When Scott Moloney left his job as an investment banker in 2010 to start a creamery, he didn't have many plans beyond traditional flavors. For the first month, his shop Treat Dreams in Ferndale, Michigan, offered a standard menu board with flavors like vanilla, chocolate, mint chip, and strawberry ice cream. The only outlier was a Fruit Loops flavor, he recalls. Then came the city's DIY Street Fair. The gathering of artisan vendors called for something a little more creative from Treat Dreams, and Moloney accordingly developed a specialty flavor that he dubbed "The Sunday Breakfast" — maple ice cream, waffles, bacon, and syrup. At the fair, a local television news crew approached Moloney about serving their reporter a scoop on camera, and Moloney served the Sunday Breakfast. The next day, Moloney had a line of customers requesting the flavor. Suddenly, Treat Dreams was known for more than its traditional offering but for a vast list of clever and risky concoctions — more than 1,000 accumulated flavors.
He isn't alone. Ice cream, a quintessential summer treat, has seen an explosion of new flavors. The sky seems to be the limit, with clever concoctions from foie gras scoops to chorizo to poutine and even potentially gag-inducing additives like breast milk. Still, cornerstone flavors like vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, cookies 'n cream, and mint chip remain the leading flavors among American consumers, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. So does reinventing the wheel really pay off?
Experimenting with ice cream flavors is nothing new, and one might argue that modern artisanal creameries are throwbacks to an earlier ice cream tradition. Historian Mary Miley Theobald writes that some of the first documented ice cream recipes called for a diverse selection of ingredients, including classics like strawberries and vanilla — but also apricots, coffee, tea, Parmesan, and even oysters. Chocolate was also a favorite among eighteenth-century ice cream lovers, though it would have had more in common with modern Mexican chocolate, with cayenne added for extra spice. The Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery, published in the 1890s, also offers a recipe for asparagus ice cream.
"I don't know that I would say these flavors are necessarily unusual," says Nicholas Morgenstern, owner of Morgenstern's Finest Ice Cream in New York. Morgenstern says his flavors, ranging from Madagascar Vanilla to Salt & Pepper Pine Nut, aren't meant to shock anyone. "For most of the flavors that we create, I think about what I would want to eat, and then I also think about what feedback I get from people when I'm working the register," he says. "You can get a sense from people on what direction they want to go in."
"I think our flavors are in line with how people are interacting with food now."
Modern-day diners are looking for ice creams that are just as innovative as a chef's tasting menu, with flavors that intrigue and push beyond everyday expectations. When Morgenstern's opened in 2014, the owner wasn't sure how customers would receive flavors like Durian Banana. However, the batch that was meant to last a week sold out in just two days. "That was very surprising," he says, adding that he's taken care not to run out of it since. Morgenstern's flavors are thus "less traditional than what we've seen in the past, but I think they're in line with the trajectory of how people are interacting with food now."
Jake Godsby, chef and co-owner of Humphry Slocombe, an inventive creamery in San Francisco, says that instead of being shocked by flavors like Salt & Pepper ice cream, his clientele seeks out adventure at his parlor. "We do stuff you've never heard of before, especially in the form of ice cream," he says. "People are used to seeing the same flavors everywhere and we don't really do that."
Modern psychology might explain why consumers seek out these nontraditional flavors. Trying an unknown flavor of your favorite frozen treat is a safe risk. Psychologists call this phenomenon "brief sensation seeking," and while it's most often applied to the pleasure gained from eating spicy foods, it can also be used to explain why customers keep coming back to creameries. For consumers, the scoop shop's longstanding tradition to offer bite-sized samples triggers that sensation with little commitment. "Everything tastes good and we offer as many samples as you like so you're never going to order something you'll regret," Godsby says. "We know not everyone is going to like Salt & Pepper ice cream. That's why we encourage you to taste it first."
Founded in Portland, West Coast mini chain Salt & Straw regularly earns spots on national ice cream lists for its unusual and ever-changing array of flavors."We think of it like if you go into a fine restaurant, they change their restaurant menu every month or so," says co-owner Kim Malek of the development process. Local ingredients and artisans inspire each batch: In addition to a list of reliable flavors like Pear & Blue Cheese and Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper, the company creates a short list of one-offs each month around a theme. In June, the results were batches like Bratwursts and Mustard that used sausages from Los Angeles German restaurant Wurstküche. "For us it's a similar idea — that you'd be able to come in and find something new and creative," Malek says.
"I listen to my team sampling ice cream and I almost feel as though it could be a wine tasting."
Customers visit the shops not just for their favorite flavor but to sample new and uncommon combinations. "I listen to my team sampling ice cream with our customers and I almost feel as though it could be a wine tasting," Malek says, "hearing them walk them through the different flavors and the stories behind them... [customers] often go for one of their favorites, but it's just such a fun experience [for them] to take that time and learn about a crew of local street food chefs or cheese makers or tea makers."
Whether or not the makers consider their flavors "unusual," the mustard- and meat-filled scoops do have a favorable side effect: Helping a brand stand out from the crowd. "We've never spent a dime on marketing," Godsby. "It helps us get noticed for sure." According to Moloney, Treat Dreams always tries to feature at least one "unusual flavor" on its menu, such as Peach Thyme or Blueberry Basil Bourbon. "When people come in they will take a picture of it, they'll post it on Instagram," Moloney says. "Even if they don't buy it, maybe they'll try it and maybe they'll end up getting Salted Caramel or Cookie Monster [instead]. But that's what we do, we're that unusual ice cream place you know, at least in Michigan."
While each creamery makes its flavors in varying quantities depending on its market, most owners say they have a system in place so that costly products aren't wasted. In one case, Morgenstern recalls offering a lemon chocolate ice cream, which he loved but didn't sell as quickly as other flavors on the menu. He eventually removed it from the menu in exchange for a new combination. As Morgenstern jokingly puts it, "I've got to sign that rent check."
Making flavors in small five-gallon batches at Salt & Straw helps, adds Malek, allowing her shops to adapt quickly to demands of consumers. Likewise, the frequent menu rotations are a siren song that drives regulars in more frequently. "We do a pretty good job of managing [the quantities] and [it's presented as] a specialty that you have to come in and try," she says. "It's going to go away."
Ice cream, according to Morgenstern, is "a very emotional experience for people."
But a menu stocked with odd, sometimes limited-edition flavors can come with pitfalls. Menu changes often come with a tinge of loss. "A lot of new flavors that have so much work go into them [then] never appear again," Malek says. "You work really hard to create something beautiful, and it's here for a little bit, and then it's gone."
Over the past year, Morgenstern's has adopted a more stable selection of ice creams for the sake of customers. "We can kind of move things around a little bit, but not that much," he says. "People come and have a flavor, and then they bring their friends back and they want to say, 'I had this crazy flavor here, you have to try this Green Tea Pistachio.' And if I don't have it, then I've ruined their whole experience and almost their whole life seems to have been collapsed somehow... It's a very emotional experience for people."
At no point though, does Morgenstern regret getting into the ice cream business. "Being in the service business in other places, restaurants and coffee bars or bars, ice cream parlor is like probably the best place you could be as a service employee," he says. "People are happy to be here. They're really excited to be here."