The Cutthroat World of $10 Ice Cream

Put the ice cream near the cash registers.

That is traditional grocery store wisdom, mainly so the product won’t melt in the cart as it winds through the aisles.

For shoppers worn down by the journey through a hangar-size Whole Foods, it’s also a reward: an ultradecadent bounty in an ever-multiplying variety of daring and imaginative flavors.

It has never been a better time to eat ice cream or a more cutthroat time to try to sell it.

Fueled by pandemic trends of “at-home comfort” and “anytime eating,” the $7 billion industry grew 17 percent in 2020, after roughly 2.4 percent annual growth over the previous decade, said Jennifer Mapes-Christ of the market research firm Packaged Facts. Artisan ice cream — a “squishy” term, she said, that usually refers to product with less air and more fat but “mostly just means ‘fancy’” — is growing even faster than mainstream ice cream and is considered the industry’s future.

Small, indie producers like Jennifer Dundas, the co-founder of Blue Marble in Brooklyn, have driven the innovation in the past decade. Ms. Dundas has been in the field for 14 years, but I’ve known her even longer — we grew up in the same Boston suburb — and through her have seen how ruthless selling organic banana cream pie ice cream in biodegradable bowls can be.

The spoils of success — tens of millions of dollars in incubation deals, plus the potential for hundreds of millions more if a label is bought by a giant like Unilever — have heightened competition in the $10-a-pint world. Now the business of gourmet ice cream is go big or melt.

“Everyone’s like: ‘I’m going to be the next Talenti. I’m going to be the next Halo Top.’ But it’s one in 1,000, right?” said Crista Freeman, an industry veteran.

Even before Covid-19, the industry had been pinning its hopes on “adult” ice cream, a relatively new category known for subdued sugar and noble flavors such as Earl Grey tea.

“People are increasingly seeing sugar as the bad element, and fat they’re less worried about,” Ms. Mapes-Christ said.

For Ms. Dundas, who opened her first scoop shop back when an after-dinner ice cream run usually meant a plunge into a bodega freezer or a trip to a dreary chain, the artisan ice cream boom has been the vindication of a vision. But it has not yielded riches. On the contrary, it has triggered thoughts of exiting the business, as it has for other artisan producers.

“Nobody is profitable,” Ms. Freeman said. “It’s just a game. You have to constantly raise money to compete.”

Last winter, after watching several rivals go the private equity route and others quietly fold, Ms. Dundas decided on a middle path. Using the brand’s own money, Blue Marble would add a single shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in time for what Ms. Dundas hoped would be the city’s pandemic reawakening. The plan was something of a gamble: a modest expansion while remaining true to Blue Marble’s indie roots and hopefully sidestepping the financial risks and loss of control that come with outside funding.

“I just want to stay in the game,” Ms. Dundas told me then.

Pints in the dressing room

When Blue Marble opened in 2008, it turned its back on Manhattan. Brooklyn was where the energy was, and the passion behind the growing farm-to-table movement. It was also a cheaper place to operate a business. The first Blue Marble debuted on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, and expansion soon followed with a pair of shops in Prospect Heights.

Now Ms. Dundas is part of the ice cream old guard. I remember watching her open her shop on Atlantic with puzzlement, knowing that she had essentially no business experience (a not uncommon origin story in the ice cream industry, it turned out).

Moreover, the move was confusing because Ms. Dundas already had a career, one I had watched her develop since she was 9.

Starting in the 1980s, Ms. Dundas began appearing on Broadway and in Hollywood as a child actor. She specialized in playing daughters: Robert Redford’s in “Legal Eagles”; Beau Bridges’s in “The Hotel New Hampshire”; Diane Keaton’s twice, in “Mrs. Soffel” and “The First Wives Club.” After hitting adolescence, Ms. Dundas broadened her repertoire but began finding herself pigeonholed. She received acclaim in a starring role opposite Billy Crudup in 1995’s “Arcadia” at Lincoln Center and won an Obie Award in 1997 for the play “Good as New.” She was having to hustle harder and harder for the roles.

And then in 2008 she appeared at the Roundabout Theater in “Crimes of the Heart,” co-starring with Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe. The play began at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the Berkshires, where, Ms. Paulson said she remembered, there’d be “Jennie sitting at her computer late at night hatching Blue Marble.”

Ms. Dundas would take samples to the dressing room, including “the best strawberry I ever tasted,” Ms. Paulson said.

After moving to Broadway, the play was a critical success, “but Lily and I, who are both like 8 feet tall and had long blond hair, received more glowing mentions,” Ms. Paulson said. Ms. Dundas calls herself “petite even for an actor,” and after a reviewer compared her to a squirrel, she said: “Forget it, I’m done. I’m going to focus on ice cream.”

‘It’s in the chew’

Ms. Dundas founded Blue Marble with Alexis Gallivan, a nonprofit specialist who had been working in international development. Ms. Gallivan had never run a business, either, but it didn’t matter. The timing for an ice cream shop in Brooklyn was right.

At the time, the upstarts of the borough’s anti-industrial food revolution were looking for any category they could disrupt through local ingredients or handmade production. Brooklynified beer, chocolate and pizza were gathering hype as well as space on store shelves. Yet frozen dessert remained a maltodextrin wasteland.

“We were like, ‘Why is there no great artisan ice cream in New York City?’” Ms. Dundas said.

Ms. Gallivan said there was a “eureka moment” when the women started craving the kind of ice cream that existed in Boston, “where there’s this amazing ice cream tradition.” In New York, “there was like Tasti D-Lite and Baskin-Robbins — nothing worth the calories, as my mom would say.”

Blue Marble’s overarching concept, like that of so many Brooklyn brands, was lofty and vaguely European, featuring “elemental” flavors sourced from upstate farms with unimpeachable organic pedigrees and no candy or breakfast cereal. If the flavorings leaned pious rather than juvenile, crass marketing it was not: Ms. Gallivan, leveraging her expertise in international aid, set up ambitious satellite projects in Haiti and Rwanda, the latter of which continues 10 years on.

And the ice cream was good.

“It’s in the chew,” said Thomas Bucci Jr., a fourth-generation ice cream maker whose Rhode Island factory “co-packs” pints for Blue Marble and other brands. Good ice cream, he said, “has a certain bite, as opposed to the big guys, where it’s just air — it doesn’t even melt.”

To get that texture, Mr. Bucci said, “you can spend $20-30,000 a week on milk and cream alone.” He added — emphatically — that there were no shortcuts.

Compromises beckoned, however, as Blue Marble began racking up successes in its early years, including partnerships with JetBlue and Facebook.

“It’s really hard in a place like New York to not start compromising, because things are expensive and they eat into your margins,” Ms. Gallivan said. Blue Marble refused to cut corners, she said, in the belief that “ultimately quality ingredients and the best ice cream will prevail.”

‘They tried to wipe everybody else out’

The freezer shelves at Whole Foods tell the story of artisan ice cream’s success, with multiplying labels and their recondite flavors jostling for space. Many pints trace their origins to Brooklyn circa 2010, when a scrum of contenders for the mantle of the borough’s most authentic ice cream materialized, from Ample Hills and MilkMade to Phin & Phebes and Van Leeuwen. Even Steve’s, an iconic Boston label, tried to reposition itself as a Brooklyn brand.

“If the competition at the beginning was what it was four years later, we never would have started,” Ms. Dundas said.

The producers strove to promote community and craft above profit, but beneath the it’s-all-good vibes the emerging market echoed the competition of global ice cream, a trade dominated by Nestlé and Unilever. Over the previous two decades, the dueling behemoths, one Swiss and one Anglo-Dutch, had gone on acquisition tears, buying up mainstream brands like Häagen-Dazs (Nestlé), Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), Dreyer’s (Nestle) and Klondike (Unilever).

“They tried to wipe everybody else out” and divide the market between them, Leo Glynn, one of the industry’s most sought-after consultants, explained early this spring, as Blue Marble was planning an expansion. (Mr. Glynn passed away in April.) But it didn’t work. “They became so profit-motivated, it gave all these small artisanal guys an opportunity,” he said.

Soon, not just in Brooklyn but around the country, true believers in the glory of America’s favorite dessert thrived by offering alternatives to ice cream made with chemical stabilizers.

“Most regions have their equivalent of Blue Marble,” Ms. Mapes-Christ of Packaged Facts said, citing her own favorite, Mitchell’s Homemade in Cleveland.

It didn’t take long for Nestlé and Unilever to notice. “The truth of the matter is that you have two world giants that will spend a fortune to protect what they have,” Mr. Glynn said. In 2014, Unilever bought Talenti, a former Dallas gelateria whose product had been meticulously reconstructed into an irresistible addition to the multinational corporation’s massive portfolio of packaged foods. Now the brand’s screw-top clear containers are available at Walmart.

The deal signaled the mainstreaming of artisanal ice cream and ignited a frenzy to create the next blockbuster.

Last year, industry darling Van Leeuwen received $18.7 million in investment from San Francisco private equity firm Nextworld Evergreen. It has opened 17 scoop shops in New York and 27 nationwide.

‘This category is ruthless’

Crista Freeman saw few investors interested in ice cream when she opened Phin & Phebes in 2010, but after the Talenti sale, “that changed dramatically.” Suddenly, she said, “angel investors” were everywhere, offering large investments to incubate the transition from small store into juicy acquisition target. Few owners could resist.

“People are like, ‘I’m going to be the next Ben & Jerry’s because I listened to whatever that podcast is,’” Ms. Freeman said.

Going down the acquisition path meant a frantic scramble for exposure as well as access to freezer shelves, an expensive enterprise that, people say, can be more about connections than how good the ice cream is.

“The difficulty is the distribution,” said Mr. Glynn, who co-founded one of metropolitan New York’s largest ice cream trucking networks.

The industry shifted from multiple distribution channels to a “warehouse-driven model” dominated by packaged food corporations, he said. As a result, he added, “artisanal brands have to go to retailers and pay an enormous amount of slotting” — industry speak for fees to get placement on store shelves, which can run as high as $40,000 per flavor.

“This category is ruthless,” said Ms. Freeman, who said she planned to write a memoir called “I Screamed.” “You have to constantly raise money to avoid burn.” In 2018, she exited the industry quietly but on her own terms after giving up on a national retail strategy.

Others have gone out less decorously, the most talked-about being Ample Hills, whose nonadult flavors (Ooey Gooey, Snap Mallow Pop!, The Munchies) attracted the patronage of Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities. Ample Hills had seemed to be on its way to achieving the dream: shops around the country, a partnership with Disney, a factory in Brooklyn.

Within the industry, it is now considered “an extreme example of what not to do,” said Mr. Bucci, the Rhode Island co-packer.

After an injection of a reported $19 million in venture capital, Ample Hills went on a breakneck expansion while taking the same approach to financial discipline as its ice cream stylings.

“Too much money and a lack of business expertise,” Mr. Bucci said when I asked him what had gone wrong. “It’s disheartening,” he added. “The waste blows your mind.”

Quoted in an article that dissected the collapse for Medium’s Marker publication this year, an Ample Hills co-founder, Brian Smith, called the business “a runaway train of raising and raising and growth and growth.”

Given the ice cream’s popularity, the flameout was startling but hardly surprising to its peers. “So many brands crash and burn,” Ms. Dundas said. “It’s a little spooky, because sometimes everything looks great until poof — they’re gone.”

Other artisan ice cream makers loaded with capital that have gone belly up in recent years include Three Twins, a premium organic brand with wide distribution in the Bay Area, and Trickling Springs Creamery, a Pennsylvania organic dairy provider run by Mennonites whose majority owner pleaded guilty last year to a $60 million fraud scheme.

Ready to retire

As premium ice cream markets go, the Upper West Side is a target-rich environment, popular with young families as well as older New Yorkers who fill the benches on Broadway’s medians during the 20-week ice cream season. (Both groups are key demographics for the industry.)

Rents are high, but Ms. Dundas, who lives in the neighborhood, found them to be lower than they were before the pandemic, which was how she was able to move into a corner store with expansive sightlines, high ceilings and proximity to a busy subway station.

The previous occupant, a popular cafe, had gone out of business during the pandemic. Its rent was $15,000 a month, which Ms. Dundas managed to reduce significantly. (“I’ll just say I negotiated on that,” she said, declining to name a figure.)

The expansion from Brooklyn was long in the making. For years, Ms. Dundas and Ms. Gallivan had debated whether to beef up their retail presence, occasionally taking investment offers to the brand’s ownership, which consists of a small group of family and friends, as well as Slow Money NYC, a national nonprofit that describes itself as “catalyzing investment in sustainable food and farms.”

“Investors have urged us to grow,” Ms. Gallivan said. “It’s tempting because they’re dangling all this money and saying, ‘We’re going to get you in supermarkets across the United States.’”

She was skeptical. “We’ve seen a lot of people fall in that trap,” she said. “They grow way too quickly, get overextended and ultimately collapse.”

Ms. Dundas, however, would be open to being acquired in a “heartbeat!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been working since I was 9. I’m ready to retire.”

Her experience as an actor gave her pause, however. “Maybe I’m paranoid, but I always think something could get canceled at the last second,” she said. Like most actors, Ms. Dundas had been humbled by the endless hustle and disappointment of auditions, the flopping of can’t-miss hits, seeing other actors go bust.

“My philosophy is, keep your pants on,” she added.

In fact, after a hiatus while she started Blue Marble, Ms. Dundas’s acting career had resumed. In 2017, Steven Spielberg cast her as Katharine Graham’s assistant in “The Post,” and a year later she played the prosecutor Mary Jo White in HBO’s “The Looming Tower.” Neither role placed her atop the credits. They kept her in the game, however.

“Anyone who sustains any kind of career in the professional acting business is a legend,” said Mr. Crudup, who after co-starring with Ms. Dundas in “Arcadia” put seed money into Blue Marble and remains involved. “But for Jennie to start out as a child actor and find a voice as an adult is remarkable.”

‘Manhattan is not Brooklyn’

Ten days after the Upper West Side store opened in March, Ms. Dundas called. “I am so not in Kansas anymore,” she said. “Manhattan is not Brooklyn.”

The first week and a half had been unexpectedly bumpy. A windstorm had torn down the awning. The chief operating officer, after eight years on the job, had announced her departure. And then there were the shoplifters.

Like Blue Marble’s other branches, the Upper West Side location offered a small, curated selection of nonedible merchandise, like hand-sewn pillows made with certified organic fabric and “We the People” masks from Resistance by Design.

“Somebody shoplifted a sweater yesterday,” Ms. Dundas said with a sigh, “and wore it into the smoke shop next door this morning. My friend made it, and there are only five, four of which are still in the store. So I went to the police station, and they said, ‘Is this your first business in New York?’”

In the days since, for the first time in her 14 years as a shopkeeper, Ms. Dundas had installed cameras and hired a security guard. “We had shoplifting in Brooklyn,” she said, “but never like this.”

In Manhattan, she said, she found that city inspectors were more vigilant. Customers were more engaged, whether emailing to demand a summer job for a child or dictating a reset of the store’s feng shui.

“It makes me feel like Brooklyn is a Podunk town,” Ms. Dundas said.

But the numbers were fantastic, she said. So good that despite the national labor shortage and a still-depleted population on the Upper West Side — “I’ll know the pandemic is over when I can’t get a parking space whenever I want,” Ms. Dundas said — a month after opening, Blue Marble signed a lease for a second Upper West Side scoop shop.

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