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At Bruster’s, pandemic demand for ice cream is real

The chain has seen record same-store sales and unit volumes coming out of quarantine, as demand for treats soars.
Bruster’s Jamaican Me Crazy
Photos courtesy of Bruster’s

Jim Sahene didn’t know what to expect when dining rooms were closed across the country back in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it certainly wasn’t record unit volumes at Bruster’s Real Ice Cream.

But that’s exactly what would happen after a first few weeks of challenges. The Bridgewater, Pa.-based ice cream chain has seen consistently stronger sales coming out of the pandemic, as consumers flock to its restaurants for a break from the pandemic.

Same-store sales are up over 20% each of the past three months and are up 11% year-to-date. “And growing,” Sahene said. “We’re adding about a half a percent a week to that number.” Average unit volumes, he said, “have never been higher.”

As the pandemic has sorted the business world into winners and losers, a handful of chains have found themselves perhaps surprisingly in the former category. Chicken wings have flourished, as have pizza concepts. But so, too, have smoothie chains. Tropical Smoothie Café, for instance, said recently that its same-store sales in July were up 25.5%, with transaction count up 5.8%.

Lime Freeze

The ice cream business hasn’t necessarily been consistent in that regard, however. Some popular local ice cream shops have closed in recent weeks. Iconic Minnesota shop Izzy’s closed its St. Paul location in April and then followed by shuttering its Minneapolis location this week, for instance, citing the impact of the pandemic on sales.

On the other end of the spectrum, the consumer goods company Unilever recently said that ice cream sales have increased during the pandemic. And then there are traditional ice cream chains like the 200-unit Bruster’s.

Sahene says part of his chain’s success has been rooted in consumer demand for comfort. “Families [are] cooped up in their houses, not going on vacations,” he said. “We’re comfort food.”

At the same time, the chain came into the pandemic with some momentum. Same-store sales had grown for six straight years. The company had improved its marketing in recent years, adding more local store promotions and a customer loyalty program. And during the pandemic it had an important service benefit: Its customers didn’t have to go into its shops.

The company uses walk-up windows. And its shops typically have drive-thrus. These have been big winners during the pandemic.

“It was a perfect storm in a positive way,” Sahene said. “We have a great brand image, high brand confidence. Our model has drive-thrus. We’re selling comfort food in the middle of a pandemic. It brewed a perfect storm.”

Bruster’s also uses something else: Third-party delivery.

Ice cream can be a challenge to deliver, particularly in the hot summer months. But Uber Eats and other delivery providers use insulated bags and short delivery radiuses to keep melting at a minimum. “It’s just like the consumer is buying it from a store and taking it home,” Sahene said.

Delivery now makes up 3% to 5% of the chain’s sales, and helped provide sales growth going into the pandemic, and then afterward.

Online ordering has helped, too, enabling customers to spend less time waiting in lines and improving convenience.

When the pandemic hit in March, sales plunged at Bruster’s just like they did everywhere else. “There was a lot of fear,” Sahene said. But those sales picked up in mid-April and have been increasing ever since. Now a year that was feared would be one of the chain’s worst back in March has become its best.

“I would be kidding you if I said I expected all this,” Sahene said. “I was extremely concerned like any CEO of any organization. I wasn’t even sure we’d be allowed to operate, let alone do well.”

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