Mt. Desert Ice Cream
Mt. Desert Ice Cream Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Business freezes for most D.C. ice cream shops in the colder months. “We definitely lost money every month in the winter,” says Brian Lowit, co-owner of Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream in Mount Pleasant. “If you analyze the month-by-month for November through March, there was never a day with no people, but there were days with two or three people.” 

In other seasons, the ice cream shop serving flavors like Girl Scouts Gone Wild and Butterscotch Miso thrives. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the support from Mount Pleasant and greater D.C.,” Lowit says. “Last summer was a little more overwhelming than we expected. Fall was pretty good. Winter was just winter in an ice cream shop.” 

Four D.C.-based frozen dessert businesses report doing 25 to 40 percent less business in the winter than in warmer months. Despite reduced revenue, operators are still on the hook for rent, must pay staff, and have to continue production, albeit in a reduced capacity. Running a retail business in the District is already hard; scooping a seasonal product adds further challenges. Each ice cream shop deploys different survival strategies. 

Ice Cream Jubilee owner Victoria Lai looks to solidify relationships with other local businesses to keep a stream of customers coming into her T Street NW store. Keri Lijinsky’s Sweet Crimes bakery pops up on mornings and afternoons to sell gluten-free baked goods. “It’s an opportunity for her to meet new customers and it’s great for us to have that energy in the morning,” Lai says.

Ice Cream Jubilee also operates shops in Navy Yard and Arlington. Lai says being a small business allows her to be agile and introduce new products to draw people in during off-peak months, such as tasting flights of six flavors. “You get one-ounce, golf ball-sized scoops,” Lai explains. “Instead of hitting happy hour, we have people meeting up after work and trying new flavors.” 

The versatility of ice cream shops works in operators’ favor. They’re an affordable family outing and a way to keep a date going without visiting a bar. 

“We love being in Adams Morgan and Shaw because they’re really bar-focused places,” says Nicecream co-owner Gil Welsford. “What if you want to hang out with friends and you don’t drink or don’t feel like drinking? That’s what drove us to open in those two places.” 

There are also Nicecream shops in Arlington and Alexandria. The company stands out for using liquid nitrogen to freeze ice cream in front of customers. To keep cash flowing in during the winter, Nicecream rolls out a gourmet hot chocolate menu. 

During the first and only winter Mt. Desert Island has weathered so far, Lowit noticed signing on with Grubhub was helpful. “People don’t want to leave the house, but they still want ice cream,” he says. They get significantly more delivery orders during off-peak months and are now on Postmates and Uber Eats too. Once you factor in a service fee, a delivery fee, tax, and tip, Washingtonians pay close to $20 for a pint that’s delivered directly to their door. 

Lowit also tried closing for a few weeks in January 2019. This year, they’ll shut down for the entire month. “It’s hard because we like to be open for the neighborhood,” he says. “We’ll lose less money being closed.” Lowit and his team will use the opportunity to repaint and complete other maintenance projects with the help of staff. 

Founded in 2004 by Robb Duncan and Violeta Edelman, Dolcezza is the most senior frozen dessert business consulted for this story. Dolcezza operates gelato shops in Logan Circle, CityCenterDC, Dupont Circle, Bethesda, and other neighborhoods throughout the region. 

Its leaders have diversified the company’s business model to include coffee, pastries, and breakfast sandwiches, which provides some bottom-line insulation in the winter. “We should open in Miami,” Duncan jokes. “That would be best, but we’re not opening retail in any other markets.” 

Dolcezza’s biggest growth strategy has been boosting its wholesale business by 450 percent. In May 2019, Whole Foods began selling Dolcezza gelato in all 500 of its stores across the country. Pints are also available in other gourmet grocery chains like Fresh Market, Earth Fare, and Lucky’s Market. In total, Duncan says they’re in 1,300 stores nationwide. “That is a game changer in every sense of the word,” he says. “It’s a totally brand new business for us that we’re really taking very seriously.” Despite this major expansion, Dolcezza still produces all of its gelato in its factory behind Union Market.

Ice Cream Jubilee is charting a similar path. Lai’s ice cream is now sold in Whole Foods in six states and D.C. “Having a grocery store presence also offsets the seasonality of the waterfront location,” Lai says. Her Navy Yard shop is slammed when a crush of Washingtonians descend on the neighborhood for Nationals games and outdoor concerts, but that doesn’t extend into the winter.

Not all local scoopers seek out wholesale opportunities to solve for slow business because they worry about how it will affect quality. “A lot of ice cream places, when they ramp up to do wholesale, run into grocery stores saying prices need to be lower, prices need to be lower,” Welsford explains. “They start using different ingredients and increase overrun.”

Overrun refers to the amount of air pushed into ice cream while it’s being churned. Generally, the lower the overrun, the better the ice cream. “Most ice cream places will put a gallon of ice cream base in and they’ll get two gallons out,” Welsford says. “Our ice cream is super dense and creamy. We have very low overrun.” Because of this, their prices are higher. 

Local ice cream shops also confront year-round challenges, including increasing labor costs, a shaky dairy industry, and competition from outside brands that are more insulated from seasonal revenue swings. 

Lai is worried about the changing dairy market. She believes current prices are not supporting farmers and it’s in large part due to corporations like Walmart opening their own processing plants. NBC reported in 2018 that 42,000 dairy farmers have gone out of business since 2000 and notes that 2018 was the fourth year in a row where farmers’ milk prices dipped below the cost of production. (Farmers spend $1.92 to produce a gallon of milk and make $1.32 per gallon when they sell it to processors.) The report calls the closed dairy farms “casualties of an outdated business model” and victims of “pricey farm loans and pressures from corporate agriculture.” 

Trickling Springs Creamery, a popular Pennsylvania dairy farm, closed earlier this year. While the company has not given a public explanation for shutting down, the business had been under investigation for faulty financial practices that left many Mennonite investors “holding the bag,” according to a recent Post report.  

Three of the four ice cream shops City Paper interviewed share something in common beyond a commitment to sourcing quality local ingredients: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams opened a shop within one-tenth of a mile of Ice Cream Jubilee’s T Street NW location; one-tenth of a mile of Dolcezza’s Bethesda location; and one-tenth of a mile of Nicecream’s Alexandria location. 

There are close to 50 current or forthcoming Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream scoop shops across the country. The Columbus, Ohio-based company is run by CEO Jeni Britton Bauer, who Forbes has called “possibly the most notable ice cream authority in the world.” The chain, which started as a single shop in Columbus, gained a cult following thanks to enthusiastic media reviews and unconventional flavors like Sun-Popped Corn and Sweet Cream Biscuits & Peach Jam. 

“Our strategy isn’t to open near other ice cream shops,” Britton Bauer tells City Paper in an emailed statement. “Our strategy is to open in great neighborhoods. We want success for everyone.” 

Of the impact a national competitor can have on a smaller business, Lai says, “I can’t deny the fact that they have a newer, shinier store that gets more foot traffic than our little store does around the corner. And it has been difficult being that close, having a well heeled, well funded competitor nearby.” 

She wonders if clustering ice cream stores near each other isn’t a unique strategy. “You’ll probably find a CAVA by a Chipotle by a Chopt,” Lai says. “A waterfront is a waterfront. A shopping street is a shopping street. I think the quick growth of competition of similar businesses next to each other is a result of the rapid development of D.C. commercial areas.” 

Welsford isn’t sure how Jeni’s will impact their Alexandria store during the busy months because they have yet to both be open during the summer. 

“I really like to think we’ve built a strong brand and community in Old Town,” he says. “I’m hoping they don’t affect us. We have really high rents and rising costs of labor, so if it does affect us, it’s really going to suck. I hope the community recognizes that we’re two local people trying to live the ice cream dream. We don’t have big investment dollars. We don’t have big investors. It’s just us.”

“Consumer capitalism’s a bitch man,” Duncan says. “There’s nothing you can do about it. We’re all competing for the same thing and trying to be the best.” While he hedges that outsiders coming in certainly cuts into revenue, he thinks of competition as something that makes you better. “It pushes you,” he says. “It keeps you on the edge. If you’re comfortable and there’s no one else, you can get too comfortable and not have the next novel thing.”

Lai hopes to weather many more winters with her made-in-D.C. compatriots. “Local businesses like mine and Dolcezza’s and Nicecream—we live here,” she says. “We’re going to be here no matter what. No matter if a neighborhood takes a turn for the worse. And our businesses will hopefully still be here too. Embracing outsider competition is just another hurdle local business owners face. It’s an opportunity to turn inwards and say, ‘What really makes us special?’” 

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