Frozen treat frenzy

Columbia's ice cream options multiply.
Tuesday, July 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:02 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

On a stifling hot Sunday afternoon Robert Fulton, 13, scrabbles in his pocket for some money. The currency in his pocket is his ticket to sanctuary from the oppressive hot weather. His rescue presents itself in the form of a frosty vanilla Blizzard from Dairy Queen. With one taste, the glacial delight provides a short but sweet respite from the sweltering summer heat while entertaining his taste buds.

Fulton is not alone in his regard for ice cream. According to the International Dairy Farmers Association, ice cream is consumed in more than 90 percent of American households. And, the IDFA reports, in 2002 Americans spent $12.5 billion on “away from home” frozen dessert purchases at places like scoop shops or other ice cream retail stores.

Columbia reflects this trend with a number of ice cream parlors. Fulton runs to Dairy Queen for his cold confection for reasons of practicality rather than preference.

“I like to get ice cream after church, and Dairy Queen’s closest,” Fulton said.

Perhaps that’s the same logic that has ice cream businesses blooming around every corner in the city. With more than a dozen budding ice cream retailers and well-rooted parlors thriving, Columbia is fertile with frozen treats.

Scott Southwick, owner of Sparky’s at 21 S. Ninth St., which opened in late September, said he decided to open his ice cream parlor because he saw a need for one.

“I just saw how little straight, old-fashioned ice cream there is in Columbia,” Southwick said. “There are a lot of frozen desserts, like custard, but not a lot of ice cream.”

Downtown expanded its ice cream availability with the opening of Cold Stone Creamery in April near the corner of Ninth and Elm streets and will expand it further with a Baskin-Robbins yet to open in Subway at the corner of Ninth and Cherry streets.

Bob Marshall, MU professor emeritus in food science and author of the fifth and sixth editions of “Ice Cream,” a book that explores the ice cream industry, said Columbia has a “pretty good distribution” of ice cream stores.

South of downtown, Cafe Gelato at 4004 Peach Court serves scoops of gelato, and frozen custard is available at Shake’s at 124 E. Nifong Blvd. Shake’s also serves custard on the east side of town at 3405 Clark Lane. North of downtown is Jason’s Frozen Custard Factory at 911 Rain Forest Parkway. Dippin’ Dots in the Columbia Mall serves a confection of frozen ice cream pellets that melt upon contact with the tongue. West of downtown is Randy’s Frozen Custard at 3304 W. Broadway. Dairy Queen has locations at 700 Business Loop 70 E. and 1201 Forum Blvd, as well as in the Columbia Mall. Marshall also said that with the city growing, opportune locations arise where the city is in development.

Southwick said he doesn’t fear the competition from more ice cream stores opening.”I think a town of this size can support multiple parlors,” said Southwick.

Marshall said Columbia is a good place for an ice cream market with a consuming public that has a relatively high frequency of visiting ice cream stores.

“Columbia’s that kind of town with a high population of young people and retired people who have the kind of time and disposable income to spend on ice cream,” said Marshall.

Though statistics indicate a booming enterprise, Marshall said ice cream remains a high-risk business endeavor.

“Stores like this can come and go with quite a bit of frequency,” he said. “Even if customers are there, it depends on how effectively and efficiently one can run the store. Not everyone is up to date on how to manage an ice cream business.”

One factor that has great but subtle influence is the tendency by ice cream owners to hire young people, which Marshall said are a “high turnover group of employees.” Turnover is the measure of employees lost, which results in job openings to be filled. A high employee turnover rate frequently results in operations that are shorts-taffed and could lead to increased errors.

Trends in ice cream products also influence sales as they may require retailers to cater to a broad spectrum of consumers. Current trends according to the IDFA are “better-for-you” frozen dessert products such as nonfat, reduced-fat, sugar-free, or lactose-free ice cream. These options comply with particular lifestyle and dietary choices, diversify product lines and attract more health-conscious consumers.

Still, ice cream remains an indulgent food, so producers must also continue to offer a selection of premium products in rich flavors and with add-in options of cookies, brownies, cakes and candy.

Outdoor temperatures are a factor in how ice cream sells, too. The height of ice cream consumption is in the steamy summer months of June and July.

“It’s a seasonal business,” Marshall said. “There’s certainly more of an opportunity if you have something that attracts customers in cold months of the year.”

Many ice cream store owners tackle slower business in the winter by restrategizing business. That may call for cutting back days or hours they’re or hosting events. Southwick said he may allow bands to hold shows or sponsor fund-raising events at the parlor to maintain winter business.

However, Fulton said the weather has no effect on his appetite for the frozen treat.

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