At the Halo Top Scoop Shop on the second floor of the Westfield Century City, an upscale mall in central-west Los Angeles, you can have your ice cream served almost any way you want: as a hard-packed scoop or a swirl of soft serve. You can eat your cream from a cup, a cone, or a puffle, which is an eggy style of waffle imported from Hong Kong; if that’s not enticing enough, you can order an ice cream sundae, an ice cream sandwich or — because this is California — an ice cream taco. You can have these treats topped with everything from sour gummy worms to rainbow sprinkles to mochi, which the scoop shop encourages heartily. “Go heavy-handed on the toppings,” its website reads. “With Halo Top, you’ve got calories to spare!”
This is because Halo Top isn’t regular ice cream: It’s a low-calorie, low-sugar, high-protein version, which the brand has been selling by the pint in grocery-store freezers since 2012. Those pints are 280 calories total, and they pack 20 grams of protein. For comparison, a pint of Breyer’s vanilla is about 520 calories, and that’s double the protein in a Clif bar. Halo Top is a high-volume, low-impact treat, and its packaging boasts a message that’s proved to be catnip to a diet-fatigued populace, hungry for something they can indulge in with abandon: “Stop When You Hit the Bottom.”
And then buy another pint. In the last six years, Halo Top has become the best-selling pint of ice cream in America. In 2016, the company sold some 13.5 million of those pints, earning $66 million in revenue; in 2017, the take was closer to $100 million. It’s ubiquitous, available in Walmart (where, upon its debut, Halo Top’s seven flavors became the seven most popular ice creams the chain sold) but also in pricey natural grocery stores like LA’s Erewhon, which was one of the brand’s first wholesale customers.
So now that it’s conquered the freezer game, the company is dipping a toe into the waters of retail, looking at the ways a brick-and-mortar presence can expand its customer base and inspire deeper loyalty among devotees. The brand has opened two scoop shops so far, the one in Culver City as well as an outlet in Topanga, an LA neighborhood best known for its Kardashian adjacency. (When Kylie Jenner did her first pop-up for Kylie Cosmetics, she chose the Westfield Topanga for her debut.)
And soon, a pop-up is coming to New York’s Supermoon Bakehouse, in a test of the NYC market: Starting today, the Lower East Side location will serve Halo Top’s summer flavor, peaches and cream, as soft serve, swirled into a Supermoon Cruffin. (That’s a croissant-muffin hybrid, duh.) According to Doug Bouton, president and chief operating officer of Halo Top, “New York is on our short list of cities, and we hope to bring a more permanent version of the concept there” after the Supermoon pop-up closes. “New York is near the top of the list as we look to where else could we take this, and why.”
“Why” is the question for the brand that reported a 2,500 percent increase in sales between 2016 and 2017: Why bother with the brick-and-mortar shops? “We’ve got this great wholesale business where people go buy a pint at the grocery store, but they don’t have any tangible experience with the brand other than that,” Bouton says. “So we thought this would be a really cool way to add a social experience, where you can go with your friends, your family.”
That vibe — casual, fun, social, young, now — is important to Halo Top. One of the reasons for the brand’s runaway success is how particularly suited it is to wellness culture: Instead of calling itself “diet,” conjuring restriction and flavorlessness, Halo Top brands itself as healthy, using words familiar to other products that bask in the glow of the artisan food movement. In press materials, it’s described as “all-natural” and “crafted with only the finest ingredients,” while founder/Halo Top CEO Justin Woolverton defined “healthy,” in an article in Time, vaguely as “foods that are as unprocessed as they can be.” Its cheerful, aspirational aesthetic is more akin to Westfield neighbors like Pressed Juicery and Equinox than old-school weight-loss brands like Jenny Craig or Slim-Fast.
“There’s a level of punishment attached to [most diet foods],” Bouton says. “Whereas with Halo Top, it’s kind of like a fun, Willy Wonka–type vibe.” Adding to that perception is a narrative that borrows heavily from the world of tech: Industry outsiders disrupting a staid market through risk and ingenuity. “Halo Top is one of the most disruptive stories I’ve seen in my 10 years in the industry,” food and beverage investor Wayne Wu told Inc. in February. (Mirroring the story arc of other disrupters, the story’s headline proclaimed Halo Top the “most hated-on new ice cream brand in America.”) In Bloomberg, Woolverton has spoken of his approach to recipe-testing as “hacking”; elsewhere, the brand has been lauded for its unorthodox marketing strategies.
The branding isn’t exactly Wonka-wacky, but it certainly — especially on Halo Top’s social media accounts — does read fun. Flavors include salted caramel, birthday cake, and s’mores, as well as red velvet and cinnamon roll. The standard Halo Top carton is pastel accented with gold: It’s a look that could sit comfortably next to a glass of rosé in an Instagram post, one aspect that Bloomberg credits for its success.
Similarly, the scoop shops are designed to be shared on social media (which is a smart move, given the mania for ice cream Instagrams demonstrated by the Museum of Ice Cream’s sellout runs). There’s a wall of copper spoons in Century City, as well as a neon yellow sign that reads GUILT-FREE ZONE, features that Bouton calls “Instagrammable moments.” But no two scoop shops are alike, so “It’s not [like] if you’ve been to one scoop shop, you’ve been to every scoop shop,” says Bouton. “We want it to be like, If you’ve been to one, you need to go see all the others, because they’re all different.”
The shops aren’t just a different way to buy the same ice cream; they’re a whole new experience. In addition to the variety of cones and ice cream sandwich options, soft serve is on the menu, as are toppings. The brand is also hoping that the array, trendy and eye-catching in its own right, with those puffles and cruffins, can help attract a new customer. “It’s a whole different kind of use occasion,” Bouton says. “It’s a little more impulse, like, ‘Hey, I’m walking through the mall and I could use a midday snack.’ And instead of a cup of yogurt, for the same calories and nutrition, you can also have a scoop of ice cream.”
Bouton would love to expand the scoop shop empire indefinitely. “If I could open up a thousand of these locations, I would,” he says, “but we have limited time and resources.” Halo Top came to its two Westfield locations by happenstance. “Commercial real estate is a blood sport,” Bouton says, though he does think it worked out for the best: “[Both locations are] in upscale areas with other brands that we like, on an indirect level, co-branding with,” he says. “You’re going to be in the same location as Lululemon or Equinox or Eataly, that kind of stuff.”
In other words, its neighbors put an aspirational gloss on the product just by association, suggesting that Halo Top is not a diet food but an enjoyable component of a healthy lifestyle. There’s also the price to consider: While a pint of Halo Top can be had for $4 or so at Walmart, a cone of soft serve with one topping will run you almost $7 in a scoop shop, so it makes sense to place it in spots where the average consumer won’t balk at the price.
The scoop shops are absolutely an experiment for the brand. Bouton isn’t scared of that; for him, Halo Top’s whole thing is experimenting. “Candidly, we created the space, so to speak: the category,” Bouton says of the healthy ice cream niche that Halo Top inhabits. “We always try to do something different. We don’t want to do it the way it’s been done before.”
So if scoop shops don’t prove to be profitable in the long run, Halo Top isn’t married to the idea. They are, after all, “not a retail business at heart,” as Bouton acknowledges. “We’re a wholesale business.” And when that wholesale is pulling in $100 million plus per year, why not see if a storefront or two can help build the business?
“The retail business is a marketing and branding play that supports the wholesale business in terms of loyalty,” Bouton says. “You talk about all of the competition in our category, it’s, how do we make sure our customers remain loyal to our brand?”
Ultimately, “these could be really profitable shops and businesses in their own right. We could be a Jeni’s, or a Salt & Straw or a Pinkberry, Yogurtland.” But for now, Halo Top is just keeping an eye on things. “We’re not committed to a hundred shops,” Bouton says. “We’re opening up a few of these, and we’re continuing to analyze in terms of cash flow, profitability. If they go as well as we hope they will, then yeah, there might be a hundred of these things. If it’s more of a marketing expense, maybe we adjust strategy. We just have to wait and see.”
Zan Romanoff is an LA-based writer whose work has appeared online and in print; she’s also the author of two novels and her third, LOOK, is forthcoming from Dial Books. Wonho Frank Lee is a Los Angeles photographer.
Editor: Erin DeJesus