In 23 years, the distinctive beaded ice cream brand has grown from a Kentucky garage to thousands of locations around the world. Its next step? Many new products, same old dots.
In 1996, when I was ten, there was one reason, and one reason only, to join my mom and sister at Tysons Corner mall outside Washington, D.C. That reason was Dippin’ Dots.
After the girls tried on dresses and dragged me through the Nordstrom khakis rack, I would collect my just reward for good behavior. My cold, pelletized currency of choice was Dippin’ Dots ice cream. The colorful mound of flash-frozen beads started crunchy before melting into a recognizable creaminess. It looked like cereal. It tasted like dessert. The kiosk said “Ice Cream of the Future.” Ten-year olds like me believed it just might be.
Dippin’ Dots burst onto the scene in the 1990s, doubling sales in consecutive years, as it conquered amusement parks and malls like Tysons Corner. But the sugar rush has slowed in the last decade. The company lost its signature patent in 2007. Its effort to expand into franchises ran up against the Great Recession. Today, there are 3,000 Baskin Robbins shops in the United States and more than 300 Ben and Jerry’s locations. But Dippin’ Dots — despite claiming thousands of locations worldwide — is struggling to keep more than 200 franchise shops open in the U.S.
Still there is reason to think the ice cream of the future has a future. When I spoke to CEO Curt Jones, he sounded optimistic and excited. For the last few years, the company has been developing new pelletized products to move them beyond the ice cream market into yogurt, coffee, and even alcoholic beverages.
Curt Jones grew up in a farm in southern
Illinois. With his family in Pulaski County, he churned home-made ice
cream. He dreamed of becoming a microbiologist.
college, he landed a job in Lexington, KY, to help a team of scientists
turn bacteria into animal feed. Jones developed a technique to improve
the digestibility of the cultures through flash-freezing. "I was
pelletizing these bacteria in liquid nitrogen," he told me. "The faster
you freeze something, the smaller the crystal that is formed.
He still dabbled in ice cream. Two months later, Jones was preparing ice cream with a friend, and he realized he could
freeze the mix faster with liquid nitrogen. "The proverbial light
bulb went off," he said. Fast-freezing would create
smaller ice crystals and create a smoother taste.
It was 1987. Six months later, Curt
would quit his job and open a store in Lexington to sell "pelletized"
yogurt and ice cream. He called his outlet "The Yoglet Shop." But Curt
never liked the name. So that Christmas, he and his wife held a
brainstorming session with their friends. "Somebody wrote dip-in-dot," he said. "I misheard it as Dippin' Dot. I liked it."
The next year -- 23 years ago -- Dippin' Dots officially opened. Spurred
by a successful kiosk at Opryland in Nashville, the company quickly
realized that they could thrive at amusement parks.
"In that first
year at Opryland, we sold $360,000 of ice cream and the other ice cream
sales onlywent down by an estimated $90,000," he said. Theme parks are
more likely to accept new kiosks if they don't steal the old guards'
business. Nashville crowds loved the novelty of pelletized ice cream,
Jones realized, but they didn't necessarily see it as a substitute for
ice cream (a realization that might have foreshadowed future
Growing a business
into an international success sounds like the ultimate question. In fact, it only leads to another question: What do we do, now?
TOO DARN COLD?
Dots' chief asset -- its funny-looking pelletized technology -- is also
its chief liability. Simply put: It's too darn cold.* Home freezers tend
to be about zero degrees Fahrenheit. Supermarket freezers are often
colder, around negative-10 degrees. That's good enough for regular ice
cream. But Dippin' Dots must be stored at 40 degrees below zero without
losing their eponymous dotness. So the product cannot sell in most
supermarkets or live in most freezers.
the company website carries the following instruction: "All online
orders are shipped using Dry Ice and must be delivered to you within
two days." Jones is trying to develop a higher temperature product that
can sell in markets and doesn't require that families buy Dry Ice.
Dots recently developed a line of coffee products it calls Forty Below
Joe. The product doesn't look so different from chocolate Dippin' Dots:
dark espresso dots made from Brazilian and Guatemalan Arabica beans
served in a plastic cup.
"All of our coffee products are what we
call high-temp," said Billie Stuber, a spokesperson. "Our coffee
products can be held at a higher temperature, like a freezer."
pelletized coffee product might strike you as a dead-zone -- too old
for kids ("Mom, what's an espresso bean?") and too young for adults who
prefer their coffee in mugs rather than ice cream cups. But Stuber
insisted that it has tested positively testing in theme parks across the
country, like Universal Studios in Hollywood and Jolly Roger park.
Dippin' Dots isn't trying to be Starbucks. The company's
competitive advantage isn't in ubiquity, but in serendipity. Foot
traffic at theme parks has a different mood than Main Street
pedestrians. Whatever that mood is, it's the secret sauce in Dippin' Dots' success. "We found that Dippin' Dots is more of an impulse buy than a
destination," Stuber said. "For whatever reason, on the street it fades
into the background. In a mall, it piques your interest."
THE FUTURE OF THE 'ICE CREAM OF THE FUTURE
From beverages to breakfast, Dippin' Dots is looking for more ways to
become a bigger part of your life, one tiny dot at a time. "The
ice crystals in Dippin' Dots are 50 times smaller than regular ice crystals," Jones said. "The best way to lock in
freshness is to freeze something quickly with liquid nitrogen. This
has applications way beyond ice cream."
As part of its campaign to hook adults to pellets, Jones has found a way to get Dippin' Dots into bars. The company, that is, not the product.
"Bartenders don't like to make
blended drinks because it takes too long," Jones said. "We created a
product called Island Rox. It's a bead with a margarita or daiquiri
flavor. If you add beads to tequila, and it's a margarita or daiquiri."
After two years of development, Island Rox is launching in five
Nashville bars this year.
The research and development offices
in Paducah have been buzzing for the last few years. Jones' preview of
future innovations include: a "magic shell" ice cream topping made from
a cluster of free-rolling beads glued together "like a piece of
popcorn"; frozen beads of high-protein supplements for smoothies; and a
yogurt bead with a frozen blueberry and granola inside it.
Jones hopes this surge in pelletized creativity helps the company recapture its mid-90s giddiness. But he knows that he's done alright with for a microbiologist with a penchant for ice cream. "We started this thing in my garage," he said. "Once again, we're ready to launch things."
________ *An explanation of freezing process, with an assist from an issue from Dairy Foods magazine provided by Dippin' Dots, is under the patent image