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It doesn’t get much better than ice cream when it comes to food with universal appeal. From young to old, as a sweet treat or a comfort food, the category is a firm favourite with British consumers.
According to some figures, an estimated 3.15 million people in Britain ate ice cream two to three times a week in 2020 – with 4.57 million eating it once a week. Like many categories, ice cream and frozen desserts thrived during the Covid pandemic, with many of us turning to them for comfort. The change in the way we snack has seen ice cream sales continue to rise, with figures from Kantar showing that take-home sales of ‘handheld’ ice creams and desserts like sticks and filled cones grew in 2021, taking the category’s worth to £1.3 billion. And it’s not just sales of sweet treats for home that have risen over the past few years, but our enjoyment while out and about, with PwC noting a 20% year on year rise of ice cream parlour openings in 2020.
Ice cream: the ultimate treat
Britain’s love affair with ice cream and frozen treats is a long-running one, but what drives it? For Christina Veal, director at New Forest Ice Cream, which supplies to stockists including farm shops and delis as well as restaurants, pubs, cafes and kiosks, it’s about finding the “ultimate treat”. “Despite the recent surge in demand for healthier ice creams, those looking for luxury and indulgence when it comes to a take-home treat still remain one of the largest subcategories in ice cream,” says Veal. “Many consumers still look for that ultimate treat when it comes to ice cream.” Sam Newman, founder of Hackney Gelato, which sells direct to consumers as well as via larger multiples, agrees. “Ice cream brings unbridled joy to children and adults alike. In our minds truly happy holiday memories revolve around strolling along the seaside in the sunshine with a cone of the good stuff in your hand. It’s the feeling we hope to bring to everyone when they eat our gelatos. Whether they’re strolling in the sun or eating it in their pyjamas in their living room, it should be a pleasurable, happy experience.”
Sasha Young, who runs Hooray’s British Gelato Kitchen in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire alongside mum Sara, thinks one of the keys to ice-cream’s ongoing popularity is its universal appeal. Hooray’s produces Italian style gelato using entirely British ingredients sold in their shop as well as to other outlets. “Our customers are anyone and everyone,” says Young. “It’s grandparents who love a knickerbocker glory, a child with their first taste of ice cream and everyone in between. We get people coming here on dates, we’ve had a couple who had their first date with us then we hosted their engagement party and did a party after they got married. School groups come in, we do lots of children’s birthday parties, baby showers, hen parties. Ice cream is great for celebration so our customer base really is lots of different people.” On top of that, the Covid pandemic reminded us of the value of an edible treat, adds Young. “People felt they were missing out on a lot so they grasped on to the treats that they could have. There was a lot you couldn’t do, but you could give your family a treat by coming in for an ice cream or having ice cream at home.”
A changeable feast
Sales may be buoyant, but the popularity of ice cream and frozen desserts are still affected by various factors – including seasons. Situated in a popular tourist area, Hooray’s has felt the loss of international tourists in recent years, but the local community has stepped in and helped it thrive, says Young. There’s also the difference between summer and winter trade. “We have quite a short season which starts in April and ends in September, with a huge quantity of our sales during that time.” Seasonal variations are something Viv Thyer and Lynne Johnson, who run the Leamington Spa branch of Gallone’s, notice. As well as serving traditional Italian ice cream made at Gallone’s in Northampton, they serve bubble waffles, pancakes and other sweet treats. In summer, they have queues out of the door but while trade dips off in winter, they make up with ice cream parties for children. They have also benefited from the surge in use of delivery services, says Thyer, with people keen to order ice-cream delivered to their door.
The love of ice-cream and frozen treats may be longstanding, but that doesn’t mean its producers have stood still. Changes to our diets – including the rapid growth in vegan and free-from eating and a constant search for the new and exciting- have helped drive innovation. In 2020, UK ice cream parlours were asked by the Ice Cream & Artisan Food Show what their best-selling products were, prompting 36% to say vegan ice creams were the most significant new product varieties, followed by dairy-free and reduced sugar at 5% each. At the time, Zelica Carr, CEO of the Ice Cream Alliance, said the range of flavours were “testament to the creativity of the industry”. In her words, ice cream makers were “in tone with prevailing taste trends” given the number producing ‘free from’ products such as vegan, dairy-free and reduced sugar – as well as reduced calorie and gluten-free.
That growing awareness by consumers of what they’re eating has seen an expansion of certain ranges, says Young, who offers a range of vegan and dairy-free products at Hooray’s. “People are more aware of what they’re eating, doing more research and trialling what they’re eating. People are choosing to eat differently and having that range is creating an inclusive environment for them.” New Forest’s Veal, whose company has introduced three additions to its certified vegan range to cater to the vegan diet, including two sorbets, agrees, saying: “Catering for all audiences is key when it comes to ice cream. Retailers need to make sure they provide a selection of innovative, exciting flavours. Offering a selection of both flavours and varieties means you cater for each individual who steps foot into your store.”
The value of NPD
When it comes to innovation, it’s not just about healthier products, but those that will meet the need of an audience endlessly on the hunt for the next best thing. “New product development is really important to ensure we keep up to date with trends and always bring something new to the table to excite customers,” adds Veal. “All of our ice cream recipes are carefully developed and we are constantly thinking of new flavours and ways of mixing it up!” The same goes for Hackney Gelato, which recently launched a limited edition Hot Cross Bun gelato. “We have always used our knowledge of flavour combinations to drive innovation and coming from a chef’s background has helped us take those ideas and make them into something delicious,” says Newman. “Having both grown up in Italy, some of the recipes we’ve developed are a love letter to the gelatos we grew up eating there. Other times we’ve been driven by the desire to create something unusual and show off our craft, like when we took a classic British cake like the hot cross bun and turned it into a gelato.”
Susie Davis, founder of Birmingham-based Odi and Moo, which was born in the first Covid lockdown when she and business partner Jimmy Thewlis borrowed an ice cream machine from their local pub, offers a core range but adds regular seasonal specials such as a Cadbury Creme Egg flavour for Easter and tangerine and Prosecco in warm weather. “Our range is by no means traditional,” says Davis, who supplies to farm shops as well as other outlets including pubs, restaurants and vegan cafes. “We are handcrafted and quite quirky. Some of our core range consists of white chocolate pistachio brittle, blueberry maple syrup cheesecake, brown sugar vanilla, toast and Honey, chocolate chip cookie dough and our very first flavour - Jammie Dodger. Our vegan range just keeps growing, our most popular flavours are dark chocolate sorbet and peanut butter banana crumble. Christmas is a fun time for us - we make homemade mince pie, brandy butter Christmas pudding pudding, white chocolate cranberry cheesecake cake and for our vegans, gingerbread salted caramel.” Odi and Moo also works with other independents to invent new flavours – including a Pandan flavour especially for a local Vietnamese restaurant.
The desire to innovate extends to frozen desserts too. London Dough Company Doughlicious, which has its own bespoke range of Dough•Chi a twist on Japanese Mochi balls – stocked in independent retailers as well as larger names, is extending its range with a new vegan flavour. Founder Kathryn Bricken says: “There is growth in the frozen desserts market and in particular handheld ice cream and multipacks.”
Citing figures showing growth in the frozen dessert market, including a 21% growth in snacks – where Dough-Chi fits – she says it’s down to a number of factors. “The pandemic encouraged more customers to explore the frozen food aisles, looking for products with a longer shelf life, whilst an effort to reduce food waste and enjoying more indulgent meals at home translated into strong growth for frozen desserts. Handheld frozen snacking has also seen quite a bit of innovation, particularly in this segment which is capturing consumers’ imagination and taste buds. People also like the fact that these kinds of snacks are easily portion-controlled, in that they can enjoy one and put the rest back in the freezer.”
It seems the love affair is far from ending. But what does the future hold for a category that somehow retains its traditional roots while continuing to adapt and innovate? “The trend of adhering to a plant-based diet is skyrocketing, along with healthier snacking,” says Veal. “Consumers are now on the hunt for new innovative flavours and a variety of different food options to be readily available to them as they explore the vegan diet. This is an area that is only going to grow in the coming years and it is one that we will be taking very seriously.”