Revised and updated December 23, 2020.
The appeal of frozen desserts seems so common that it hardly needs stating. As sitcoms have shown, ice cream is a universal sign of comfort food and indulgence. Its popularity has led to the growth of frozen dessert outlets.
Whether it’s a pick-me-up when feeling down or a way to cool off on a hot day, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and other icy desserts offer sweet appeal. A 2016 Harris poll found that ice cream was one of America’s top three comfort foods, tying with chocolate and just behind pizza. It’s an industry that’s been spreading all around the world, with impressive growth in Asia and the Pacific, and that remains strong in the US.
Part of the appeal of frozen desserts lies in their variety. There’s traditional hard and soft ice cream, flash-frozen ice cream, frozen yogurt, frozen custard, gelato, sorbet, shaved ice, and more. Each comes in hundreds of flavors, from familiar classics like vanilla and chocolate to novelties like green tea and the increasingly complex creations of premium brands.
Entrepreneurs don’t have to limit themselves to only one type of dessert, as many franchises offer multiple categories of products to reach different customers. Ice cream is most people’s frozen dessert of choice, but the quest for variety and healthy alternatives has given prominence to alternatives such as sorbets and frozen yogurt.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry was going through a period of consistent growth. The total global frozen dessert market was valued at $93.7 billion in 2018, and expansion was expected to continue as people had more money to spare. Frozen dessert franchises sprang up in more and more places, and ice cream and gelato store franchises in the US alone represented a $7 billion market employing nearly 160,000 people. With their bright colors and indulgent treats, they were a natural attraction for tourists, families, and couples on dates.
The COVID-19 pandemic hurt frozen dessert franchises. Over the summer of 2020, ice cream sales were reportedly down by 80-90%. Without people out and about, there was less of the casual traffic that can support ice cream sales, and the tourist consumers who are critical for some outlets. Many stores had to close due to pandemic restrictions, and those that remained open struggled. Supply chain issues also caused problems for ice cream production in some regions.
While some foods readily adapted to delivery, frozen desserts didn’t, for two reasons. Firstly, the risk of ice cream melting on the way to the customer made delivery inherently difficult. Second, having ice cream from a franchise outlet is as much about the experience of going out for a treat as it is about the food, and delivery couldn’t provide that experience. As a result, the industry’s profits will be significantly reduced for 2020, and it’s likely that some small frozen dessert outlets will close.
Fortunately, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. As COVID control measures have improved, shops have been able to reopen in some regions, either as takeaway options or by applying rigorous hygiene measures. The anticipated widespread rollout of vaccines in 2021 means that franchisees can look forward to a return to something like business as usual, and perhaps even an increase in business, as customers look to enjoy the treats they’ve been missing out on all this time. The frozen dessert market is expected to return to significant growth in 2021, and to see this continue over the next seven years. Franchise outlets will be part of that growth.
The future for these franchises is all about choice and variety. Customers come to them for novelty as well as indulgence, and that means providing a wide range of flavors and styles. Return business is less likely if you can only offer the same limited options.
Variety also lets you reach customers you otherwise couldn’t serve. For example, there’s a growing desire for dairy-free products that still deliver the rich indulgence of ice cream, to cater to the lactose intolerant and the growing vegan market. Many people are trying to live healthier lifestyles, and low fat or low sugar options can appeal to these customers, as well as offering something for diabetics.
Customers are increasingly interested in premium frozen dessert products, which have provided much of the ice cream industry’s recent growth. Interesting flavors, inclusions, and toppings add to a frozen dessert’s appeal. Those seeking premium products are also often interested in seeing their food produced sustainably and are willing to pay a bit more to feel good about where their food comes from. Ethical supply chains could become a useful selling point for some franchises.
After a tough year, frozen dessert franchises are preparing to bounce back, offering increased variety and quality to a growing market for sweet indulgence.
The Top Ice Cream, Frozen Yogurt and Other Frozen Dessert Franchises of 2021
Baskin-Robbins has introduced a new store concept called “Moments” that is beginning to pop up around the country. In addition to more modern décor, brighter colors, and more flexible seating, the chain also rolled out a whole new line of “ice cream novelties.” Each store will also feature a wall mural that is specific to the local community.
This is a big brand refresh for a company that has been around since the 1940s when Irv Robbins bought an ice cream parlor in Glendale, California and started experimenting with mixing fruits and candies into the ice cream. Bringing his brother-in-law Burt Baskin into the business, they flipped a coin to see whose name would be first on the sign, and Baskin won the coin toss. The chain is famous for its “31 flavors” created to give customers a different flavor every day of the month. Baskin-Robbins is now part of the Dunkin’ Brands Group.
Founded in 1945 and franchising since 1948, the number of locations was on the rise for more than a decade but just dropped a bit to the current total of 7,981 (down from the previously reported total of 8,072), none of which are company-owned and 5,470 of which are located outside the US.
2. Dairy Queen
Dairy Queen had to weather a lot of media attention regarding a bogus rumor that its burgers contained human meat. Obviously, it wasn’t true. But the crazy allegation overshadowed its fall Blizzard promotion that included sets of five scented candles to match its five Blizzard flavors, consisting of its veteran flavors Pumpkin Pie, Snickerdoodle, and Snickers along with two new flavors: Harvest Berry Pie and Heath Caramel Brownie.
Founded by J.F. McCullough in Joliet, Illinois in 1940 and franchising since 1944, the number of locations has continued expanding in recent years from 5,689 in 2008 to the current total of 7,034 (down from the previously reported total of 7,037), of which only two are company-owned and 2,679 of which are located outside the US.
3. Yogen Früz
Yogen Früz is a Canadian company offering its proprietary probiotic frozen yogurt that can be mixed with fruit(s), along with both dairy and non-dairy smoothies. The chain uses a unique blending system to combine its frozen yogurt with freshly-frozen fruits, allowing customers to create their own custom blends.
Founded by brothers Michael, Aaron, and Simon Serruya in Toronto, Ontario in 1986 and franchising since 1987, the number of locations had been expanding over the past 10 years from 892 in 2010 to the current total of 1,400+ in 47 countries as claimed on the company’s website. Only 50 are in the US, and most of those are actually in Puerto Rico.
4. Kona Ice
Kona Ice is aiming to serve more than just the kids market with its shaved ice. It rolled out a more adult-oriented line of flavors called Kona Krafted, featuring flavors such as lavender and white wine spritzer (no actual alcohol, of course). It’s becoming a big hit for corporate employee appreciation events. There are also new trucks to go with it that tone down the typical neon-bright tropical trucks by showing the same scene after sundown. These trucks are called Kona After Dark.
The truck-based franchise is known for bringing its Hawaiian-style shaved ice treats to customers at all kinds of events, and the customers get to apply the flavorings themselves. Kona Ice franchises also do a lot of fundraising events with groups and organizations in the community. Besides the standard truck, there are also carts, kiosks, and trailers available.
Founded by Tony Lamb in Florence, Kentucky in 2007 and franchising since 2008, the number of locations has expanded rapidly to the current total of 1,375 (up from the previously reported total of 1,199), 19 of which are company-owned and seven of which are located outside the US.
5. Cold Stone Creamery
Cold Stone Creamery continues to create new flavors to tempt customers, including its recent partnership with Reese’s for a peanut butter ice cream cup and a new Honey Cornbread & Blackberry Jam flavor featuring pieces of cornbread. It also rolled out a pair of Super Mario-themed ice cream treats. One is Mario & Luigi’s Masterpiece (a made-to-order dish of ice cream with various add-ins) and the other is the Rainbow Sprinkle Road ice cream cake.
This chain operates as a subsidiary of Kahala Brands, a company that also owns Blimpie, Surf City Squeeze, TacoTime, and other franchise concepts. Each Cold Stone store makes its ice cream fresh daily, blended by hand with fruits, nuts, candy, cookies, and more for custom ice cream creations.
Founded by Donald and Susan Sutherland in Tempe, Arizona in 1988 and franchising since 1994, the number of locations has dropped in recent years from 1,519 in 2008 to the current total of 1,252 (up from the previously reported total of 1,236), of which only three are company-owned and 354 are located outside the US.
Culver’s was recently named Best Fast Food in Wisconsin by Food & Wine magazine. It was started in the 1980s when the founders converted an old A&W root beer stand into Culver’s Frozen Custard and ButterBurgers. Craig’s mother, Ruth, had always put a dab of butter on the crown of the hamburger buns before toasting them, which everyone in the family loved. Besides its frozen custard and signature burgers, Culver’s offers a wide-ranging menu that includes seafood, chicken, fried cheese curds, and much more.
Founded by Craig Culver and his wife Lea in Sauk City, Wisconsin in 1984 and franchising since 1988, the number of locations has continued to steadily climb in recent years from 421 in 2010 to the current total of 765 (up from the previously reported total of 715), of which six are company-owned and all are located in the US.
7. Mr. Softee
Mr. Softee is a family-owned ice cream truck franchise offering customers soft-serve ice cream and the musical tune that means summer to millions. The jingle was written in 1960 by advertising legend Les Waas who passed away in 2016 at the age of 94. There’s a huge nostalgia factor with this brand and its logo/mascot and music that has never changed. But to keep up with the times, the company has rolled out an app that lets people track the locations of nearby trucks so they can get their summer soft-serve treats quicker.
Founded by William Conway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1956 but only franchising since 2000, the number of locations has expanded in recent years from 587 in 2014 to the most recently reported total of 624 in 2018, none of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
8. Rita’s Italian Ice
Rita’s Italian Ice may not be making many waves as an overall brand, but specific stores certainly are, like the one near Camden, New Jersey that partnered with Adventure Aquarium to create a treat called Baby Shark Ice Flight to celebrate the birth of baby sandbar sharks at the aquarium, or the one in Lake Buena Vista, Florida that makes a point of hiring workers who have autism.
The founder’s initial Italian Ice recipe was one he purchased from an elderly neighbor that he then improved upon. The chain’s menu has expanded over the years to include frozen custard, gelato, milkshakes, frozen drinks, sundaes, and other frozen treats. Customers love its long-standing tradition of giving away free regular-sized Italian Ices on the first day of Spring.
Founded by former firefighter Bob Tumolo in Bensalem, Pennsylvania in 1984 and franchising since 1989, the number of locations has declined slightly in the last few years from 621 in 2016 to the current total of 570, none of which are company-owned and six of which are located outside the US.
9. Ben & Jerry’s
Ben & Jerry’s may not have the “two real guys” referred to in one of their early jingles since they sold the company to Unliver, but the venerable brand still has a loyal fan base that loves the company’s ice cream, which is known for its big chunks of chocolate, fruits, nuts, and other add-ins.
It’s hard to believe Ben and Jerry learned the art of making ice cream from a correspondence course, and then converted an old gas station into their first ice cream shop. The company still takes progressive stances on public policy issues, such as calling on more businesses to become “B” or benefit corporations that put social and environmental goals on par with business concerns, or closing stores on Global Climate Strike day.
Founded by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in Burlington, Vermont in 1978 and franchising since 1981, the number of locations declined sharply from 815 in 2010 to the current total of 562 (down from the previously reported total of 615), of which 18 are company-owned and 302 are located outside the US.
10. Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt
Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt is a self-serve frozen yogurt concept with more than 100 rotating flavors along with a variety of health-conscious options including low-carb, no-sugar-added, dairy-free, nonfat, gluten-free, and kosher. Keeping things fresh and exciting can be as simple as incorporating the latest candy as a topping, such as last summer’s limited-time-offer of its new HI-CHEW Dragon Fruit frozen yogurt flavor. Menchie’s believes making people smile is the most important thing it can do.
Founded by husband and wife team Danna and Adam Caldwell in the Valley Village suburb of Los Angeles in 2007 and franchising since 2008, the number of locations has risen to the current unverified total of 540.
11. Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers
Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers was named the #1 high-investment franchise by Forbes magazine in both 2018 and 2019 (“high-investment” means an overall initial investment that exceeds $500,000). Serving up frozen custard and burgers in restaurants with a retro look harkening back to diners of the 40s and 50s, the chain is named after WWII veteran Freddy Simon, who grew up on a Kansas farm eating steakburgers. The menu also includes other sandwiches, hot dogs, and lots of sides.
Founded by brothers Bill and Randy Simon (Bill died in 2016 after battling cancer), their WWII veteran father Freddy Simon, and restaurateur Scott Redler in 2002 and franchising since 2004, the number of locations has grown rapidly in recent years from 52 in 2011 to the current total of 386, of which 30 are company-owned and three are located outside the US.
TCBY is actually an acronym that originally stood for “This Can’t Be Yogurt,” which is what the company’s founder exclaimed the first time he tried frozen yogurt. The company later redefined the acronym to mean “The Country’s Best Yogurt.” In 2000, TCBY was acquired by Mrs. Fields to form a new company, Mrs. Fields Famous Brands.
Founded by Frank Hickingbotham in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1981, there was a time when there were 1,700+ locations. These days, the company website claims 360+ locations.
Carvel holds a special place in ice cream history, being one of the first companies to franchise an ice cream concept. Many a child through the decades has enjoyed its iconic Cookie Puss ice cream cake, and adults can now enjoy that flavor in a beer: The Cookie Puss Milkshake IPA made in partnership with Captain Lawrence Brewing.
Carvel dates back more than 85 years to the first location in Hartsdale, New York, opened by Tom Carvel in the 1930s. Some might also remember that in the 1970s there was even a Captain Carvel comic book series from the company. The chain is best known for its ice cream, cakes, pies, and other treats sold through a variety of locations including stadiums and supermarkets, as well as its storefront locations.
Founded in 1934 and franchising since 1947, the number of locations has declined steadily during the past 10 years from 476 in 2010 to the current total of 352, none of which are company-owned and 38 of which are located outside the US.
14. Marble Slab Creamery
Marble Slab Creamery was an early pioneer of the frozen slab technique back in the early 1980s and is known for its homemade premium ice cream prepared to order on a marble slab with lots of choices of mix-ins. It is primarily focused on serving its ice cream in waffle cones, but also offers smoothies, shakes, sundaes, banana splits, ice cream cakes, and pies. Some locations also offer homemade baked goods such as cookies, brownies, and apple pie, as well as gourmet coffees. Franchisees now have the option of opening co-branded locations with Great American Cookies.
Founded by Sigmund Penn and Tom LePage in Houston in 1983 and franchising since 1984, the number of locations has been declining over the past 10 years from 362 in 2010 to the current total of 333, none of which are company-owned and 102 of which are located outside the US.
Yogurtland shook things up when it rolled out its new line of Drinkable Creations – creamy shakes that mix two “FroYo” flavors along with premium candy, cereal, cookies, fruits, and nuts for a customized frozen treat in a cup. There are 16 flavors of frozen yogurt available each day, and 33 toppings as well, with customers charged by the ounce for their creations.
Founded by Philip Chang in Fullerton, California in 2006 and franchising since 2007, the number of locations has expanded from 114 in 2010 to the last reported total of 317, of which 13 are company-owned and 50 are located outside the US.
16. Dippin’ Dots
Dippin’ Dots was created by a scientist who used his knowledge of cryogenic freezing techniques to figure out how to flash-freeze ice cream using liquid nitrogen. His process causes the ice cream to form into small balls, which is where the “dots” part of the name comes from, but unlike freeze-dried products, it still melts like ice cream. It’s a very different form of ice cream, which can be referred to as flash-frozen beaded ice cream, that a lot of people love. The product is available in many places beyond standalone franchise locations, including theme parks, stadiums, arenas, movie theaters, and even some drug stores and convenience stores. Franchisees also have the option of co-branded locations with Doc Popcorn.
Founded by microbiologist Curt Jones in 1988 and franchising since 1999, the number of locations has grown in recent years from 129 in 2012 to the current total of 223 (same as the previously reported total), none of which are company-owned and eight of which are located outside the US.
17. The Häagen-Dazs Shoppe
The Häagen-Dazs Shoppe is a chain of ice cream stores offering ice cream scoops and bars, ice cream cakes, sorbet, frozen yogurt, and gelato. The brand itself was created in the 1960s by Reuben Mattus, a Polish immigrant who first came to the US in 1921. In the early days, there were only three flavors – vanilla, chocolate, and coffee, and the ice cream was only sold in various gourmet establishments. The first dedicated storefront was opened in the mid-1970s in Brooklyn, New York.
Founded in 1961 and franchising since 1977, the number of locations has declined in recent years from 250 in 2010 to the current total of 217, none of which are company-owned and all of which are in the US.
18. Bruster’s Real Ice Cream
Bruster’s Real Ice Cream sees all the fancy boutiques and fads like flash-frozen ice cream (which is novel, but takes forever just to get a cone) and feels good about its choice to make its ice cream “…the old-fashioned way with slow kettle processing designed specifically to create the Bruster’s flavor, starting with a proprietary homestyle mix delivered fresh from its dairy to each store.” The ice cream is used in all kinds of desserts, including waffle cones, sundaes and splits, cakes and pies, shakes, and more.
Founded by Bruce Reed in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania in 1989 and franchising since 1993, the number of locations has declined in recent years from 229 in 2010 to the current total of 203, of which only one is company-owned and eight are located outside the US.
19. Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt
Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt is a self-serve “FroYo” chain with a rotating selection of more than 70 flavors and a toppings bar. The product makes use of a dehydrated yogurt base and is prepared fresh daily in-store with fat-free milk. It got its start as Orange Tree Frozen Yogurt in San Francisco, but was soon purchased by a couple of its franchisees, who then moved its corporate headquarters to Oklahoma City and renamed the company Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt. Franchisees have the option of a co-branded location with Humble Donut Co.
Founded by Mike Liddell and his son-in-law Reese Travis in 2008 and franchising since 2009, the number of locations has declined in recent years. The company website currently lists 121 locations.
20. Bahama Buck’s Original Shaved Ice
Bahama Buck’s Original Shaved Ice holds the Guinness world record for the largest snowcone. It was created on December 10, 2011 and weighed 11.38 tons or 25,080 pounds! The chain is well-loved by its fans, who describe how visiting a store is like taking a mini tropical vacation. The menu includes snowcones with 91 original flavors, smoothies, specialty colas called “Bahama Sodas,” lemonades and limeades, frostalattés (coffee), and several mixed fruit cups.
Founded by Blake Buchanan in Lubbock, Texas in 1989 and franchising since 1993, the number of locations has expanded in recent years from 24 in 2010 to the current total of 108 (down from the previously reported total of 110), of which four are company-owned and all are located in the US.
21. Andy’s Frozen Custard
Andy’s Frozen Custard makes chocolate and vanilla custard fresh each hour, and has a rule that they be served within one hour of being made. The chain was named after Andy, the son of the founders, and he now runs the business with his wife Dana and his mother Carol (Carol’s husband John passed away in 2008). When autumn rolls around each year, the chain is known for blending slices of pumpkin pie and apple pie into their frozen custard to make seasonal “concrete” mixes. Also on the menu are cups, cones, splits, sundaes, and malts.
Founded by John and Carol Kuntz in Osage Beach, Missouri in 1986 but only franchising since 2003, the company website now claims more than 85 locations in 14 states (up from the previously claimed 75 last year).
Pinkberry made a name for itself by offering a series of tart frozen yogurt flavors that quickly gained a cult-like following. Some say Pinkberry can be credited with reinventing “FroYo” into something that suddenly became hip, healthy, and visually appealing. Its stores were definitely the hot hang-out spots for teens for a number of years. The chain also offers sweet frozen yogurt flavors, yogurt smoothies and shakes, and several low-fat milk ice cream flavors. Kahala Brands acquired the company in 2015.
Founded by Hye Kyung (Shelly) Hwang and Young Lee in West Hollywood, California in 2005 and franchising since 2006, the number of Pinkberry locations expanded rapidly to 275 in 2015 but has since plunged to the current total of just 80, none of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
Creamistry offers up made-to-order liquid-nitrogen flash-frozen ice cream along with Nitroshakes, ice cream cakes, and ice cream sandwiches. Customers first choose from among the four bases: Premium (dairy), Organic (dairy), Sorbet (non-dairy), and Vegan Coconut (non-dairy, plant-based, gluten-free, egg-free). Then they choose from among 20 flavors and 34 toppings, and then watch their ice cream being made right in front of them. They can also choose from 16 different signature creations.
Founded by Jay and Katie Yim in Irvine, California in 2013 and franchising since 2014, the number of locations currently stands at 62, only one of which is company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
24. Sub Zero Nitrogen Ice Cream
Sub Zero Nitrogen Ice Cream is another flash-frozen ice cream offering where customers choose their milk base, flavors, mix-ins, and texture. The flash-freezing technique was awarded an exclusive patent in 2014, even though it was filed in 2005. Because each customer order is flash-frozen on the spot, Sub Zero stores don’t even need freezers. The chain received a big media boost when it was featured in a 2013 episode of Shark Tank, although the company did not gain a financial investment from it.
Founded by husband and wife team Jerry and Naomi Hancock in Orem, Utah in 2004 and franchising since 2005, the number of locations quickly rose to 60 in 2019 but has since dropped back to the current total of 42, two of which are company-owned and one of which is located outside the US.
Popbar creates handcrafted gelato on a stick with all-natural ingredients. Each gluten-free, low-sugar, low-fat bar is also customizable by being dipped and topped according to a customer’s requests. And the bars are fresh-made daily on-site. It’s catching on, albeit somewhat slowly.
Founded by Reuben BenJehuda from Italy and Daniel Yaghoubi from Germany in New York’s West Village in 2010 and franchising since that same year, the number of locations currently stands at 25 (a drop from last year’s total of 28), of which three are located outside the US (two in Canada, one in Portugal).
An Important Note About Our Methodology
The franchises on this list were ranked according to the number of units in the franchise system. If you are a prospective franchisee searching for franchise opportunities that meet or exceed certain performance benchmarks for sales, profits, and return on investment, please check out this list of America’s Most Lucrative Franchises.