Americans are still all screaming for ice cream, and they’re shouting pretty loudly for frozen yogurt and smoothies as well.
Build-your-own treats concepts have sprung up to satisfy a wide variety of eating occasions. They can provide indulgent desserts for kids of all ages, meal replacements for busy professionals and just about anything in between.
Depending on the concept and menu, they tap into consumer trends toward customization, anytime snacking and health. They also can incorporate elements of theater and interactivity, as consumers direct the action with their specific mix-in requests.
Among the newest entrants in this arena are Thai-style “rolled ice cream” concepts such as 10Below Ice Cream and Juicy Spot Cafe, where customers can watch their ice cream actually being turned from a liquid into a solid right before their eyes while staffers mix in various combinations of flavorful ingredients, from berries to cookies, cake and granola.
In New York City, the Burger Heaven chain recently took this idea in a different direction with its Cool Mess concept, which specializes in ice-cream-making parties for kids. At Cool Mess, the patrons actually create their frozen concoctions themselves, selecting from a vanilla or chocolate ice cream base and a myriad of mix-ins.
“We let you, at the table, take it from a liquid base into ice cream, and then you pick out your flavors,” says Marguerite Loucas, owner/founder of Cool Mess, in a video on the concept’s website.
Watching customized instant ice cream treats come together right before one’s eyes is actually fun for kids of all ages, says James Major, executive chef for Delaware North Sportservice at the Great American Ball Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds.
Last year the stadium introduced a new ice cream concept where customers begin with hard ice cream on a stick and then select which dipping they prefer — chocolate, birthday cake or cherry (for the Reds) — and finally also select from an array of sprinkled-on toppings.
“It has been very well received by the fans,” says Major. “There’s always a line, especially on a hot summer day.”
The concept was originally introduced on a temporary basis for the 2015 MLB All-Star Game last July, but was brought back as an ongoing offering due to popular demand.
Build-your-own smoothie concepts, which have become a standard fixture on many college campuses, have begun to migrate into other noncommercial foodservice environments.
Chuck Melchiori, vice president of business development and marketing at Zeeland, Mich.-based Creative Dining Services, says build-your-own smoothie bars have become a popular breakfast alternative in the business and industry (B&I) segment, and have also made inroads in the senior healthcare segment as a treat for patients. They also have entered the conference center market as both a morning and afternoon break concept.
“We first started seeing traction in the college and university market, and now we’re seeing it migrate into B&I,” he says.
Build-your-own smoothie concepts at business accounts — particularly on the administrative side — are replacing more traditional breakfasts such as bacon and eggs, or bagels and coffee, says Melchiori.
“It fills you up more, and it makes you feel good about your health,” he says. “And you can customize them with things like protein powder, chia seeds and all kinds of grainy, fun ingredients.”
Customizing for all occasions
On college campuses where the build-your-own concepts have matured the most, foodservice operators have found build-your-own smoothie and ice cream bars to have broad appeal.
At North Carolina State University, which makes its own dairy products using the school’s research cattle, the independently managed foodservice program offers both smoothie and ice cream foodservice outlets.
Smoothie U allows patrons to create their beverages as healthy or indulgent as they like, with options that are juice-based, yogurt-based and almond milk-based.
“We found that students who are super health conscious like the ones that are juice-based, and the students who have a little more of a sweet tooth like the ones that are more the creamy, dessert-type,” says Jennifer Gilmore, director of marketing and communication at NC State.
Shawn Hoch, associate director at NC State Dining Services, says the variety of options available at Smoothie U enables the school to meet the demands of a wide variety of students looking for allergen-free, vegan, vegetarian or other options.
More indulgent treats are on the menu at the Howling Cow ice cream bar, another NC State dining experience, which offers a variety of flavors of hard and soft ice cream, along with Howler milkshakes and a selection of sundaes.
Where the smoothie bar is located can play a role in the menu as well. At Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, Tuffy’s Smoothie Bar is located in the athletic center, making it an ideal destination for healthy, post-workout refreshments. The menu includes a list of standard smoothies customers can choose from. But patrons can also customize their orders with mix-ins including frozen fruits, protein powder, chia seeds, spinach and others.
“It’s been huge,” says Fred Geib, general manager, dining operations, Ashland University. “Students typically get it when they are exiting the facility after working out.”
Tuffy’s Smoothie Bar, which is managed and staffed by Ashland University students., generally gets a rush when it opens at 9 a.m., indicating that many students may be using it for a breakfast meal or supplement.
A close relative of the smoothie and yogurt bar is the parfait bar, another concept that has enjoyed success as a breakfast alternative for many noncommercial operators.
“What appeals to students about the parfaits is that they can customize them the way they want them,” says Michael Wuest, marketing manager for Campus Dining Services at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
Students can customize their parfaits starting with a selection of different flavors and styles of yogurt, and then build layers of fresh fruits and other toppings.
“It’s healthy; it has high quality ingredients, and it’s also quick,” says Wuest. “That’s what sets the parfait bar apart.”