland, Oregon-based ice cream chain Salt & Straw as an operator on the leading edge of frozen dessert flavor trends. Its menu includes such creations as a pear and blue cheese ice cream and a wasabi flowers and green apple sorbet.
"In terms of trends, I would say that we are seeing chef-driven, seasonal flavors and a focus on freshness," says Freeman.
Ice cream sandwiches 'have legs'
Among the frozen dessert trends sweeping through foodservice, perhaps the most enduring is the ice cream sandwich, according to Maeve Webster, president of culinary consulting firm Menu Matters.
"Like all sandwiches, ice cream sandwiches have legs," she says. "They are less cutesy and cloying than donuts and cupcakes, have a far more basic — and I mean that in a good way — form and flavor profile, and can easily be dressed up or down or made more adult- or kid-friendly with very little effort."
Increasingly, operators are finding creative ways to formulate ice cream sandwiches as well, such as using doughnuts sliced in half as the base of the sandwich instead of a cookie, for example, or using churros for a Latin American twist.
At Starr Catering Group in Philadelphia, the company blends consumers' love for ice cream sandwiches with the trend toward "mini" desserts, exemplified by mini ice cream sandwiches made with chocolate wafer-style cookies and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Starr also offers mini milkshakes, boozy popsicles and mini ice cream cones, says Morgan Bedore, vice president of sales, marketing and creative development at Starr.
"We also love the 'milk and cookies' concept, with a vanilla milkshake served with a festive paper straw in a vintage 'milk bottle' with a cookie garnish," she says.
At its Miami division, Starr often offers a frozen banana station with toasted nut, coconut and chocolate toppings, says Bedore.
"This was a huge crowd pleaser at the Hermès event celebrating their flagship store opening in Wynwood," she says.
Nostalgia is a natural theme for frozen desserts, operators say.
Jeffrey Russo, executive pastry chef at University of Maryland Dining Services, is in the process of bringing back classic ice cream sodas — known as egg creams — made with syrups created in-house and with ice cream that is carefully blended into the seltzer to preserve the 'fizz' evenly throughout the drink.
"I am sure most of the students have not had an ice cream soda like my mom had back in the 1940s, and that's what we're aiming for," says Russo.
Russo is training staff for the rollout of the ice cream sodas in the University of Maryland Dairy over the summer, to be ready for the fall back-to-school season. The items have proven popular in limited testing, he says, once people understand what they are — and that they are different from the ice cream floats to which students might be more accustomed.
Russo also is considering menuing some ice cream sandwiches using something other than cookies, such as a caramelized pastry dough as a base, he says.
Enhancing the experience
Kimberly Berardi, culinary consultant with Synergy Restaurant Consultants, says other frozen desserts which have been appearing repeatedly on restaurant menus include paletas — Mexican ice pops — craft sundaes with unique toppings, French macaron sandwiches made with ice cream, granitas and unusual ice cream flavors.
"There is also the expanded use of dry ice for showmanship, and liquid nitrogen to quick-freeze ice cream, which allows guests to customize their dessert," she says. "Customization continues to be a big factor in the guest experience.
Webster of Menu Matters says 'extreme' milkshakes — piled high with cereal and other confections in multicolored, architectural constructions — "are more of a fad than a trend."
"They are messy, expensive, difficult to prepare — particularly quickly — and so indulgent that most people would have a hard time justifying them with any frequency," says Webster.
She sees the emergence of these items, however, "as part of a larger macro trend of rethinking traditional dessert options to make the experience more interesting and new.
"We'll continue to see operators rework classics in flavor, form, delivery, etc., to make them new, fresh, exciting and interesting," says Webster.