There are a few things that come standard at an ice cream parlor: cones, cups, toppings and scoops. Sweet Freeze by Faithfully Sweet, an ice cream kiosk in the District’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center, has all of those things and, oh yeah, a liquid nitrogen tank. That last feature is a key ingredient in the process by which Faith Holmes, owner of Sweet Freeze, churns out her frozen confection.
Here’s how it works: A custard-base blend is placed in a mixing bowl, then doused with liquid nitrogen, an odorless, colorless substance that is slowly stirred into the concoction. Smoke billows from the bowl, as the liquid nitrogen freezes the mixture at 320 degrees below zero. And within minutes the mist clears to reveal rich, decadent ice cream — eight ounces for $3.50 and 12 ounces for $5.
Visitors to the convention center tend to crowd the kiosk just to catch a glimpse of the act and wind up buying a few scoops in the end, Holmes said. She has been booked for as many as six events a month since starting her business in January.
“It’s not just a great tasting product, it’s a show that wows people and brings them in,” Holmes said.
Back in August, Holmes was herself enthralled by a demonstration in Orlando, while on assignment for Centerplate/NBSE, where she worked as a catering sales manager. She had been making homemade ice cream for two years at that point and was developing a business plan to strike out on her own. Holmes began experimenting with the liquid nitrogen process, incorporating it into her plan.
Within weeks of tendering her resignation in December, she and Centerplate, the concessionaire and caterer for the convention center, inked a deal.
“Because I had worked in retail at the convention center I pretty much knew what I could project based on smoothie and funnel cake sales,” Holmes said. “I took a leap of faith and said, ‘I think I can make enough money to quit my job.’ ”
In the short time Sweet Freeze has been in business, it has become profitable. Holmes would not divulge exactly how profitable, but she said business is steady enough to keep her 12 employees busy. Her event schedule has recently grown to include weddings and baby showers. And there’s even talk about starting a gourmet food truck.
Cryogenic ice cream first gained prominence nearly 25 years ago with Dippin’ Dots, which sells locally at the National Zoo and the Verizon Center. Since then, several similar operations have sprung up, including Sub Zero Ice Cream and iCream. The cryogenic concept has been slow to take off on the East Coast, but has become popular in the Midwest, said Lynda Utterback of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association.
“These stores are popping up more and more,” she said. “It’s a good time to be in the ice cream business, which has done well even in a down economy.”
The $9.7 billion ice cream industry as a whole has proved resilient in the past five years, registering less than a 1 percent decline in revenue, despite the recession, changing dietary trends and rising production costs, according to IBISWorld. The research company forecasts revenue will grow at an average annualized rate of 1.4 percent to total $10.4 billion in 2015.
By that time, Holmes said, she hopes to be a household name, with a crop of Sweet Freeze stores.