No one's projecting that liquid nitrogen ice cream will be the next frozen yogurt, but the instant ice cream trend is picking up steam.
If the summer of 2013 is remembered for anything, it may be the hazy summer when the ice cream business went up in smoke.
That's smoke, as in liquid nitrogen - the cold-as-heck steamy stuff used by a sudden spurt of ice cream parlors to make and instantly freeze ice cream right in front the eyes of gawking customers. Folks are often amazed to watch the wave of steam that rises when the super-cold, liquid nitrogen gas hits the liquid ice cream base - and the almost instantaneous freezing of the liquid into a solid.
It might never get as big as the frozen yogurt craze or as popular as the mix-in mania of recent years, but the $10 billion ice cream industry has its frigid eyes on a handful-and-a-half of entrepreneurs who have recently opened several dozen liquid nitrogen ice cream eateries from Los Angeles to Boston.
"This is the next thing in ice cream," says Darryl David, an ice cream consultant, who advises entrepreneurial businesses. "It's a totally different way to attract consumers."
Dippin' Dots has used the gas since 1988 to sell extra-cold, pre-made ice cream. To appeal to the calorie-conscious, it just rolled out 100-calorie YoDots, says president Scott Fischer. But the latest trend may be moving beyond what Dippin' Dots created, to those that make and freeze the ice cream right in front of customers.
One of the newest such ice cream stops is Ice Cream Lab, which opened in mid-March in Beverly Hills. Its 25-year-old co-founder, Joseph Lifschutz, says consumers not only get a kick out of watching the ice cream being made on the spot, but in an age of better-for-you eating, they like that it contains no preservatives, additives or emulsifiers. "There's no shelf life to anything we're selling in this store," he boasts.
His best-seller: Salt Lick Crunch - which combines caramel sauce and pretzels into a mixture that becomes vanilla ice cream. Among his celebrity guests; Larry King, Jay Leno, Tyra Banks and Hilary Duff.
Perhaps the biggest in the business is Sub Zero, the 10-year-old chain with 25 locations in nine states. Founder Jerry Hancock says he's planning to add 144 more in Texas and 120 more in Southern California over the next decade.
"We focus on the show," he says. "Lighting is a big thing, so we light up the fog so you can see the nitrogen going into the ice cream," he says.
On a much smaller scale, there's Smitten Ice Cream, which was launched atop a Radio Flyer wagon in the streets of San Francisco in 2009. Today, Smitten has one San Francisco storefront, with two more set to open later this year, says owner Robyn Sue Fisher, a self-professed ice cream fanatic.
Smitten's best-seller: Fresh Mint Chip "because we use fresh spearmint (not an extract) and local dark chocolate," says Fisher.
Its weirdest flavor? Fisher answers that question with a question. "Rhubarb Crisp, anyone?"