Few things say summer quite like a cold, creamy ice cream. And most consumers love the sweet treat, with the average American eating around 20 pounds of it a year. The country’s culinary landscape offers ice cream lovers seemingly endless options for frozen desserts, from mall chains like Baskin-Robbins to small artisanal shops like Salt & Straw, and everything in between. With the last licks of summer upon us, we take a closer look at some of the most popular ice cream chains across the country.
Peaks and Valleys
Perhaps unsurprisingly, visits to ice cream chains rise in the spring and summer and drop in the fall and winter. But with the exception of COVID-impacted 2020 and 2021, visits don’t peak during the hottest month of the year – comparing monthly visits to a January 2018 baseline reveals that visits in 2018, 2019, 2022, and 2023 (so far) were highest in May. This may indicate that consumers are most drawn to ice cream chains in late spring and early summer, as the weather heats up and the sweet treat still feels like a novelty.
Regional Sweet Treats
Analyzing the statewide visit share for the ice cream sector – excluding chains such as Dairy Queen, Braum’s, Friendly’s, and Culver’s, which also offer on-site restaurants – reveals distinct patterns. For example, Pennsylvania native Rita’s Italian Ice is most popular in Pennsylvania and neighboring Maryland, while Salt & Straw is most popular in Oregon. And Vermont residents are loyal to their home team of Ben & Jerry’s.
Four of the major players in the ice cream segment – Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, Rita’s Italian Ice, and Carvel Ice Cream – saw elevated foot traffic over most months analyzed on a year-over-year (YoY) basis. This may indicate consumers’ current willingness to splurge on affordable treats that won’t break the bank.
One chain in particular is having a strong 2023 – Rita’s Italian Ice. The East Coast chain, which is now expanding into the Midwest, also launched its first ever iced coffee drink in April, driving a YoY foot traffic spike of 39.6%.
Ice cream fans can also find artisan chains across the country, offering up unique flavor combinations and high quality products. Salt & Straw, a Portland native, serves up a Pear and Blue Cheese ice cream alongside more classic offerings such as Salted Caramel or Honey Lavender. Van Leeuwen offers more traditional ice creams with an emphasis on quality, and Jeni’s, originating in Columbus, Ohio, serves ice creams that utilize local ingredients as much as possible.
And the psychographic data for the three chains shows that their visitors are indeed more likely to be discerning diners who appreciate their specialty approach. Trade Area Analysis using the AGS: Behavior & Attitudes and Demographic Dimensions datasets reveals that visitors to Salt & Straw, Van Leeuwen, and Jeni’s over-index (compared to a nationwide average is 100) for the “Nutritionally Aware” and “Fast Food Avoiders” segments. Visitors to these chains also tended to appreciate organic food and were more adventurous than the average consumer.
Last Licks Of Summer
Ice cream remains a summer classic, a cold treat with widespread appeal to all. From artisanal brands to chains with thousands of locations, there’s something for everyone.
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