Sep 1, 2023 - Food and Drink

How D.C. became an ice cream boomtown

Ice Cream Jubilee cones against a blue background with berries and flowers

Photo courtesy of Ice Cream Jubilee.

D.C.'s ice cream scene is booming.

Why it matters: Much of the city felt like an ice cream desert a few years ago, or overly commercial. Now you can't throw a cone without hitting an independent or boutique scoop shop.

Driving the news: Everyone's doing frozen desserts. Shuttered fine dining legend Komi is now home to Happy Ice Cream in Dupont Circle, hawking cheffy flavors like Basque cheesecake.

  • Family-owned startups including Southwest Soda Pop Shop are proliferating alongside local chainlets such as Ice Cream Jubilee, and national boutique brands such as Jeni's, which opened its first East Coast location on 14th Street in 2017 (now they have seven). Their reasoning: D.C.'s huge quantity of online ice cream orders rivaled only NYC.

What they're saying: "D.C. is the best new market we've ever opened," says Ben Van Leeuwen, co-founder/CEO of Brooklyn-based indie ice cream darling Van Leeuwen (you may know it from its recent Hidden Valley Ranch collab).

  • "There's affluence, growth, and foot traffic — it's what drives sales," he tells Axios. "A lot of our guests are impulse purchasers. In Texas, it's harder to build business because people have to get in their cars, which means they also need to know we're there."

By the numbers: The company, which operates nearly 50 shops nationwide that can scoop in $300,000 a day, opened locations in Georgetown, Union Market, and Adams Morgan this spring. The D.C. shops collectively serve around 1,000 customers a day.

  • The Union Market District opening "was our busiest of all time," Van Leeuwen says. The shop ran out of ice cream.
  • The CEO had to drive an emergency truck down from NYC stocked with an extra 900 gallons. He was greeted by a line of close to 150 people.

Between the lines: Chains are somewhat to credit.

  • "In order to run the operation like we want, you need a bunch of stores," says Van Leeuwen. "Ice cream shops don't do as much revenue as a full-service restaurant, so you need a bunch of them to support management and distribution."
Everyday Sundae owner Charles Foreman serves ice cream cones
Everyday Sundae owner Charles Foreman. Photograph: Craig Hudson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The intrigue: Having an ice cream-obsessed president doesn't hurt its popularity. Biden, whose first presidential scoop run was to Jeni's on Capitol Hill, celebrates every day like it's National Ice Cream Day.

Yes, but: The ice cream biz isn't always sweet. If you're wondering why that cone is now $8, core costs have skyrocketed. The baby formula shortage drove up milk prices. Avian flu, eggs. Nuts are going, well, nuts.

  • "People think it should be less expensive than it is, and it's an expensive commodity," says Susan Soorenko, owner of Silver Spring-based brand Moorenko's.
  • She says the business is "deceptively" hard. "It's very competitive. Very seasonal. The people who apply to work in the shops are young and beholden to school and family schedules. You have to remember every time you make a customer happy — that's why you're there. Sometimes it's all you have in February."

Zoom in: Seasonality can vary by neighborhood. At Brightwood Park's son-and-pop shop Everyday Sundae, owner Charles Foreman says February outsold July when neighbors were away.

  • Earlier this year, neighbors started a sweet tradition of buying scoops for others who couldn't afford them, and donating money to "the scoop fund." Foreman says anyone who visits will walk away with ice cream, no questions asked.

Zoom out: Foreman, a former chef who's lived near the Kennedy Street store for more than 20 years, says he was motivated to open an ice cream shop to employ neighbors and build community.

  • "When an ice cream shop opens in a neighborhood that was struggling, it's a sign that things are turning around. That motivated me — I'm part of the good change."

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Washington D.C..

More Washington D.C. stories