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ICE CREAM SHOPS ARE THRIVING.

Byline: Brent Hopkins Staff Writer

The road to ice cream riches is a rocky one indeed.

Wholesale ice cream prices are near their all-time highs and climbing, vanilla stocks are dwindling and competition is fierce. With more Americans watching their waistlines, selling a product laden with butter, cream, eggs and sugar seems like a daunting task. And yet, scoop shops seem to be thriving.

Carvel Ice Cream will be the latest player to tap into the sweet Southern California market, as the East Coast favorite plans to open in Thousand Oaks in the next 90 days. In the next three years, the chain expects to open 40 spots across the region, an aggressive poke into a territory already teeming with Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone Creameries and Fosters Freezes.

Carvel, known primarily for its soft-serve and ice cream cakes, banks on 70 years of brand-building in the east to be its toehold into Southern California. It hopes transplanted East Coasters will return to the sweets they grew up on, then bring their friends into the fold.

Cathy and Marc Nathan are two such die-hards - they formed California New York Ice Cream Lovers, Inc. and became the first local franchisees, currently building the Thousand Oaks store with plans for a second in Agoura Hills in the next year.

``I know there's a lot of different ice cream shops here,'' said Cathy Nathan, a former high school math teacher turned management consultant. ``I have a lot of kids, and they eat a lot of ice cream, though, from all different places. Do I think I'll have a hard time against the others? No.''

Selling ice cream for a living seems like a fun career, hence the hundreds of requests Carvel gets each week from hopeful franchisees. But at the same time, it's a very challenging one. Just to get in the door, franchisees pay a $30,000 fee and need around $300,000 in net worth. Once they're in business, they contend with volatile dairy prices and fierce competition.

``It looks easy: what could be so hard about ice cream?'' said Don Whittemore, a former parlor owner who now runs Van Nuys-based manufacturer Dandy Don's Homemade Ice Cream. ``When I got into it in '81, I couldn't get a job that was good for me, and it looked like fun. And it is fun - eating it. But running a store, it's just like a business.''

To differentiate herself from her competitors, Nathan will offer freshly made ice cream prepared in the store and plans on running it under kosher laws. She'll still face tough competition, however, with Baskin-Robbins well dug in around its Burbank roots and Cold Stone Creamery adding 30 new stores to the 45 it currently operates by 2006.

According to the International Ice Cream Association's latest figures, Americans eat more than $20.5 billion in frozen desserts each year. Though diet trends such as Atkins and South Beach have sent sugar and carbohydrates out of favor, people still seem to be digging into ice cream. Whether it's a wholesome family connotation or a relatively low price point, ice cream seems to evade the whims of a dieting public.

``I've never seen anyone frown when they're eating ice cream,'' said Lynda Utterback, executive director of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association. ``It brings back good memories for people.''

Good enough to outweigh consumer concerns about diets, apparently. Though all the chains offer some variety of diet option, be it sorbets, yogurts, no sugar added or low-carb varieties, most bank on their regular fare.

``Ice cream shops survive because going out for ice cream is really about going out for a treat,'' said Maria Feicht, director of brand excitement for Baskin-Robbins in an e-mail interview. ``We have something to offer everyone.''

Though flavors and fat content might vary, ultimately they're all selling the same product: cool, sweet indulgence. Whether they compete on service, price or customization, all the shops find themselves vying for the same shoppers, a difficult trick in an already-packed market.

``You have to let the consumer know you're worth the extra five-mile drive,'' said Greg Ferrell, co-owner of Coneheads Investments, Cold Stone's Southern California developer. ``Baskin-Robbins has had a lock on the market for a long time. You can just drive down the street and see them everywhere. It's tough, but we've done a good job of making people know about us.''

Brent Hopkins, (818) 713-3738

brent.hopkins(at)dailynews.com
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Apr 20, 2004
Words:741
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