Soft serve has long been the preferred accompaniment to a Tastee Freez burger and fries, and the machine-churned frozen dairy treat, pumped into swirled peaks, easily evokes ice cream truck nostalgia. But now, soft serve is also the sole dessert offering at pizzerias, comes topped with olive oil and amaro at buzzy hot spots, and even appears as the final course in tasting menus. Soft serve, it seems, has become the restaurant dessert du jour.
It’s a trend that Eater SF critic Rachel Levin noted in her review of San Francisco sushi restaurant Robin, which offers a soft serve made with sake lees and scattered with pistachios and blueberries. In San Francisco, she says, “the infallible crowd pleaser” has become a “dessert crutch.” There, it’s at Tartine Manufactory, Alta, and Sir and Star at the Olema, to name a few, while on the opposite coast in New York, soft serve has appeared on the menus at Olmsted, Lilia, and a bevy of fast-casual spots.
But soft serve as sit-down restaurant dessert isn’t unique to these cities, and the phenomenon isn’t entirely new, either. The New York Times documented a wave of restaurant soft serve in 2008, but before that, Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi was a key player in the early days of the trend.
In 2007, Tosi, then Momofuku’s pastry chef, was tasked with launching a Noodle Bar dessert program that wouldn’t slow down “a troop of domineering male line cooks who weren’t exactly into the idea of a girl coming in, crowding up their space, [and] putting precious obnoxious little desserts on the menu,” she says. The idea of getting a soft serve machine for the restaurant “just hit me… I have so many happy childhood memories of grabbing cones at Dairy Queen. Who doesn’t like ice cream?”
Soft serve solved Tosi’s dessert program predicament in a way regular ice cream couldn’t. “I had to figure out how to make magic — how to create a thoughtful, inventive dessert; how to prep it all myself in the middle of the night; how to sell a cuss ton of it; how to feed a lot of customers day and night with no pastry kitchen/station or cook; [and] how to get folks to eat dessert quick,” Tosi explains.
Soft serve isn’t ice cream. Typically, it’s made without eggs and with stabilizers, and it must be made with a soft serve machine. The machine injects air (soft serve is at least 50 percent air, technically called overrun) into a base that contains at least 10 percent milk fat per FDA guidelines. The machine freezes the mixture at a temperature a few degrees warmer than hard-packed ice cream, which, combined with the greater proportion of air, give soft serve its signature texture.
And because soft serve is machine made, it’s consistent. It will always be the right texture and temperature, and just about anyone can pull the lever to quickly fill a cup with freshly churned dairy. This is dessert a la minute.
Tosi says that over the past seven or eight years, she’s gotten an email or a text every few months from people in the restaurant world looking to get into soft serve. “I give them my highs, lows, and TMI the heck out of them from my successes and failures with the base and the machine,” she says. And soft serve has really taken off in restaurants in the last few years, for exactly the reasons Tosi suggests.
Kim Rodgers, the pastry chef at Eventide Oyster Co., Hugo’s, and the Honey Paw in Portland, Maine, took note of Momofuku Milk Bar’s soft serve “as a fun thing” before trekking to New Hampshire to buy a used soft serve machine for the Honey Paw in 2015. Now, rotating flavors of soft serve arrive to the restaurant’s shared tables topped with caramelized honey, honeycomb, or chocolate shell. And when Eventide Fenway opens later this year, naturally, there will be soft serve.
Last summer, Tusk, a Middle East-inspired Portland restaurant, opened with a soft serve machine leading its dessert program. Pastry chef Nora Antene says she had wanted to do soft serve in a restaurant for years. “I feel like in every restaurant I’ve worked at we’ve always had freezer problems,” she says. “I love making ice cream, but it’s always a challenge, especially in the summertime, with ice cream melting in the freezer and having it be the perfect texture for service. So I thought it would be fun to have a soft serve machine because the texture is always perfect.”
Tusk’s halva soft serve with hot fudge and salted peanuts became popular with guests, both in a full sundae glass and as the mini version that ends every tasting menu. The flavor hasn’t left the menu since, even though Antene has toyed with making the bases for other flavors.
Minneapolis chef Ann Kim found similar success when she got a soft serve machine for Pizzeria Lola back in 2010. Like Tosi, Kim had fond memories of visiting Dairy Queen and wanted to recreate that experience for her guests. “I really wanted to bring something back that people had a soft spot for from their childhood and make it a little special,” she says.
But offering soft serve also gave Kim the opportunity to streamline her menu, allowing her to focus on doing just a few things well. “I know there are pastry chefs doing amazing, beautiful things, but for me simplicity is key,” she says. With her new restaurant Young Joni, which serves dishes influenced by her Korean heritage in addition to her wood-fired pizzas, Kim has the opportunity to serve more inventive takes on soft serve, like a Thai tea version, to pair with the other flavors on the menu.
More and more, soft serve is an easy replacement not just for ice cream, but for any other dessert. This is especially true for fast-casual restaurants for which ease and consistency is paramount. Shake Shack was an early pioneer of fast-casual dining and, as a modern interpretation of the roadside burger stand, put soft serve on the menu back in 2004. Today, at fast-casual spots with fine dining pedigrees, such as Made Nice in New York; RT Rotisserie in San Francisco; and Martina, Union Square Hospitality Group’s new New York pizza restaurant, the dessert program is, simply, soft serve.
At Martina, the sister restaurant to Union Square Hospitality’s more formal pizza restaurant Marta, soft serve is offered instead of gelato, solving a few logistical problems. “We are doing a place that is going to hopefully attract a lot of people, and gelato is delicious, but gelato is difficult to temper,” says Marta and Martina chef Nick Anderer, referring to the gelato-making process of ensuring the eggs don’t curdle when adding them to the dairy base. “Quite honestly, it was just a simple math equation where I said, ‘How am I going to be able to serve well-tempered gelato at the pace at which I want to serve it?’”
The soft serve at Martina is a variation on Marta’s fior di latte recipe. At Martina, having just one dessert option, in addition to being easier to control on the back end, makes economic sense. “Here, if I have 300 guests, I’m going to sell close to 300 gelatos,” Anderer explains. “We’re clearly attacking something that’s different from Marta, that’s different from standard fine dining restaurants, but I still want to apply the same level of quality, so that’s how this came to be.”
More curiously, fine dining restaurants have also adopted soft serve as a practical replacement for a full dessert program, an easy canvas for creative takes on a known crowd pleaser. Cote, a Korean steakhouse in New York, offers what owner Simon Kim calls “ganjang de leche” soft serve, vanilla soft serve with soy sauce caramel, at the end of every Butcher’s Feast tasting menu.
Kim admits Korean culture isn’t big on dessert, but Cote needed to offer a sweet finish to end the meaty meal. After spending much of its resources on the beef that is the focal point of Cote’s menu, Kim turned to American steakhouses for dessert inspiration. Peter Luger has ice cream sundaes, and so, too, would Cote — in a way.
“I thought it was really appropriate to double down on cow decadence,” Kim says. But “in order for me to have handmade ice creams and plated desserts, we would need a full pastry team,” he explains. “Today’s restaurant world is so competitive and the bottom line is so difficult, so instead of having the luxury of having a full pastry team, we thought we’d be able to provide a similar value that people are looking for.”
The price of a soft serve machine (anywhere from $4,000 to $14,000) is significantly less than a pastry chef’s salary, and once the dairy base is in the machine, anyone can swirl it into a cup, keeping down both operating and menu costs. And even with nightly machine maintenance and the occasional electronic glitch, these chefs say having a soft serve machine is worth it.
The same qualities that make soft serve the ideal frozen dairy product to serve from a parked vehicle make it the optimal choice for restaurants looking for a dessert workaround. And yet, soft serve has come a long way from the Mister Softee truck. Flavors go beyond vanilla, chocolate, and twist, and even those restaurants that only offer a single simple variety likely make their own soft serve bases to adorn with highbrow toppings. Nostalgia for Dairy Queen cones may have sparked the soft serve trend, but these days, soft serve looks different, and will continue to, as long as it keeps making sense.