Liquid nitrogen made ice creams and frozen desserts are not new to the industry, as many independent chefs and television cooking segments have dabbled in the process of using liquid nitrogen to make an instant frozen dessert. It has only really been in the last 5 to 7 years that the commercial use of this process has entered the market and we are now seeing more and more of this procedure being added to the retail ice cream space.
The falling away of the rapidly fast growing frozen yogurt concept has left many in the frozen dessert industry wondering what the next phase or craze will be to attract the crowd and new business owners alike and it seems that the growth of this ice cream concept is tweaking the interest of dessert lovers.
Looking at the viability of this concept is important as many new business owners and potential franchisees are being wooed by the promise of fresh ice cream able to be made with no expensive batch freezers or storage cases, but it is also important to look at the limitations as well as the unique features of this new age style of ice cream production.
There are a few different variations of the liquid nitrogen concept, but in essence the process goes like this: When the customer comes into the store they can choose between a 14% ice cream base or other mix options such as a low fat gelato or a yogurt base. This base is then poured in its refrigerated liquid form into a container or bowl. The customer can now request different flavoring or particulate options to be added to the mix “pre freezing” and the emulsion is then stirred together.
For example, I am a big fan of caramel, malt and English toffee bar. My order would have all of these ingredients swished around in a bowl with the base mix and then the freezing ingredient or the liquid nitrogen would be added to the process. This is done by the operator opening valve, either by hand or by foot, which releases the Liquid Nitrogen onto the liquid emulsion. This creates quite the spectacle as a plume of water vapor flows over the top of the container which is always followed by oohs and ahhs.
While the liquid nitrogen does its work the ice cream needs to be rapidly churned. This is either done by hand with an ice cream spade, or more commonly mixed in a food processor like a mix master or kitchen aid type of mixer. The ice cream emulsion becomes very brittle as liquid nitrogen extracts at -321 degrees Fahrenheit.
Now as in most unique procedures formulated for business, both of these types of mixing processes are patented. New operators wishing to enter the market must ensure that the procedure that are using does not violate an existing patent or they may find themselves on the wrong end of a cease and desist letter.
Legal and Technical
As most regulatory departments in local states and counties are familiar with the traditional ice cream making process, it is quite easy to be approved for a batch freezer type process for retail ice cream production. As with any new technology or process, the liquid nitrogen method is still very new to most regulatory authorities who scratch their heads and baulk at the idea of allowing a novice to start spraying liquid nitrogen around onto food products.
Retailers looking at venturing into the new production process should start the local approval process very early to ensure your health or building departments are satisfied with the storage, filling and refilling of gas, and the dispensing process.
The fact that this production process requires little in the way of freezing and holding or display equipment can be a big draw to the budding ice cream maker. When a newcomer is told that they do not have to purchase a batch freezer, blast freezer or display cabinets, that usually sparks interest in the concept. The fact of the matter is, this part of the explanation is true. Operators really only need refrigerated space to hold the liquid mix and perhaps some freezer space to hold take home containers or other frozen particulates. There is no ice cream made before the customer walks in the door
As there is no previously frozen product on display for the customer, the challenge of reducing waste or food cost by leaving older product in the bottom of a pan or bucket has been eliminated. Every menu item is made fresh to order in front of the customer. Display cases holding product too cold or too warm is not an issue here. Rotation of pans or buckets is a thing of the past.
Another big draw card, perhaps the biggest, is the show. The spectacle of a liquid nitrogen cloud flowing out of the dispenser and across the counter is this concept’s biggest appeal. I have always said to operators that “You are not just in the food business; You are in the entertainment business” and there is no better “Ice Cream Theatre” than the creation of a flavor with liquid nitrogen. If you can keep the speed of service to an acceptable level, the show will keep people coming and lining up.
The process is even more appealing on the road. Many independents and franchise concepts conduct a “liquid nitrogen ice cream road show” of sorts by taking demonstrations and catering events to the people with portable tanks. These events usually involve some science based lessons with several eye-catching demonstrations and experiments performed before using the liquid nitrogen to make ice cream for the guests or students. The fact that the process can be replicated in nearly any situation, for small or large groups, can be a great stream of additional revenue for the store owner.
There are some challenges to the concept, as there is with any process and operators or those new to the business should be aware of some of the limitations that come with the liquid nitrogen ice cream making process.
Although operators do not need batch freezers or display cabinets, the liquid nitrogen tank and dispensing apparatus can be almost as much as the cost of a batch freezer. Depending on a location’s desired volume, a liquid nitrogen tank can cost up to $25,000. Most tank manufacturers have a lease option which may work better for some operators, but equipment resellers can also finance batch freezers so a case by case cost analysis should be completed.
Also remember that the tank requires filling on a regular basis so when operators are conducting food costs analysis, they should also include the cost of the liquid nitrogen element in each product made.
As mentioned previously, speed of service may be an issue in high volume locations. It is certainly a lot easier and quicker to scoop a previously made ice cream into a cone than it is to create a frozen concoction from scratch however many franchise groups have streamlined the process to reduce the time spent waiting for your one of a kind sundae.
Also, once a menu item has been made, it is limited to the finished item. Customers wanting an extra scoop or “a little bit more” are generally denied or the process needs to start all over again. Plus with no product already made, there is no taste testing. Having the customer try a mini spoon of your latest flavor doesn’t happen at a liquid nitrogen ice cream store which can be construed to be plus or a minus whichever way you look at it.
There also can be limitations of some menu items. Without previously made ice cream, shakes, malts and other ice cream based drinks either need to be left off the menu, or the ice cream needs to be created first before the milk and blending process takes place. Some stores may be limited in their ability to create a complete ice cream menu without first looking at what goes into the production of each ice cream menu item.
Either way you look at it, this unique concept is here to stay as it hasn’t had the rapid increase in volume and retail stores like the second or third coming of frozen yogurt did in the last 5 years. It is however become more and more popular in many regional centers in the United States and other countries. I really feel the challenge is creating and experience that will keep your customerscoming back long after they have become used to the show.
As always, every concept relies on quality of product, friendliness of employees and an environment that is clean and entertaining. Throwing around a few bursts of liquid nitrogen doesn’t hurt either.
Keep on scoopin folks – See you next month.
Steve Christensen – The Ice Cream Bloke.