Being based in Primrose Hill, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are on holiday in some interesting, exotic location when we step out of the office and into the village. Not a week goes by when a client or candidate does not comment on some aspect of our location.
Perhaps that’s why I always feel so at home in Los Angeles: Urth Café (think Vince Chase and Ari Gold in ‘Entourage’, where their breakfast meetings take place) equates to Cachao (James Corden and Russell Brand are just two of the regulars you may be sitting across from when having your chocolate milkshake, made with our local Marine Ices ice cream founded in 1931 in Chalk Farm), and Primrose Hill Books is intimate and personal, just like Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard. Even Primrose Hill itself has always reminded me of Venice Beach – just without the ocean! We always know when ‘the stars’ are around because that’s when the ‘paps’ are in their vans and on their bikes on the corner of Regent’s Park Road. The usually-strict parking attendants cut them some slack on warm days, particularly when a certain supermodel is eating in her favourite restaurant, Lemonia.
While I was in LA two weeks ago, I went to an ice cream shop called Creamistry, where the queue snaked around the block. The concept takes retail theatre to a whole new level: there are no containers with different labelled flavours sitting in freezers; rather each ice cream order is made from scratch with a blast of liquid nitrogen, just like Heston Blumenthal makes his scrambled egg and bacon ice cream at his Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck! Colleagues in Creamistry, called Creamologists, are dressed in white lab coats and use large, state-of-the-art ice cream makers to mix the liquid nitrogen with ice cream base that they prepare in-house. The ice creams, which are smooth and rich, are customised, handcrafted and topped for customers and then handed over with a big smile. At Creamistry, the making is as important as the eating for customers – they get to see their treats made right in front of their eyes, creating a visual experience along with the incredible taste.
Ice cream is something that I have always associated with being a child on the beach in summer. More recently, however, that has changed, with ice cream becoming an adult commodity with specific and targeted marketing. Whilst outside the new Broad Museum in LA, there was an ice cream truck selling vegan treats, and in Ocado and Waitrose, one can find ice cream made from any number of bases, including coconut milk and goat milk!
Interestingly, the vast majority of ice cream brands are now owned by Unilever, which dominates the category with eight out of the top fifteen selling brands globally, and holds a staggering 22% of the global market share. Included in their portfolio are Cornetto and Ben & Jerry’s, along with Magnum, which is the epitome of mass luxury and had sales of $2.54bn in 2015 – 20% more than their strongest competitor, Häagen–Dazs, which is now owned by General Mills. Despite its Danish name, the world-renowned brand was founded in New York’s Bronx in the sixties by the couple who invented the premium mass market ice cream category, Reuben and Rose Mattus. The chocolate-coated Magnum bars, like Häagen-Dazs, are marketed as adult, sexy indulgences, whereas Cornetto – which is third largest globally – is the one that caters to ice cream lovers of all ages: for their 25th anniversary, Unilever launched the Cornetto Love Crunch – a cone topped with a chocolate disc.
The global market is notably made up of smaller brands that have grown with investment from larger conglomerates. Just like See’s Candies, which sold to Berkshire Hathaway in the seventies, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sold their ice cream company known for extravagant flavour combinations to Unilever in 2000. However rather than ‘selling out’, they worked to keep the DNA of the brand alive: with liberally-oriented founders, Ben & Jerry’s has a strong social conscience, and just like them, the brand has remained quirky – some favourites include Cherry Garcia (named for The Grateful Dead), Bernie’s Yearning (for US Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders) and Hubby Hubby (celebration of same-sex marriages). The company reported turnovers of US$1.23bn last year and shows no signs of slowing down.
With profit margins hovering at around 23% – much higher than that of snack food – ice cream has proven itself as one of the most lucrative products in the food industry. Enjoying robust growth globally, the category has done particularly well in emerging markets including Brazil and China, which has offset declines in the US, UK and Canada, where concerns surrounding healthy lifestyles have made frozen yoghurt – another trend originating from California! – a top competitor.
Although brands such Häagen-Dazs and Magnum made it socially acceptable for adults to be seen with a cone – or bar – in hand, millennials are now looking for concepts that cater to a desire for creativity, authenticity and locally-made products. The rise of digital everything is making consumers crave real experiences – and what could be more real than seeing your ice cream being made right before your very eyes? I suspect that as our well-known and loved global ice cream brands continue to grow, we’ll also see more growth within the niche ice cream concept – the ultimate experience for adult ice cream lovers who want something just a bit different.
My journey in California has come to a close until next year when I shall be back in the Winnebago, with the radio blaring K-Earth 101. In the meantime, I’ll be taking the ten-minute walk from Primrose Hill over to Camden to check out our very own liquid nitrogen ice cream parlour, Chin Chin Labs, where I’ve heard that the burnt butter caramel flavour is particularly delightful.