The Ice Cream of the Future

Thirty years since its invention, Dippin' Dots is still helping us chill out. By Robert Klara

The trouble started eight years ago, when a Washington PR man took to Twitter with a bone to pick. “Dippin Dots is NOT the ice cream of the future,” he wrote.

The treat in question, a crowd pleaser since its 1988 introduction, had billed itself as “The Ice Cream of the Future” because of the unusual flash-freezing process necessary to create it (more on that in a second). It wasn’t clear why the publicist was ticked off, but he followed up his first angry tweet with another, and then another: “If Dippin Dots was truly the ice cream of the future they would not have run out of vanilla.”

Of course, disgruntled customers hate-Tweet all the time, and these rhetorical arrows would never have stuck were it not for the subsequent fame of their author. The PR man was Sean Spicer, who later became the press secretary for President Trump.

To this day, it’s not clear why Spicer was so pissed at Dippin’ Dots, but his tweets reveal an overlooked fact that might be more significant: The man was obviously eating Dippin’ Dots, which gives some indication of just how popular this frozen treat—ostensibly for teens and tweens—became.

Though some have groused that Dippin’ Dots can be hard to find (true, since typical freezers can’t maintain the -40° temperature needed to store them), and though the company did have a brush with bankruptcy in 2011, Dippin’ Dots are still a pop-culture staple. The treat has been sampled on TV by Oprah, crooned about by pop star Dawin, and currently boasts over 4.5 million likes on Facebook.

But still. Frozen balls of ice cream? What’s the big deal? Well, you might have to ask the nearest 11-year-old, but the essence of it appears to be novelty. In 1988, microbiologist Curt Jones was experimenting with a process known as cryogenic encapsulation when he decided to try it out on ice cream mix. When the room-temperature mix, dripped through small pipes, hits the chamber of liquid nitrogen, the droplets instantly turn to pellets of ice cream that, according to the company, are “crunchy” and “tingly” on the tongue.

Which is great, though still not quite enough to explain how the brand that’s popular mostly with kids can maintain 1,500 (and growing) points of sale. CMO Michael Barrette explains that a combination of the brand’s locations (mostly theme parks and other recreational venues), together with the maturing of its original demographic, accounts for the company’s vigor. 

“When you ask people when’s the first time you tried Dippin’ Dots, it’s invariably at a venue where they’re having fun—water parks, zoos, ballparks,” Barrette said. And when you consider that the kids of the late-1980s are now parents themselves, “now we have the second ring on the bull’s-eye,” he added.

A recent Yelp review of a Dippin’ Dots location in Monterey’s Cannery Row illustrates his theory: “Dippin’ Dots has an unmistakable nostalgia for me,” the reviewer wrote. “Memories of Dippin’ Dots were almost always tied into trips to an amusement park, the boardwalk, [the] California State Fair or anywhere else fun and exciting.”

So why, then, was Sean Spicer not among the fans? Nobody really knows, but Dippin’ Dots corporate did extend an olive branch in early 2017 by offering to cater an ice cream social at the White House. Spicer suggested a party for veterans and first responders instead—and Dippin’ Dots obliged, handing out 500 vouchers at Maryland’s Six Flags America, 20 miles from Washington.

And did Spicer tweet about that? “No,” Barrette said. “He faded away.”

While experimenting with cryogenic equipment, microbiologist Curt Jones (top, shown in the late-1980s) created his now-famous flash-frozen treat by dripping ice cream mix through “pipettes” (bottom) into a chamber of liquid nitrogen.

While experimenting with cryogenic equipment, microbiologist Curt Jones (top, shown in the late-1980s) created his now-famous flash-frozen treat by dripping ice cream mix through “pipettes” (bottom) into a chamber of liquid nitrogen.

With most of its points of sale at entertainment venues, Dippin’ Dots is a special-occasion treat—though not everyone has felt like celebrating.

With most of its points of sale at entertainment venues, Dippin’ Dots is a special-occasion treat—though not everyone has felt like celebrating.

For several years, GOP power player Sean Spicer assailed Dippin’ Dots with a series of denigrating tweets. Even now, nobody’s sure what Spicer was upset about.

For several years, GOP power player Sean Spicer assailed Dippin’ Dots with a series of denigrating tweets. Even now, nobody’s sure what Spicer was upset about.

Michael Jackson sang about Pepsi. Justin Timberlake crooned for Bud Light. Doesn’t every food brand deserve a musical endorser? After getting Dawin to remix his 2016 hit “Dessert” into an ode to Dippin Dots, the brand commissioned a follow-up tune from him this year titled “I Want My Dippin’ Dots.” New song; same basic idea.

Michael Jackson sang about Pepsi. Justin Timberlake crooned for Bud Light. Doesn’t every food brand deserve a musical endorser? After getting Dawin to remix his 2016 hit “Dessert” into an ode to Dippin Dots, the brand commissioned a follow-up tune from him this year titled “I Want My Dippin’ Dots.” New song; same basic idea.