Pavlov’s dogs have nothing on the salivation with which most Canadians greet the tune of an ice-cream truck. We love frozen treats. But pre-packaged Fudgsicles have given way to scoops from a growing number of neighbourhood ice-cream or frozen-yogurt shops. And, the key word is often local.
As Canadians look to be reassured about what’s in the food they consume, they want to feel good about their indulgences, too. Often sourced with local ingredients, many of these treats offer a degree of virtue.
Indeed, making such snacks appear less about indulgence and more about health is catapulting a range of low-fat, live-culture frozen yogurts (a.k.a. froyo) into retail nirvana. Last year, according to NPD Group Canada, out-of-home ice-cream sales declined by three per cent, but Canadians still enjoyed 181-million servings. By contrast, out-of-home sales of froyo numbered 10-million servings, an increase of 24 per cent over the previous 12 months.
This rapid expansion appears to augur well for the category. But, there is a caveat. “It’s partly a reflection of increased units opening in the past year,” says Robert Carter, executive director, Foodservice, for NPD Group Canada. “I don’t believe you can sustain a chain concept on one specific menu item. With so much competition, they have to expand the menu, or they’re going to be in trouble.”
The power of froyo
Aaron Serruya, president and CEO of Markham-based Yogurty’s Yogurt Inc. and YogenFrüz, notes the pitfalls and agrees. “Our summer months are incredibly busy, but he’s on mark for winter.” Serruya’s team is already researching additions to its two successful concepts, including Belgian waffles, a breakfast offering of fresh yogurt with fruit and veggies (picture tomatoes, cucumber and balsamic vinegar on Greek yogurt), and cakes and novelties, all designed to expand the market through different dayparts and seasons.
Marvin Gurman, who with his twin, Jon, developed Yeh Yogurt from a Montreal froyo shop, agrees the market is getting saturated, but he’s not worried. He anticipates the chain’s 15 locations in Eastern Canada, Ontario and Quebec will double by the end of next year. From the outset, Yeh included smoothies, waffles, crêpes and even coffee, but the brothers believe froyo will continue to be the main draw. “This is one of the fastest-growing sectors in food today,” says Gurman. “The small players are falling, but the big companies will stand.”
And, the winners in the industry are playing into the healthful properties of the frozen delight. “The health trend is one of the important features that’s helping to propel the frozen yogurt industry,” says Michael Shneer, master franchisor of Menchie’s, a California-based company with more than 230 locations worldwide, including 45 in Canada. “Yogurt is low fat, it’s good for you, and it’s delicious,” says Shneer.
Menchie’s has low-carb and sugar-free flavours. And, Spoon Me!, with three locations in Winnipeg, promotes its 250 flavours as having 85 to 130 calories. In fact, most chains aim for reasonable calorie counts.
While froyo has been around for decades, the new twist is self-serve, pay-by-the-ounce, with a host of toppings — healthy ingredients with decadence available for those who want to indulge.
But, the popularity of froyo reflects more than yummy snacking. “We’re not in the frozen-yogurt business, we’re in the entertainment business,” says Shneer, echoing a precept of Baskin-Robbins founder, Irv Robbins, “We sell fun, not ice cream.”
Consequently, most locations sport more primary colours than a preschooler’s crayon box. And, what’s more fun than adding your own Smarties, gummy worms or candy? The guilty can add a sprinkle of healthy açai, cranberries or granola. But, the hottest new toppings hail from the Far East. They are mochi, tiny balls of glutinous rice or popping boba, small tapioca beads filled with various juices.
Want to know what flavours are trending in foodservice? Just visit a froyo shop. Most offer a bewildering palette of tastes. The hottest new flavour is Greek yogurt, and everyone has a version of it. Cake and cookie flavours appeal to the young, and fruits in season appeal to everyone. In areas with high Asian populations, green tea and taro are hot sellers. Curiously, tart — the flavour that most closely approximates natural yogurt — has a huge following. “I think [fans] want it to taste like yogurt so they can feel that they’re eating better,” laughs Yogurty’sSerruya.
But, there appears to be no limit to the zany flavours being developed. Menchie’s just introduced three cereal flavours: fruity cereal, peanut-butter puffs and cinnamon sugar. The chain also wins for zaniest combo: maple bacon doughnut. Though Yogurty’s might top that; they’re developing a kosher bacon flavour.
We all scream for ice cream
Ice cream, too, is breaking the rules when it comes to flavours. Where is it written that frozen desserts have to be sweet? Heston Blumenthal’s signature bacon-and-egg or mustard ice cream is no longer considered unusual. And, in Canada, chefs are changing the dessert menu landscape with some unique flavour profiles.
Vancouver’s Meat and Bread lives up to its name with a maple bacon ice-cream sandwich ($3). In Toronto, Canoe serves birch tart with caramelized pears and parsnip ice cream ($12), while Café Boulud offers a caramelized Gala apple with lemon chiboust, and Breton honey and olive ice cream ($11). In St. John’s, N.L., chef Michelle LeBlanc of Chinched Bistro partners a blueberry tartlet with sour cream ice cream and candied lemon ($9). She also scoops flavours such as sunchoke and lemon zest, juniper and coconut or beet sherbet ($9).
In the truly unique category, chef David Chrystian’sfoiegras ice-cream sandwich served between two oatmeal raisin cookies has earned many blog mentions for Toronto’s Victor Restaurant.
This passion for interesting flavours has turned small, seasonally operated ice-cream shops into meccas for ice-cream junkies looking for unusual tastes, such as hot chilies paired with cinnamon and chocolate at McKay’s in Cochrane, Alta., or green raisin-laced curry cashew ice cream at Dee Dee’s in Peggy’s Cove, N.S. NPD’s Carter isn’t surprised. “Ethnic spices and exotic fruits are growing, so anything with stronger flavour profiles is in,” he says.
Beyond flavour, customers want to feel good about what they eat and many independent shops are answering that call. Dee Dee’s uses local or Fair Trade ingredients, organically grown when possible. And Earnest Ice Cream’s name says it all. The Vancouver company not only sells scoops from a bicycle cart, but the ice cream is hand-packed into refillable glass jars. “We wanted to highlight the ingredients of B.C. and make it sustainably,” says Ben Ernst, owner. “Our customers are folks who value the importance of buying locally.” The most popular flavours are “whatever’s in season,” salted caramel and whisky hazelnut made with real whisky and nuts the Earnest team roasts in-house.
“It’s the prep work beforehand that’s crucial,” says Peter Pesic, co-owner with Anne Kitzler, of Slickers, a popular stop for locals and visitors to Bloomfield, Ont. The Slicker’s team creates small batches of ice cream with extraordinary flavours such as rhubarb and ginger (local rhubarb and house-made candied ginger) and campfire (complete with burnt marshmallows). Apple pies and butter tarts to crumble into the eponymous flavours are baked in-house, too. “Our appeal is that we achieve the taste cleanly — we don’t use artificial flavourings.”
But the Canadian winter presents a challenge for artisan ice-cream producers. “We’re very weather dependent,” acknowledges DittaKasdan, owner of Dee Dee’s. Its hand-packed, small-batch products are often sold in specialty grocers or served in local cafés. And, Kasdan is opening a café in Halifax.
The large chains face the same challenge. At U.S.-based Baskin-Robbins’ 105 Canadian outlets, sales of its famous ice-cream cakes offset the drop in winter cone revenues. Cold Stone Creamery co-brands many of its 149 locations with Tim Hortons to tempt customers into eating a healthy lunch followed by a slightly more decadent dessert. And, at most of Burlington, Ont.-based Dairy Queen’s 650 outlets, Grill & Chill offers a food menu alongside its classic soft-serve.
All three have also introduced smoothies and lower fat options, but that’s not necessarily what consumers want. “Our customers have told us clearly they regard a visit to DQ as an indulgence,” says Denise Hutton, VP, Marketing, Dairy Queen Canada. “They love our Blizzards and don’t want to count calories.”
Indeed, at Baskin-Robbins, pralines and cream and Jamoca Almond Fudge remain top sellers. “We haven’t seen health concerns really affect sales,” says Bill Mitchell, president, Baskin-Robbins, U.S. and Canada. “Actually, Canadians prefer the indulgent flavours.”
However, the recent trend toward small desserts has prompted ice-cream chains and chefs, such as Toronto’s Brandon Olsen of The Black Hoof, to introduce small ice-cream bars ($5). And, Toronto’s La Carnita serves the Latin version ($3.50) called paletas. At The Wooden Monkey in Halifax, Dee Dee’s maple walnut ice cream is sandwiched between two house-made ginger cookies ($6.50).
It’s a trend Sandra Sturgess, director, Brand Development, Cold Stone Creamery, says they’ve noted. “The introduction of the premium quality ice-cream bars actually grew the ice-cream category.” So, they recently introduced their Oh So Dreamy ice-cream bar, which has proven popular with on-the-go Timmy’s customers.
In fact, small means big revenues for Mini Melts. You’ll find them in Cineplex theatres in most provinces and in major amusement parks. Ice-cream kernels come in cool flavours such as Oreo Cookies and Cream, Banana Split and Moose Tracks. Customers get them by the scoop ($3.75 to $4.75 for a typical five-ounce cup), and it’s easy to mix and match flavours. Ketu Patel, co-owner of Calgary-based Mini Melts Canada, says the company isn’t stopping there. Expect to see a new product just developed in Korea — bite sized balls of sorbet.
Whether it’s giant scoops or mini servings, ice cream continues to enchant customers. According to Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm, 2013 stats show 29 per cent of customers chose ice cream for dessert in family restaurants, and 15 per cent chose it in upscale spots. As of 2012, more than 40 per cent chose ice cream for après dinner snacking. And, that’s the scoop.