OPINIONFood

Introducing the Summer of Soft Serve

State of the Plate: Menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse finds plenty of delicious examples that soft-serve ice cream's reach is expanding far beyond fast food.
soft serve
It's shaping up to be the Summer of Soft Serve, Nancy Kruse writes. | Photo: Shutterstock.

State of the Plate

Early indications are that this is shaping up to be the official Summer of Soft Serve. The year-round staple typically comes into its own in the warm weather months, as it soothes the fevered brows of sun seekers and fairgoers.

In the runup to this summer, however, it has clearly come out from behind the counter and captured the attention of influencers, trendinistas and media types. Lifestyle publications like Food & Wine have given it a nod with a June spread devoted to “Soft-Serve Softies,” while a May feature in Salon reported that “From Truck to Table, Soft Serve Takes a Luxurious Fine-Dining Turn.”

Soft serve has been overdue to seize the spotlight away from headline-hogging, hard ice-cream makers like Van Leeuwen in New York City, which nabbed national attention with its limited-edition, outside-the-box Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Ice Cream a few summers back; or Salt & Straw on the West Coast with its unconventional options like Pear & Blue Cheese or Arbequino Olive Oil Ice Creams.

Appreciation for soft-serve’s potential may also have been blunted somewhat by its plain-vanilla association with quick-service operations, but across-the-board innovation in the category is producing some genuine newsmakers of its own.  

First, the backstory. There’s been some disagreement over who gets the credit for inventing the product, but company websites and industry histories maintain that Charles Taylor patented his eponymous soft-serve machine in 1924; that Tom Carvel opened his first soft-serve store in 1936 in Hartsdale, New York; and that Dairy Queen franchisees in Moline, Illinois, test drove their own soft-serve formula in 1938.

Other chapters of its origin story include the bruited involvement of budding UK food chemist and future prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who was rumored to have worked on a soft-serve formula in the 1940s.

Despite the fact that contemporary sources have debunked this last as an urban myth, the image of Britain’s tough-as-nails Iron Lady hunched over a beaker of soft-serve mix remains truly arresting.  

And a bit more backstory. Its American origin notwithstanding, no country prizes soft serve more than Japan, where it is officially known as soft cream or softcream for its thicker, smoother texture.

Introduced by American armed forces in the early 1950s, the item has become a national gastronomic treasure with an extraordinary array of regional flavors like sunflower or black squid ink.  

Much of the current activity in the category here in the US suggests that flavor influences are freely flowing in the opposite direction from East to West.

In late May, for example, Eater Chicago explored “Where to Savor Soft Serve in Chicago” and noted that Japanese-style soft serve is becoming a hotly competitive niche in that city, as players like Taiyaki Chicago, with its Nutella-matcha-mochi combinations, and Kurimu, with its Sweet Corn or Thai Iced Tea flavors, duke it out with the homegrown players.

It has been moving upmarket. And it’s been taking on distinctly culinary overtones.

At Laser Wolf in Philadelphia, Turkish Coffee Soft Serve is dished up with candied pretzel and dark chocolate crunch, while at the Brooklyn location, Brown Sugar Soft Serve is finished with burnt date molasses and peanut butter bamba, or puffed corn.

Rule of Thirds, also in Brooklyn, is Michelin recognized for its Japanese menu, which is “delightfully untethered by tradition.” Exhibit A on the dessert listing is Sake Kasu Soft Serve made with Brooklyn Kura sake lees and chocolate pearls.

The Honey Paw in Portland, Maine, walks on the wild side with the current Gochugaru special with peanut-caramel popcorn; this supplants the earlier Lemon Curd with cardamom merengue and almond-sesame granola offering.

Meanwhile, in New York City, Milu, a “cross-cultural” Chinese restaurant, menus two cross-cultural soft serve flavors: Milk Tea sprinkled with dark chocolate pearls and Egg Tart crowned with caramelized puff pastry. 

On the dessert menu at Little Sparrow, a French brasserie in Atlanta, there are the expected Chocolate Soufflé and Crème Brulée, along with the totally unexpected trio of Fancy Soft Serves including EVOO Honey Fennel Pollen, Local Strawberries and Bananas Foster varieties.

Bananas Foster Soft Serve

Little Sparrow's Bananas Foster Fancy Soft Serve | Photo courtesy: Hannah Kik Photography.

Little Sparrow’s four-unit, fast-casual sibling, Little Rey “Al Carbon” fires up wildly popular Tex-Mex fare, which diners can chase with cooling, serve-yourself soft serve in flavors like Churro or Buñuelo and Honey.

Little Rey soft serve

 Little Rey's Vanilla Soft Serve | Photo courtesy: Rocket Farm Restaurants.

It lures entrepreneurs. Emerging chain specialists really amp up the flavor quotient, as at

Soft Swerve’s five locations in New York City, with its ube or black sesame flavors and trendy toppers like mochi and Fruity Pebbles.

Contrasting crunch is also a theme at Honeymee’s nine units on the West Coast, which touts the excellence of its ice cream, honey and honeycombs, which are shown off to advantage in specialties like Yuzu Affogato Soft Serve made with honey, yuzu peel, and pulp and corn flakes.

Nearby Magpies Softserve creates its own from-scratch recipes for Cortadito, sweetened Cuban espresso, Coconut Sticky Rice, Corn Almond and Lavender Vanilla options. There’s also an array of soft-serve pies, like Strawberry Rhubarb, Frozen Hot Chocolate and Original Fried Soft Serve Pie crowned with fried candied corn flakes.

It’s a traffic driver at quick-service restaurants. A Los Angeles Times feature asserted that “Yes, Fast-Food Soft Serve Is Still the Best Soft Serve” and proved the point by listing the top seven best in the category. Industry oldie Tastee Freeze ranked number one and Chick-fil-A’s Icedream came in seventh place.

Apparently, the author didn’t have access to Wisconsin-based Culver’s Fresh Frozen Custard, the signature favorite that is made fresh throughout the day in the brand’s 800 units. It comes in nearly 40 flavors like Cappuccino Cookie Crumble, Midnight Toffee or Salted Double Caramel Pecan, along with over 30 toppers and mix-ins.

Except when it’s McBroken. In a food category that should be pretty much drama free, McDonald’s ongoing widely reported soft-serve travails are practically operatic and have been covered in depth by the Wall Street Journal, among many other media outlets.

Problems with the machines, which are provided by Taylor, have led to an FTC investigation, zany conspiracy theories and the McBroken website, which allows consumers to track the real-time availability of soft serve at their local store.

Current visitors to the site are greeted by a cheeky banner ad touting Wendy’s limited-edition Orange Dreamsicle Frosty. The tagline: “Aren’t you glad there’s always a Frosty?”

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