We All Scream

In Defense of Old-School Ice Cream Chains

These classic scoop shops are enduringly popular because they satisfy all of our senses.

Before there was New York’s trendy Morgenstern’s, which bills itself as a “New American Ice Cream Parlor,” where you can get a $20 banana split as well as a scoop of banana-curry ice cream, there was, of course, Carvel…And that’s not to mention Tastee Freez and Dairy Queen and Friendly’s, and a whole slew of other ice-cream destinations that many of us would visit as a child and would gladly return to again and again as adults.

While the ice cream landscape may have evolved to include shops hatched by hippies and hipsters, these decidedly humbler establishments keep churning out the cold stuff. They soldier on through corporate shake ups, fight the heresy that is frozen-yogurt, proudly promote soft-serve in the face of gelato—and we love them for that. It’s a testament to how, in fact, biologically complex and wonderfully indelible the act of eating ice cream is. 

Even if you insist on grass-fed beef, locally sourced corn and fair-trade chocolate, you’re hard pressed to turn down a Flying Saucer from Carvel, if you grew up enjoying the frozen sandwich at birthday parties and Fourth of July celebrations. It doesn’t matter that, for the most part, chain-store ice creams are efficiently produced in gigantic facilities, instead of “hand crafted” in small batches. Nor does it matter that there may be ingredients not picked from a tree or plucked from the ground. And no, we don’t care that the whipped cream on the sundae is not made à la minute.

Sometimes, ice cream isn’t just about the pedigree of the ingredients and how nuanced the taste is. (As any kitchen chemist knows, air makes up 30 to 50 percent of the total volume of ice cream anyway.) It’s about the whole shebang. When you eat ice cream, you enlist all of your senses and multiple parts of your brain. What ends up on your tongue is only the beginning.

“I really loved the entire experience,” says Dana Cree, author of Hello, My Name is Ice Cream and executive pastry chef for the acclaimed Publican restaurants in Chicago. The trips she’d make with her sister to Baskin-Robbins were a part of her Seattle childhood. She’d get the dark chocolate ice cream in a cone—“always,” she says—and her sister would get rainbow sherbert. “I loved seeing all the colors, the smell of the waffle cone, the anticipation of it all,” Cree says.

“Food has a potent mechanism of taking us back,” says Kantha Shelke, principle at Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based food science and research firm. And in particular, she says, “the ice cream of our childhood has a way of taking us back to a very good time, a simpler time.” We didn’t worry about calories, what the cow ate, or how many “likes” our sundae got on Instagram. As long as we were with our pals, an ice cream that was simply cold and sweet suited us just fine. If it also happened to be delicious and had sprinkles on top, all the better.

The chocolate “gravel” in Carvel’s signature ice-cream cake, Fudgie the Whale, may not rock your world the way it used to but they’re a delight nonetheless, even as the cake turns 40 this year. “Our brain fills in the blanks,” says Shelke, “like when you see a word that’s missing a letter. People go back to re-create that familiar feeling.”

Ice cream is a special treat and has always been one. Originally, it was a delicacy enjoyed by only the wealthiest and most powerful people. Nero, in the first century, reportedly sent servants to bring snow down from the mountains tops so he could enjoy it flavored with fruits and fruit juices. It was part of Charles I’s menu rotation in 17th century England, at which point it had already evolved into something closer to what we now recognize as ice cream (or “cream ice,” as it was called at the time). And American-history buffs know what an ice cream freak George Washington was—he spent $200 dollars on it in the summer of 1790, which was a ton of money back then.

Technological advances (steam power, freezing equipment) brought ice cream to the masses in the 1800s, but it never lost its sparkle. Ice cream feels like a treat, whether you spend $5 on a cone or $1.50.

It’s a night out, a social event, a break from the routine. And yet its specialness is by no means exclusionary. When Jim Salerno, vice president of operations at Carvel says, “Our customer base is everyone,” he’s not just making a sales pitch. He’s simply speaking the truth.

At these scoop shops, “going for ice cream is an inexpensive way to spend a couple of hours. It bridges the gap between old and young, rich and poor. You see kids, parents, and grandparents. It belongs to everybody,” says Cree, who is a two-time finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Pastry Chef award, but is quick to point out that her high-end desserts will never have the reach that the ice cream in these chains do.

“Ice cream is woven into the fabric of America,” says John Maguire, CEO of Friendly’s, who remembers childhood summers going for Friendly’s black raspberry ice cream with his grandfather after Cape Cod Baseball League games. Friendly’s staying power, he says (and probably that of other brands, too) is that it’s a place where people can connect and unwind. On a recent visit to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, the legendary 80-year-old shop in St. Louis, Missouri, Cree remembers feeling struck by the sheer mix of customers there—“teens on dates, sports teams, families,” she says.

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For those without such chef-approved spots as Ted Drewes nearby, the big chains fill the void. After all, back in the day they also started out small and artisanal. Tom Carvel began selling from a truck in New York’s Westchester County and launched his soft-ice-cream empire in 1934, after a flat tire made him realize the popularity of slightly melty frozen treats. The next year, the Blake brothers launched Friendly’s in Springfield, Mass., selling double-dip ice cream cones for 5 cents; one would spend all night making them and the other would work all day selling them (they are still alive and kicking today at age 100 and 102).

Of course, there will always be haters, the snobs who complain about one-note vanillas, not enough butterfat, or too much. But they are missing out. When it comes to high-end boutiques and more-mass offerings, “there’s room in this world for both,” says Jeni Britton Bauer, who attributes nostalgia as motivation for launching her own eponymous luxe brand, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream.

You can certainly appreciate the smooth texture and bright flavors of her offerings (like Ndali Estate Vanilla Bean), which often showcase ingredients bought direct from growers. But even she sees the virtues of jungle fruit sherbet, which she’d get from Baskin-Robbins as a kid growing up in the Midwest. The way she sees it, ice cream is much like cheese. “There’s room for American cheese and for Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. I love them both, but for different reasons.” 

But the old-timers aren’t content to just trade on memories and are trying to stay relevant with the modern generation of ice cream eaters. A few years ago, Carvel freshened up its look, touting new stores with hardwood flooring, and introducing a new logo and even adding topping bars.

What’s more, most brands now have apps that offer (what else?) sweet deals and a way to make mobile payments. “We live in a world that’s so rushed and fast-paced. People want what they want and they want it now,” says Maguire.  His company is now even testing the notion of a delivery service.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the ice cream industry, with so much innovation going on regarding flavors and new ways to enjoy ice cream,” says Carol Austin, who is president of marketing at Baskin-Robbins (and a former high-school track athlete who’d get bubblegum ice cream at Baskin-Robbins almost after every meet). The company has partnered with DoorDash to handle all your emergency Polar Pizza Ice Cream Treat needs. (The concoction is credited for helping the company’s online dessert sales grow by 15 percent last year).

Still, if I had my druthers, I prefer my ice cream scooped up right before my eyes. As Shelke points out, the images of those fluorescently lit shops and colorful tubs are etched forever in our collective memory. They flicker in and out of our consciousness—the food equivalent to the mix tapes of summers gone by.