The ice dream: ice cream and gelato

America’s favorite dessert (ice cream of course) draws crowds—and their money—every year, regardless of outside temperatures, diets and other dessert alternatives.

Almost everyone enjoys a scoop of ice cream every once in a while. In fact, we all love ice cream so much that in the year 2002, the United States produced some 1.5 billion gallons of ice cream (this divides out to about 21 quarts per person).

No one is very sure of the origins of ice cream, but it was once, like gelato, considered a rich man’s treat. Originally started as flavored ice in Rome, ice cream as we know it was probably developed over a period of time and finally emerged sometime in the 16th century somewhere in China. Michael Turback, author of A Month of Sundaes and The Banana Split Book, told me that ice cream first came to America through a recipe Thomas Jefferson brought home from one of his diplomatic trips to France. “It wasn’t until the invention of refrigeration and commercial freezing that ice cream became widely available and popular,” Michael told me.

Why ice cream?

The nice profit margin is what really makes ice cream worthwhile. Siler Chapman, owner of Ice Cream and Pizza Works, sells everything from extra scoops of ice cream and toppings to sundaes and banana splits at his South Carolina-based pizzeria. He sells one scoop of ice cream for $1.75. From an $18 tub of ice cream (three gallons), he gets about 60 scoops. “On an average day, we sell around $300 a day in ice cream,” Siler told me. “If you have the room to offer ice cream, it’s a great bonus to the business. Around 6 to 10 percent of our business buys just ice cream. We also have some people come in to get nothing but ice cream, but end up getting a pizza to go with it.”

Shelf life

According to Michael, the shelf life for ice cream varies from producer to producer. “It also depends on how the ice cream itself has been treated,” Michael says. “The way the ice cream is treated from the manufacturer to the distributor to the consumer affects the shelf life. Ice cream is very airy in composition and if it melts even a little bit, it loses that airiness and the freshness doesn’t last as long.” In order to ensure the longest shelf life possible, the ice cream should be kept around 10˚ below freezing.

Malcolm Stogo, founder of the Ice Cream University, warned me that to ensure the freshness and quality of your ice cream, it shouldn’t be stored in the same freezer with your pizza ingredients. “If you put it in the same freezer, your ice cream could pick up the smells and tastes of your pizza ingredients,” Malcolm told me. “If your display freezer keeps it cold enough, you can keep it there and not have to move anything at night.”

Making vs. Buying

Starting out in ice cream, you have the option of making your own as opposed to buying it ready-made. Malcolm told me that the pros and cons of the two should be weighed before the decision is made. “The biggest one is quality,” Malcolm told me. “Something to consider if you’re making your own is that you have your own brand and you’re not competing directly against any other brand.” The cost is a rather large jump, however. The set up costs for your own ice cream can range between $25,000 and $40,000, which includes the cost of the equipment, ingredients and anything else that you might need. The costs for ready-made ice cream include a freezer (a small one runs around $800 and holds eight tubs of ice cream) and whatever you pay for your ice cream and toppings.

If you decide to make your own, you need to look into the laws in your state about selling ice cream or dairy products. You also need to come up with recipes for your ice cream. Probably the easiest way to handle this is to take a class or a seminar, like what the Ice Cream University offers, that would tell you the basics for making and selling ice cream. With bought ice cream, you would probably have a set price, whereas the cost of making your own all depends on the quality of your ice cream and ingredients.

Another thing to consider is other ice cream-related products, such as milk shakes, malts, smoothies and others. “Ice cream, flavored ices and Italian desserts have always gone well with pizza,” Malcolm told me. “A milk shake would relate well with your pizza, besides the traditional hand dipped ice cream. Take-out is messy, but as long as you have a sit-down area in your restaurant, milk shakes shouldn’t be too much of a problem to offer.”  Commercial milk shake makers start around $300 for a new one and can get as high as $1,000.


But how do you go about marketing ice cream? The first thing to consider is how you display your ice cream. “People eat with their eyes,” Michael told me. “And what’s appealing about ice cream is the color and texture of the ice cream. People like to see the ice cream they’re going eat, even if there’s not much left.” During the day, Siler displays his ice cream in a display case set at 7˚ below freezing. At night, he stores them in his freezer.

He markets his ice cream by combining it with his pizza. He donates several pizzas to local sports teams for fundraising with the understanding that he can bring in his portable ice cream cart and sell ice cream on the day of the event. The profit margin on the ice cream is high enough that it more than makes up for the cost of the pizzas he gave away. “We also upsell a lot,” Siler told me. “If someone orders a scoop of ice cream, my employees immediately ask if they want a second scoop or a waffle cone. It doesn’t cost us but a few cents to put nuts, candy or sprinkles on the ice cream, but it costs my customers 50 cents.”

What to get and how often

Siler buys 13 flavors and everything he needs to go with them from Hershey’s. “They had the best price and the best service,” Siler told me. “The cart that I use to sell the ice cream out of the store belongs to them, but they’re really good about getting it to me whenever I tell them I need it.” Once a week he gets a shipment of 16 tubs of ice cream from Hershey’s. “The most popular flavors that I have are, by far, the cotton candy and cookies-and-cream flavors,” Siler told me. “The kids just love those.”

Ice cream is separated into many different categories based on the fat content. The higher the fat content, the better the ice cream. For example, regular ice cream with the normal amount of fat is usually a name brand. If you add things to it (like candy), making it a specialty ice cream, it becomes a premium or a super premium ice cream. You can also get a variety of light, low fat, fat-free, reduced fat, no-fat and low-carb options.

Getting started

Getting started with ice cream can be a little bit tricky. Depending on what you want to do, you’ll need to buy several things. Whether you decide to make your own or sell ready-made ice cream, you’ll need a display case for both your ice cream and your toppings. If you make your own ice cream, you’ll need a batch freezer, display freezer and a storage freezer and all of the desired ingredients. You’ll also need a little bit of time and experimentation to come up with your own recipe for ice cream. The price of ready-made ice cream depends on your supplier, but Hershey’s ice cream runs around $18 a tub. Also, you should check into your state’s laws. Each state has different laws regarding the quality, sale and taxing of ice cream. For example, the state of Nevada, requires ice cream to weigh at least 4.5 pounds a gallon and contain at least 10 percent of milk fat and 20 percent of total milk solids.

Depending on how you market it, ice cream can be a simple addition to your menu or a source of income, all on its own. The ice cream could be used to get people in the door or as an add-on to your already existing menu as a dessert option. If treated right, ice cream has a shelf life much longer than most other desserts. For a relatively inexpensive price, you can add something simple to your menu that almost everyone enjoys.