Apr 29, 2022 - Business

Inflation is melting Tampa Bay's ice cream industry

Illustration of a melting ice cream cone, but the cone is a dollar bill.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

An ice cream cone cost one nickel when Tony Coryn started Dairy Mix.

Flashback: This was 1948, just after the Great Depression and World War II. Tony's son Ed Coryn, who now runs the St. Pete-based ice cream mix company with his own son, was 1 year old.

  • "He said, 'People, when they don't have any money, they still want a treat,'" Coryn tells Axios about his dad.

Now, as Tampa Bay experiences the highest inflation in the nation, the ice cream industry has been hit hard, threatening local businesses.

What's happening: Supply chain issues have ice cream sellers across Tampa Bay scrambling.

  • Shipping prices for ingredients have doubled, and delivery times have tripled in some cases.
  • It's not just the ice cream. Practically everything you need to serve it is in low supply, too — spoons, cups, lids, pint containers and straws.

Driving the shortages: Shop owners told Axios that suppliers have all cited a lack of drivers and higher fuel costs.

ice cream cone
Photo: Sea Maids Creamery/Instagram

Zoom in: Dairy Mix — which supplies soft-serve and regular ice cream mix to 250 mom-and-pop shops across the state and to chains like Dairy Queen, Culver's, McDonald's and Wendy's in Florida and Georgia — anxiously awaits monthly shipments of an essential ingredient, a blend of stabilizers that comes from the midwest.

  • The powder binds ice cream to give it body and texture. Without it, you'd have grainy mush. When Dairy Mix has a hard time getting it, that means a lot of empty cones across the state.

What they're saying: "Styrofoam cups are our number one [item in short supply]," says Mortin Meyer, the owner of Dairy Kurl in Clearwater. "They've been a nightmare to keep in stock."

  • Meyer has had to get creative, using coffee cups or anything around 16 ounces to serve ice cream, and whatever kind of gloves are in stock for PPE. "We've used food server gloves, latex, rubber, whatever we can get our hands on," he says.

With suppliers like Restaurant Depot constantly out of items they need, mother-daughter duo Zoe and Emily Vera have been turning to Amazon — where they say prices are even higher than the increases from suppliers — for their Seminole Heights shop Sea Maids Creamery.

The bottom line: Several shop owners tell Axios they don't know how much longer they can hold out on increasing prices.

  • "We can't raise prices any more or people will freak out," says Meyer, who's gotten by with just one round of price increases early in the pandemic. "We're figuring out where we can save a couple bucks. We keep hoping it's going to calm down."

At Sea Maids, the Veras are trying to scoop more generously to make up for a 50 cents-per-scoop hike. They recently increased the price of milkshakes by a dollar and brownies by 75 cents. Still, it's not enough.

  • "If [supply] prices continue to rise, it's not worth it for me to have a brick-and-mortar," says Zoe, who opened her shop at the start of the pandemic.
  • "We started getting back up there and then boom, all these prices started increasing. We are just trying to keep it afloat."

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