10 Questions for Dr. Robert F. Roberts

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We have a number of success stories, and to put it frankly and brutally, sometimes the success is that somebody comes with the dream of making ice cream from scratch—particularly with the Ice Cream Short Course—and sometimes we squash that. Because they are taking the time—responsibly and very smartly, I think—to do their due diligence and learn what it means to do this.

GL: What about people who say, “I make great ice cream at home, so naturally I can make it on a larger scale”?

RR: Most homemade ice cream is lousy. I guess it’s unfair to say that—but it doesn’t last as long. People also have to understand that there is a difference between making something fresh and serving it right away and, even on a small scale, making 10 or 20 gallons of something and serving it over the course of a week or two. So when people say they want homemade ice cream, they want some aspects of homemade ice cream. They may want the freshness, the flavors, the ambience, but in most cases, if you take that ice cream and you store it for a week, which is a very short shelf life, it’s not very good. If you want to make really good ice cream, you need to have a really good ice cream freezer, and really good freezers are expensive.

GL: What are the keys, then, to making great ice cream?

RR: In the Ice Cream Short Course, one of the things that most of the instructors will say is that there are no secrets in ice cream. People think there is a secret formula or a secret recipe. “Can we have the Penn State Creamery’s recipe for ice cream?” Sure! We’ll give you the formula. We’ll tell you what the ingredients are. You could take what I am telling you for ice cream and apply it to any food: The best ingredients combined in the proper way in the proper ratio and processed properly will give you the best product.

GL: What are some trends you’ve noticed in the ice cream industry and customers’ tastes over the years?

RR: There was a craze for a while to get the fat out, and then there was the Atkins craze of getting the carbohydrates out. And you started to wonder what you were going to get. No fat, no carbohydrates—what are we going to do?

One year it was custard, and something that has come up in the last three or four years has been gelato. You also see a lot more intense flavors—and Ben & Jerry were really the pioneers in that area, with lots of inclusions and lots of sauce.

I can’t say this is a national trend, but in the past five or six years, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of people who are very interested in getting into the small ice cream business. These people are able to make small batches of unique flavors, unlike national companies, which need volume in order to manufacture products—they have to have the demand in order to make a particular flavored product. How many people want kumquat ice cream? You are not going to do a million gallons of kumquat ice cream this year.

Probably the biggest trend I’ve seen over the last eight to ten years has been growing acceptance of what I would call “non–standardized products” that look a lot like ice cream but don’t say “ice cream” anywhere on the package. They are non–standardized for a variety of reasons—they might not contain enough fat, they may not contain enough milk solids, they may not contain any milk solids, they may not contain any milk fat.

GL: Can you share some predictions for what’s next in the world of ice cream?

RR: As the population ages, I expect that we’ll see more products—and good–tasting products—that are developed to deliver concentrated nutrition in frozen–dessert format, much like any other functional food.

I also think you’ll continue to see regional, small players who are able to meet the niche needs of particular markets. You are going to find more people trying to go with local, or all–natural, or organic, depending on their point of view. And I think that will continue to grow and become a small but persistent segment of the business. The idea that you could go to some farm and know the area where your product came from—that’s going to grow.

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