AS the temperature rises, so does the consumption of ice cream. In sync with the season, the makers of America's favorite dessert, competing for a bigger share of the $10 billion market, rev up their creativity to create yet another lumpy, wildly named, flashily packaged concoction.
At Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., based in Waterbury, Vt., the "weird science" of creating new ice creams goes on incessantly. Arnold Carbone, who works in the firm's "alchemy lab," where new products are conceived, says the company will soon "have another flavor coming out that is pretty wild and pretty chunky." What will the mystery flavor be? That is a secret. But with such hits as Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Heath Bar Crunch, the company's new creation will get industry attention.
At the New Jersey headquarters of Haagen Dazs Inc., Ben & Jerry's prime competitor for the "superpremium" market, the development of new ice cream or frozen yogurt offerings is also relentless. Haagen Dazs spokesman David Gilman puts it this way: "Ice cream isn't something people have to buy. They eat it to excite themselves; they want something that exceeds all their expectations."
With 200 companies competing for America's ice-cream dollars, the drive to innovate reaches to smaller, regional producers too. At a plant just north of Boston, employees at Brigham's Ice Cream mix the sauces, nuts, and fruit pieces that go into the company's new "Ice Cream Shoppe Sundaes" line, such as "Strawberry Banana Split."
Milton Namiot, Brigham's president, displays the flashy cartons that hold one of the firm's latest creations. Is this Brigham's answer to the rapid growth of "superpremium" ice cream. "Not really," Mr. Namiot says. "The idea is to emulate what we sell in our stores, the traditional sundaes."
Like most promising ideas in this industry, it is shared by others. Another Massachusetts firm known for its ice-cream parlor/ restaurants, Friendly Ice Cream Corporation is also putting its sundaes in a carton.
The multibillion-dollar sales figure for ice cream includes everything from ice milk to bars coated with fine European chocolate. Sandy Wood, director of research with the International Ice Cream Association in Washington, says that 1.5 billion gallons of these products are sold to Americans each year - nearly 25 quarts per person. Supermarket sales account for $3.4 billion of the total sales, and that is where the competition is most fierce.
Haagen Dazs, which does a thriving business in Europe and Japan, comes up with new products through constant dialogue with ice-cream buyers. Its product-development teams find out which flavors (existing and proposed) consumers tend to group together, then deduce which areas "we're light on from a flavor portfolio point of view," says Paul Argay, the company's vice president for marketing in North America. Dozens of ideas are narrowed down to a few, always with consumer input, and finally you get to what
Mr. Argay calls the fun part: coming up with a name.
An off-hand comment during the naming process - like "any more brownies would be an overload" - can result in such inventions as "Triple Brownie Overload," one of the company's six Extraas flavors. The Extraas line, initiated a year ago, was Haagen Dazs's response to the growing popularity of chunky ice cream. The aim of names such as "commotion" or "explosion," says Argay, is to convey to buyers that "inside this carton is stuff that's dying to get out."
The chunkiness craze is rippling throughout the industry. H.P. Hood, another well-established, New England-based ice-cream maker has always focused on the "family market." That means moderately priced half-gallons.
But this fall the company will come out with its challenge to Ben & Jerry's and Haagen Dazs: colorfully packaged half-gallons "full of chunks and nuts." They will be aimed at consumers who have tried superpremiums but are not hooked on them, and who will respond to a lower price and larger size.
If chunkiness has a homeland, it is probably Ben & Jerry's. The company takes a somewhat less formal approach to product development. Take Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, the company's No. 1 flavor. "We had it in our scoop shops for eight years before bringing it out in pints," Mr. Carbone says.
But Ben & Jerry's has had its failures too. "Sugar Plum," a plum ice cream with caramel swirls, went nowhere. And not even an extra hot summer could make "Artichoke Ripple" fly.