Premium and super-premium ice cream sales continue to climb, while the once double-digit growth rate of trendy low-fat or no-fat ice creams has turned into double-digit decline.
But the real scoop these days isn't the ice cream.
It's the cones!
All those favorite high-fat ice cream flavors -- mocha cappuccino, mint chocolate chip, Cherry Garcia, even simple vanilla or chocolate -- become even grander when scooped onto a premium chocolate-chip cookie cone.
Or a dark-chocolate cookie cone rimmed with white chocolate.
Or a pie-crust cone flecked with bits of Bing cherries.
Based on America's adored chocolate-chip cookies and other tasty treats, these specialty cones were developed by Ian Cooper, who first created a salt-studded, brown-baked pretzel-dough cone that caters to Philadelphians' unique taste for pretzels with their ice cream.
The specialty cones are marketed in 10 states, and the Cone Guys, Cooper's Bristol, Pa., company, is due to go national next year.
He is also readying a retail pack of the crunchy cones for sale at select food markets and specialty stores starting this fall. The price is expected to be about $4.95 for six cones.
The firm is filling a void. "We have not seen many gourmet ice cream cones marketed directly to consumers," said Lynn Dornblaser, editorial director of New Product News, a monthly trade publication. One other company, Valleyview Foods in Ontario, Canada, sells a specialty cone, Dornblaser said. There are even very few companies making specialty cones for the commercial market, she added.
"Ten years ago, cones were an afterthought, an edible cup, devoid of interest or imagination," said Cooper.
We've come a long way from the limited options of crisp sugar cones or wafer-thin waffle cones or the relatively recent oversized waffle-wrap cones.
Ice cream cones caught the public fancy at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.
That's when Syrian pastry concessionaire Ernest A. Hamwi first rolled waffle-like Persian "zalabias" into cone shapes. A nearby ice cream vendor had run out of dishes, so he offered the "cornucopias" as handy edible vessels in which to serve the ice cream.
The public loved the idea. No one seemed to notice that another "cone," developed by Italo Marchiony in New York City, had been granted a patent the year before, a fact that the International Ice Cream Association only recently uncovered.
Hamwi ended up turning his improvisation into a career -- first with the Cornucopia Waffle Co. and then as founder of the Missouri Cone Co. (later known as the Western Cone Co.).
By 1924 he and others were producing nearly 250 million cones, both rolled and molded, each year.
As for the ice cream the cones convey, it can't be too rich.
"Super-premium and premium are still the strongest-, fastest-growing ice cream categories," says Martin Veeger, the Ice Cream Association's market research director. "When people indulge, they want to indulge in the very finest ice cream, despite the high butterfat content."
In support, he cited the Nielsen figures for 1996 showing that supermarket sales of packaged premium ice creams climbed 5.6 percent to 140 million gallons.
The super-premiums, with the highest butterfat content, climbed 3.9 percent, to 12.3 million gallons.
At the same time, sales of basic, or economy, ice cream fell 8 percent last year, settling at 175 million gallons.
Even premium low-fat ice creams sell so well that Haagen-Dazs recently added low-fat to its line. Overall, however, sales of more healthful packaged ice creams -- reduced-fat, low-fat, light and low-calorie -- are way down at the supermarket, Veeger said.
Dreyer's and Breyer's far outpace the competition, supplying between them more than one-quarter of America's packaged ice cream. Blue Bell, Haagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry's and Turkey Hill trail with modest shares. The remainder of the more than $10 billion industry is divvied up among smaller firms, only a few of them holding even 1 percent of the market.