You can find Serenity at Washington's ice cream stores. You can buy Ecstasy and Paradise, too. But if you want plain old vanilla, chocolate or strawberry, you should look elsewhere, for in the battle for your tastebuds, local ice cream makers have decided that image and extravagance sell better than tradition.
Washington -- which until recently had a shortage of "serious" ice cream stores -- now is one of the hottest ice cream markets on the East Coast, behind Boston and New York. Since mid-1983, with the appearance of Steve's here, at least 15 new shops have opened in the city itself, transforming Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in Georgetown into a sin strip for ice cream addicts.
These stores almost exclusively sell "superpremiums" -- luxury ice cream with prices that start at $1 a scoop. Superpremiums are extremely high in butterfat (from 15 percent to 20 percent or more, depending on the flavor), and generally low in air. A "premium" ice cream might contain 10 percent butterfat and 50 percent air. By comparison, a pint of vanilla Ha agen Dazs is 17 percent fat and less than 20 percent air.
This is unabashedly upscale ice cream, made with imported and "natural" ingredients for those who scorn synthetics. But a market study released in August suggests that rough times are ahead for the superpremium industry, and the meltdown already is occurring at scoop shops here.
The report, by Find/SVP, a New York market research company, found that the while the superpremiums were the fastest-growing segment of the ice cream market over the last four years, with sales multiplying at a compound rate of 72 percent since 1979, "the growth rate for this category is showing a significant slowing" and cannot continue to sustain annual sales growth of 23 percent. (Most of those sales were at the expense of "premium" ice creams, such as Baskin & Robbins, Find/SVP said, and the number of people eating ice cream remained almost flat.)
"There has to be a shake out," agrees Jay Tenenbaum, national marketing director for Ha agen Dazs franchises. "It's only natural with all this new competition."
In Washington, stores belonging to several chains, including Steve's and Swensen's, have had financial problems. Hillary's, a chain that thrives in Philadelphia, closed its Georgetown Park store after less than a year in operation. Even Bob's Famous Homemade Ice Cream has suffered from the competition. The problems, local businessmen speculate, include location, inability to carve a special niche and inability to transplant an ice cream's regional appeal.
One way local ice cream makers have tried to beat the competition is to fight extravagance with more extravagance. Basic vanilla is as rare as red dye No. 3, and chocolate comes in an almost infinite variety.
Another tactic is to diversify into other sweets, or to target adult, college or kid markets.
Here's a sampling of local ice cream stores, and what they're doing to avoid being frozen out by the competition. Bob's Famous Homemade Ice Cream
Bob Weiss, at 38, is the wise old man of Washington ice cream.
Back in the mid-'70s, when he was a bored lawyer just in town from Boston, Weiss was the first to recognize the city's need for a serious ice cream eatery. He has survived Washington's "ice cream wars" to remain king of the sundae in Washington, maker of the ice cream against which all newcomers are judged.
It hasn't been easy, especially in recent months. First, Weiss watched as customers left to scoop up the newer entries, particularly Steve's and Thomas Sweet. Then the store he opened in July near the Van Ness Metro stop was a loser, largely because of its location in a small shopping center that closes after dark. "People tell me, 'You have a store there? I live nearby and I've never seen it,' " he said.
But Weiss said his year-old Bethesda shop has almost made up for those problems, expanding his customer base, which had included mostly college students and professional types. "We get a lot of families up there," he said. Sales at the four local stores (the other branches are at Glover Park and Capitol Hill) should total just under $1 million this year, he said.
The proliferation of ice cream stores has set Weiss to thinking about expanding beyond metropolitan Washington. But he would only consider a partnership with experienced ice cream makers, people more concerned with the quality of the product than with making money, he said.
"You can't tell someone with no prior experience that all he has to do is put my name on the door and a White Mountain ice cream maker in the back and he'll make $100,000 a year," Weiss says. "Those people are going to be very disappointed. . . . As the Van Ness thing has shown, it's easy to make mistakes, even in this city where my name is known." Mio Gelato
In some ways Mio Gelato's three partners are an unlikely coalition. Jack Weber, a lifelong Republican, is a press officer at the White House. Mark Reiter, a lifelong Democrat, worked for former New York congresswoman Bella Abzug. David Gavrich, who holds a master's degree in management from Harvard, was a real estate developer in California and Washington.
But they had at least two things in common: a liking for things Italian and a desire to make lots of money in a business "that starts small and ends up very big." The result was Mio Gelato, Washington's first gelateria (Italian ice cream parlor).
The three men love ice cream, but Mio Gelato is first and foremost a business venture. Weber says the enterprise -- which now has five locations in the Washington area, including the original store in a space leased from Urban Outfitters in Georgetown -- was founded with hundreds of franchises in mind.
"Our goal is to be everywhere . . . east of the Mississippi," Weber says. " . . . We would like some day for people to look at that store in Georgetown the way they look at Ray Kroc's first McDonald's."
The partners chose gelato because of its popularity on the West Coast. Then they spent 2 1/2 years researching the market and studying other local success stories: American Cafe', Britches and Clyde's. Their conclusion: The "critical first step" was to start in Georgetown, even if other locations were available first. Strict quality control was deemed equally important, and the partners decided on the Ha agen Dazs, rather than homemade, approach -- to oversee gelato production at a central plant in Beltsville and ship it to franchises.
Weber says the research paid off. The store in Urban Outfitters opened in November 1983 and "was making money by February," he boasts. The partners have signed their first franchise agreement, are talking with investors about expanding to Michigan and New Jersey, and are looking to the day when the company goes public.
Gelato is noticeably different from the ice cream most Americans are used to: It has a softer, grainier texture, and the flavors are more intense, largely because the butterfat content is so low that flavors aren't obscured. True Italian gelato, Weber says, is only about 4 percent butterfat, and gets much of its richness from its density; it is very low in air. Mio Gelato follows Italian methods -- using imported chocolates, nuts and coffees whipped up in small batches by a trained gelato chef -- except that it contains 10 percent butterfat.
Critics (mostly the local competition) say that difference dooms gelato to the status of an expensive trend. "Americans prefer ice cream that tastes like ice cream," said a rival. Weber disagrees.
"People are looking for something different and high-style," he says. "Mio Gelato has got Italian styling -- it's a Euroflavor." Larry's Cookies and New York Ice
A buck and a quarter buys a big scoop of Ecstasy at Larry Rosansky's two-week-old New York Ice shop north of Dupont Circle.
Ecstasy is "a sweet cream base swirled with our own french truffle recipe." If you prefer, there is Paradise, "a raspberry-base ice cream with the same French truffle swirl," or Serenity, "sweet cream-based ice cream with a swirl of apricot mousse."
Rosansky, a local cookie entrepreneur, decided those names were entirely appropriate when he first tasted the ice creams at New York Ice's store in Greenwich Village two years ago. He begged chefs Shipen Lebzelter (a Midwesterner) and Guido Magnaguagna (from Milan) to import their wares to "sophistication-starved" Washington. They liked his cookies and agreed to try a joint venture.
Rosanky is the inventer of Larry's Cookies, first concocted for the Cookie Connection (now run by his ex-wife) and on sale at various locations around the city. While New York Ice (imported from Greenwich Village, but soon to be manufactured in Rockville) is prominently featured in the new store, the shop sells a full range of Larry's cookies, muffins and mousses to a takeout crowd.
"What I wanted to create was a total gourmet type of sweet situation with the best of everything you can find," Rosansky says.
The shop -- at basement level -- isn't ideally located. And winter is generally considered the worst time of year to open an ice cream store. But "you can't plan when you get a location," said Rosansky's general manager, Richard Lewis. "You can't plan when someone else's lease is up."
Even before opening, Rosansky, Lebzelter and Magnaguagna began talking with a wealthy investor about expanding to 400 or so franchises. Everything, however, depends upon how successful this first store is at importing the taste of New York.
It is too early to predict whether that success will come, Rosansky said. But customers are trickling in, he added. "They've been coming back every day. Where else in Washington can they get flavors like this? You have to go 200 miles." Thomas Sweet
Any resemblance between Steve's and Thomas Sweet Ice Cream is largely coincidental, insists Norma Gumbiner, who runs the Thomas Sweet parlor on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown with her husband, Jerry.
True, both are Ivy League born and bred (Steve's, near Harvard, and Thomas Sweet, in Princeton, N.J.). Both make their ice cream daily in the shop. And both let customers "design" their own flavors, Steve's with "mix-ins" and Thomas Sweet with "blend-ins."
But Thomas Sweet is as much a candy store as an ice cream parlor, Gumbiner says. The shop's chef makes more than 60 types of hand-dipped candies and "the chocolates are just beginning to take off now."
The Gumbiners are transplanted New Yorkers (she is a former school principal; he, a retired furnishing firm executive) who came to Washington "because we really wanted to change our way of life." They knew about the Princeton shop and followed its success as franchises opened in New Brunswick, N.J., Philadephia, Colorado and Puerto Rico. Thomas Sweet seemed to appeal most strongly to college students -- the Steve's crowd -- and Georgetown seemed the natural place.
The competition is intense, but the Gumbiners say they are holding their own, despite the costs of renovating their site and the proximity of a Ha agen Dazs shop across the street. "I think people have habits." Gumbiner says of the Georgetown crowd. "You have to be pretty good to have them break their habits. I think we can."
She said there are enough ice cream eaters in Washington for all the stores now here to prosper, but added, "Frankly, I wouldn't want to see another one." Swensen's
Swensen's, the San Francisco-born chain of 374 stores, has been in Washington for so many years that many consider it only a slightly upscale Baskin & Robbins.
Not so, said a Swensen's spokeswoman at the company's Phoenix headquarters, who insists that the Washington Swensen's stores are quite healthy, though sales figures for the metropolitan area aren't available. "There's obviously been some erosion, but not as much as people might think."
The Washington-area franchise -- which extends to Ocean City and Baltimore and excludes only the Georgetown store (which is separately owned) -- is the chain's largest single franchise, with 16 stores.
The franshise operator, who asked that his name not be used, conceded that despite the denials from the corporate headquarters, Swensen's has been strained by the competition. The Georgetown store, which has been sold several times and is rumored to be for sale again, has perhaps been hardest hit.
But the franchisee added, "We waited on more than 5 million customers last year. Every one of our stores in in positive sales, unlike some of the other superpremiums."
Swensen is trying to compete by going for a crowd that many of the other superpremium shops forget about -- families.
"We are the only true ice cream parlor in Washington," said the franchise operator. "We want to appeal to everyone. We want to have the most market. Of course, you want the most trendy people, but all kinds of people aren't the most trendy people. We don't feel you can just exclude all those."
Swensen's devotes much of its operations to sandwich, salad and hot food menus. Only about one-third of its stores locally and nationally serve just ice cream.
Finally, Swensen's is taking a page from Ha agen Dazs' book by marketing its most popular flavors in grocery stores and convenience stores. So far, prepackaged Swensen's has been sold only in the West.
That means that Swensen's -- which rose the "homemade" ice cream wave to national prominence in the '60s and '70s, no longer will be made in the store. Jeffrey's
Jeffrey Cohen wants his new ice cream parlor at Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda to be to ice cream, sorbet and gelato what his Sutton Place Gourmet store is to goat's milk cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and mesquite-wood charcoal.
"I live in this area, my friends live in this area," says the entrepreneur who opened his first Jeffrey's store, on New Mexico Avenue, a little more than a year ago. "I don't care much about money. I don't pay much attention to the competition. I just try to put out a very, very fine product for myself and my friends."
Actually, Cohen pays plenty of attention to money. The new takeout parlor, open since mid-November, is outfitted in $75,000 worth of polished brass, Italian quarry tile and cut glass, and is an lavish attempt to out-super the other superpremiums on the market.
Cohen contends that ice cream in Washington is too sweet and geared toward the "gross-out" market. "They take a cheap ice cream and throw all that candy in it to disguise the fact that it's cheap," he says. His own tastes run toward liqueur, "adult" flavors.
Cohen went to Europe to do research on ice cream elegance and came back with a chef from Vivoli, an ice cream emporium in Italy. "Bar none, nothing's close. They make the finest ice cream in the world."
Cohen says his snob approach has been "phenomenally successful" in Bethesda, where the main competition comes from a Bob's branch. "It made money from the first day it was open," he said. But he declined to provide sales figures. "When you have real good sales figures, the competition comes in in a minute. If I quote you figures, I'll have four competitors across the street next week."