Entrepreneurs who want to buy into one of the top 25 frozen dessert franchises face a tough decision when narrowing down to a specific product choice. The frozen treat industry includes traditional hard and soft ice cream, flash-frozen ice cream, frozen yogurt (currently experiencing a resurgence after a drop-off in the 1990s), frozen custard, gelato, sorbet, shaved ice, and others.
This is not to say entrepreneurs must be constrained to only one product; several of the chains offer multiple product lines. Ice cream, however, still remains the frozen dessert of choice for most people. Two trends that have gained solid footing in this industry include self-serve and customization through topping bars.
Overall ice cream and frozen dessert sales are expected to top $30 billion by 2020, but that figure includes all the products sold in grocery stores. Still, that hasn’t stopped new waves of frozen treat franchise opportunities from springing up everywhere, and many offer an advantage over store-bought products by having their product made fresh from superior ingredients.
Here are the 25 best frozen dessert franchises for 2017/2018 that will keep any entrepreneur’s sweet tooth busy and happy:
Baskin-Robbins has been around since 1945 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” which was created to give customers a different flavor every day of the month. Now part of the Dunkin’ Brands Group, the chain has continued to grow to its current 7,892 locations, although its recent growth has been in foreign countries rather than the U.S.
Yogurtland was started in 2006 by Philip Chang, a Korean immigrant who wanted to give people the best possible experience of self-serve frozen yogurt using high-quality ingredients. He opened the first location in Fullerton, California, and has rapidly grown the chain during the last 10 years to 328 locations since franchising began in 2007. There are 16 flavors of frozen yogurt available each day, and 33 toppings as well, with customers charged by the ounce for their creations. The chain has nearly 50 locations outside the U.S. in countries such as Venezuela, Australia, Thailand, and Dubai.
3. Dairy Queen
Dairy Queen was started in 1940 when ice cream manufacturer J.F. McCullough perfected a new soft ice cream recipe and opened the first location in Joliet, Illinois. The menu of frozen treats has expanded over the years, and some locations offer hot food as well. Today there are several Dairy Queen franchise formats available including the DQ Grill and Chill that offers the full range of frozen treats and food items (burgers, grilled sandwiches, and chicken strips), the DQ Orange Julius that serves up all the DQ frozen treats along with the full range of fruit-blended beverages from Orange Julius (this format is common in malls), and a non-traditional format for airports, travel plazas, military bases, and universities. DQ continues to grow and currently has 6,755 locations, although recent growth has been international more than domestic.
4. Kona Ice
Kona Ice is a truck-based franchise that brings 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. It was started back in 2007 by Tony Lamb in Florence, Kentucky. Since 2011 when it had 200 locations, Kona Ice has more than tripled that number to its current 908.
5. The Häagen-Dazs Shop
The Häagen-Dazs Shop is a chain of ice cream stores based on the brand created in 1961 by Reuben Mattus, a Polish immigrant who first came to the U.S. 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 1976 in Brooklyn. In addition to its regular ice cream, the stores also offer ice cream bars, ice cream cakes, sorbet, frozen yogurt, and gelato. The chain’s number of locations has declined in recent years to 205.
6. Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt
Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt was founded by husband and wife team Danna and Adam Caldwell in 2007 with the first location in the Valley Village suburb of Los Angeles. The name comes from Adam’s nickname for Danna. This is another self-serve frozen yogurt chain with more than 100 rotating flavors with a variety of health-conscious options including low carb, no sugar added, dairy-free, nonfat, gluten-free, and kosher. There are now more than 540 locations in the U.S. and a dozen other countries. Menchie’s CEO Amit Kleinberger believes making people smile is the most important thing that the franchise does.
7. Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers
Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers is a chain that offers both frozen treats and burgers, and while its retro look harkens back to diners of the 40s and 50s, it got its start in 2002 when brothers Bill and Randy Simon teamed up with their father, WWII veteran Freddy Simon, and experienced restaurateur Scott Redler, to open the first location in Wichita, Kansas in 2002. Freddy grew up on a Kansas farm eating steakburgers, which explains this particular menu combination, which also includes other sandwiches, hot dogs, and lots of sides. Rapid growth in recent years has brought this chain to its current 267 locations.
Carvel holds a special place in ice cream history, being one of the first companies to franchise an ice cream concept. The chain dates back to the first location in Hartsdale, New York, opened by Tom Carvel in 1934. Franchising started in 1947 and in just three short years 100 stores were opened. It’s known for its ice cream, cakes, pies, and other treats sold through a variety of locations including stadiums and supermarkets, as well as its 400 storefront locations, a number that has been slowly declining over the last 10 years from a high of 546.
9. Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt
Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt got its start in 2008 as Orange Tree Frozen Yogurt in San Francisco. When Mike Liddell and his son-in-law Reese Travis saw a successful location in Oklahoma, they decided to purchase a franchise for themselves in 2009. They liked it so much they bought the entire company, moved it to Oklahoma City, and renamed it Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt. This is a self-serve “froyo” chain with a rotating selection of more than 70 flavors and a toppings bar. There are currently 310 locations. The product makes use of a dehydrated yogurt base and is prepared fresh daily in-store with fat-free milk.
10. Andy’s Frozen Custard
Andy’s Frozen Custard owes its existence to John and Carol Kuntz taking a trip to Wisconsin where they tasted frozen custard for the first time and wanted to bring the concept back to their home state of Missouri. They opened the first location in Osage Beach and named the company after their son, Andy, who now runs the business with his wife Dana and his mother Carol. John passed away in 2008. Their chocolate and vanilla custards are made fresh each hour and served within one hour of being made. In the fall, the chain is known for blending slices of pumpkin pie and apple pie into their frozen custard to make seasonal “concrete” mixes. Franchising didn’t begin until 2003, and there are now 25 locations.
Pinkberry got its start in 2005 after Hye Kyung (Shelly) Hwang and Young Lee’s first idea — a formal English teahouse in West Hollywood — fell through. Their particular twist was presenting a series of tart frozen yogurt flavors that quickly gained a cult-like following. The chain also offers sweet frozen yogurt flavors, yogurt smoothies and shakes, and several low-fat milk ice cream flavors. Pinkberry has grown quickly after franchising began in 2006 and now has 275 locations in the U.S. and 20 other countries.
12. Marble Slab Creamery
Marble Slab Creamery dates back to 1983 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. During the past decade, the number of locations has declined slightly from 383 in 2007 to its current 335.
13. Rita’s Italian Ice
Rita’s Italian Ice got its start back in 1984 when former Philadelphia firefighter Bob Tumolo decided to open an Italian ice store named after his wife in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. His initial recipe was one he purchased from an elderly neighbor that he then modified to make it better. After opening three more stores, franchising began in 1989. The menu has expanded over the years to include frozen custard, gelato, milkshakes, frozen drinks, sundaes, and other frozen treats. Rita’s has a long-standing tradition of giving away free regular-sized Italian Ices on the first day of Spring. There are currently 605 locations spanning 30 states and the District of Columbia.
Culver’s got its start in 1984 when Craig Culver and his wife Lea opened the first location in Sauk City, Wisconsin by converting 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. Steady growth during the last 10 years has resulted in the chain’s number of locations growing from less than 400 to its current 631 locations. Besides its frozen custard and signature burgers, Culver’s offers a wide-ranging menu that includes seafood, chicken, fried cheese curds, and much more.
TCBY is actually an acronym that originally stood for “This Can’t Be Yogurt,” which is what company founder Frank Hickingbotham exclaimed the first time he tried frozen yogurt, although the company has redefined the acronym to mean “The Country’s Best Yogurt.” He started the company in 1981 with the first location in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 2000, TCBY was acquired by Mrs. Fields to form a new company, Mrs. Fields Famous Brands. In 2001 there were 1,777 TCBYs, a number that fell to as low as 405 in 2011. It has rebounded from that low to its current 470+ locations.
16. Cold Stone Creamery
Cold Stone Creamery was founded by Donald and Susan Sutherland in 1988 with their initial location in Tempe, Arizona. Franchising started in 1994, and although the chain had just over 1,500 locations as recently as 2008, this number has declined slowly during the past 10 years to its current number of 1,248. The brand is owned by 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.
17. Red Mango
Red Mango is a chain that has sprung up as part of the resurgence of the froyo concept. Founded by Daniel Kim with the opening of the first store near the University of California, Los Angeles in 2007, it has quickly grown to more than 315 locations. In addition to frozen yogurt, the chain offers fruit smoothies, cold-squeezed juices, yogurt parfaits, salads, wraps, and other light fare. The froyo is offered on a rotating flavor schedule and is customizable with a range of toppings.
18. Yogen Früz
Yogen Früz was started by brothers Michael and Aaron Serruya in Toronto, Ontario, back in 1986 and has grown into a robust Canadian chain that offers its proprietary probiotic frozen yogurt, and 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. Of the chain’s more than 1,400 locations, only 74 are in the U.S., with the rest being in Canada and 45 other countries.
19. Sub Zero
Sub Zero was started when husband and wife team Jerry and Naomi Hancock wanted to create a more customizable frozen dessert experience. Using his background in chemistry, Jerry developed a method for flash-freezing ice cream using liquid nitrogen, for which he received an exclusive patent in 2014. They opened their first location in Orem, Utah, in 2004, and allowed customers to choose their milk base, flavors, mix-ins, and texture. Franchising began in 2008 and there are now 52 locations. Because each customer order is flash-frozen on the spot, Sub Zero stores don’t even need freezers.
20. Ben & Jerry’s
Ben & Jerry’s used to have a jingle about there being “two real guys” at Ben & Jerry’s, but neither of the founders is with the company these days. Back in 1978 childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took a correspondence course about how to make ice cream, rented an old gas station in Burlington, Vermont, and opened their first ice cream shop. Their product is known for big chunks of chocolate, fruit, and nuts. Franchising began in 1981, but in recent years the number of locations has declined from a recent high of 825 to the chain’s current total of 587.
21. Dippin’ Dots
Dippin’ Dots dates back to 1988 when microbiologist Curt Jones was using his knowledge of cryogenic freezing techniques to figure out how to flash-freeze ice cream. 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 that a lot of people love. Franchising began in 1999 and now there are 213 locations, although there were twice that number as recently as 2007.
22. Bruster’s Real Ice Cream
Bruster’s Real Ice Cream was started by Bruce Reed in 1989 when he opened his first location in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania, next to his family’s diner, Jerry’s Curb Service. Bruster’s makes 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. The number of locations has declined slightly in recent years to just under 200.
23. Bahama Buck’s Original Shaved Ice
Bahama Buck’s Original Shaved Ice was founded in 1990 when Blake Buchanan was looking for a way to get out of taking a regular summer job like mowing grass or flipping burgers when on break from college. He actually built the first location (a snack shack) from scratch in Lubbock, Texas, with lots of help from family and friends. The menu includes snowcones, smoothies, sodas, lemonades and limeades, frostalattés (coffee), and several mixed fruit cups. Franchising began in 1993 and there are currently 106 locations in Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Puerto Rico.
Popbar is the “new kid on the block” in this industry, having been founded in 2010 by Reuben BenJehuda from Italy and Daniel Yaghoubi from Germany to offer hand-crafted gelato on a stick with all-natural ingredients in New York’s West Village. 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, with 11 locations in the U.S., 4 in Canada, 2 in Panama, 6 in Russia, and one in Singapore.
Creamistry is a made-to-order liquid-nitrogen flash-frozen ice cream chain that only recently got its start in 2013 by Jay and Katie Yim when they opened the first location in Irvine, California. Customers watch their ice cream being made right in front of them. Creamistry also offers a wide selection of vegan, dairy-free, organic, and non-GMO menu items including non-dairy sorbets and an all-natural, vegan coconut base alternative to dairy ice cream. Milkshakes are also available, along with ice cream cookie sandwiches. There are 43 locations at present, with 33 in California, six in Texas, four in Arizona, three in India, one in Saudi Arabia, and another 18 listed on the company website as “coming soon.”