Local ice cream makers move toward non-dairy products

In April, Perry’s Ice Cream released a line of oat-milk-based frozen desserts that are dairy-free. In June they started sending out frozen yogurt laced with vegetable purees.

Robert Denning, president and CEO of Perry's Ice Cream
Robert Denning, president and CEO of Perry’s Ice Cream.

This week craft ice-cream maker Eat Me Ice Cream was blending locally grown black currants into a coconut-based ice cream, having recently reached an agreement to supply 61 Wegmans stores in seven states with dairy-free ice cream.

Both businesses are demonstrating that milk and cream are no longer the end-all and be-all of the ice cream world.

Perry’s, a regional giant based in Akron, Erie County, that delivers its ice cream to 8,000 retail locations, and Eat Me, which crafts batches of ice cream sandwiches, pints and quarts in the Hungerford Building near downtown Rochester, are catering to a new breed of customers that eschews dairy products.

“Clearly this is a consumer-led transition,” said Andrew M. Novakovic, professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University. “There are (ice cream) companies that are purely 100 percent plant based. A number of startup companies were trying to spearhead this,” he said. But now companies that have dealt exclusively in dairy products for decades are adding on oat-based or nut-based ice creams, too.

“They’re saying if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Novakovic said. “Dairy companies are basically saying if we stick to our conventional products we’re going to see our sales decline.”

Other dairy companies like yogurt-maker Chobani have started offering non-dairy alternatives, he noted, and the same is true of meat-based product manufacturers.

“If you look at consumer surveys, there aren’t many of us who are 100 percent vegetarian or vegan,” Novakovic said. Perhaps 10 percent or fewer are eating that way. However, “there’s a considerably larger number or percentage of the population that says, ‘I’m trying to cut back.’ They don’t want to go meatless but they feel it would be desirable to cut back for two or three different reasons.”

This trend is particular strong among millennials, with Generation X not far behind, he said.

Perry's dairy-free ice cream
Perry’s dairy-free ice cream

Perry’s probably could ignore the non-dairy movement safely for a little while longer. Even without an oat-based frozen dessert, Perry’s had been growing by leaps and bounds. The company reports that sales went from $90 million four years ago to $130 million in 2018. Since 2017, Perry’s expanded sales into Virginia and Ohio, and added Wegmans stores in Maryland.

“We’re growing, in spite of whatever non-dairy, non-milk alternatives are out there,” said Robert Denning, president and CEO of Perry’s. But the company has always kept an eye out for consumer trends, reacting to the zeitgeist by introducing limited-edition flavors such as “Bad Breakup” and “Berry Into You” before Valentine’s Day.

“We’re taking a global look at consumers. The diversification of our portfolio aligns with many diverse consumers,” Denning said. “Consumers are much more segmented and niche, looking for different products. It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all in this business.”

The oat-milk products, known as Oats Cream, are geared to appeal to people who want a rich, flavorful and premium dessert that does not include dairy products. Flavors include Coconut Caramel, Oat Latte, and Peanut Butter Coffee Cake, but not vanilla and chocolate because Perry’s felt the basics had already been covered in non-dairy treats.  The new frozen yogurt treats make use of probiotic yogurt, swirled with sorbet made from fruits (strawberries, raspberries, watermelon and grape) and vegetables (sweet potatoes, purple carrots and orange carrots.)

“These products are accessible for health-minded foodies, parents seeking healthier snack options for their children and traditional frozen yogurt consumers alike,” said Gayle Perry Denning, vice president of strategic branding and corporate sustainability for Perry’s.

Robert Denning noted that eating patterns have changed so that people are snacking more. As a result, some consumers are looking for healthier snacks. Perry’s frozen yogurt novelties, such as the Yo Buddie Bars, appeals to this niche by offering a less processed treat with 80 calories.

While Perry’s gets nearly all of its milk and cream from within a 150-mile radius of its Akron plant, it has also been able to source its oat milk locally, too, as the Elmhurst Dairy in Elma, Erie County, has switched to processing oats after operating a dairy for 90 years.

From left, Catelyn Augustine and Amber Odner, co-founders of Eat Me Ice Cream.
From left, Catelyn Augustine and Amber Odner, co-founders of Eat Me Ice Cream.

Eat Me Ice Cream, founded by Amber Odner and Catelyn Augustine in 2011, started out producing about half of its products with milk and the other half with coconut milk. Demand for a high-quality, non-dairy product has driving growth of the non-dairy, (or, as Odner says, plant-based) portion of Eat Me’s business to 90 percent of its output.

“The primary reason for more plant-based is because we’re really committed to that and believe it’s a fast-growing category,” Odner said.

Until recently, Odner said, there haven’t been a lot of high-quality, plant-based ice cream options. Some that existed tasted as if they were for people on a restrictive diet.

“We cater to food lovers that (crave) an indulgent category,” Odner said. The high-fat, super creamy coconut milk that forms the base of Eat Me’s plant-based ice cream provides a richer experience than some other vegan options.

It is sometimes hard to provide the same experience with cow’s milk and cream, Odner said, as small producers like Eat Me have a hard time sourcing the super-premium milk they require. She and Augustine are hoping to grow just large enough that they can source their cow’s milk from a dedicated farm, she said.

Eat Me ice cream
Eat Me ice cream

In the meantime they’re busy expanding the plant-based line. Flavors of dairy-based ice cream are often about the kind of chunks added in – nuts, cookie bits or chocolate chips, she said. But Eat Me mostly flavors the ice cream directly with black currants, lavender and ginger, for instance, rather than adding chunks.

Consumer response to Eat Me’s line of plant-based ice creams has been quite positive, Odner said, as public discussions of food allergies and how food is processed have grown and become more commonplace.

“Just with the craft foods movement, fewer people are shocked by the idea that it’s dairy free. More people are interested in trying it. More people are looking for it,” Odner said.

Novakovic said dairy processors are finding that non-dairy milks can be easier to handle, as they’re not as perishable as cow’s milk.

“When you’re dealing with milk or cream or other liquid dairy ingredients, you can’t fiddle around with when you process that,” he said. “It spoils. If you get a bunch of soybean meal or crushed almonds in your plant, that can stick around for a while.”

On the other hand, consumers may not realize that plant-based dairy products might have been sitting on a shelf for a while before they reached them, he said, or have been ultra-pasteurized to lengthen their shelf life.  Dairy products are basically made every day and shipped daily to grocery stores. Non-dairy milk products might arrive just once a week.

Nevertheless, non-dairy milks are growing in popularity to the point that their sales are roughly equal in dollar value to cow’s milk, Novakovic said. Plant-based milk tends to be priced much higher, though, so the volume of cow’s milk sales is still higher. He estimated that today about one-third of sales are non-dairy milks, while the rest are cow’s milk. Four years ago, non-dairy milks represented about 10 percent of sales, he said.

There’s no denying the growth swing, he said, but the dairy industry has seen big pendulum swings in the past. A couple of decades ago, many consumers preferred margarine to butter, feeling margarine was healthier because it didn’t contain cholesterol.  “There was a period when butter almost vanished,” Novakovic said. That completely changed after the discovery of harmful trans fats that are created by making vegetable oil into solid margarine form. And more consumers are willing to consider butter an indulgence now.

Non-dairy forms of cheese first became available about 50 years ago as a cost-cutting measure, he noted. But plant-based cheeses have largely failed to catch on in the general population for reasons of taste.

Cheese is a huge driver in the dairy industry because milk that isn’t consumed in liquid form often is used to make cheese, a product with a much longer shelf life. A cheese alternative that tastes good could indicate a lasting interest in plant-based dairy products and present a threat to dairy producers.

“If you see people going to alternatives with cheese, that’s going to be a very difficult proposition for the dairy industry,” Novakovic said.

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