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CHICAGO - Frank Riordan clearly keeps a level-headed perspective on indulgently rich ice cream as he explains his first visit to Cold Stone Creamery in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood.
"My wife and I wanted to have more than our week's share of treats, so we decided to walk a farther distance to burn the extra calories," said Riordan, 34, president of a software engineering consulting firm. "I did a Mapquest (computerized locator). It is 2.3 miles to get here from our home."
Not that Riordan or most people would have to walk that far to enjoy an ice cream on a muggy August night.
"I counted," Riordan said. "We passed 15 ice cream places as we walked."
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Americans plunk down 6 of every 10 dollars they spend on ice cream at parlors ranging from Cold Stone Creamery, Baskin-Robbins and other national franchises to the local mom and pop shops
We routinely throw aside nutritional caution-and fat gram/calorie counting-for the satisfaction of cooling palates and soothing stress.
Going out for ice cream is in. Very in. People magazine's Fall Style Watch declared going out for dessert as a "Use it" proposition, while meeting friends for coffee has become a passe "Lose it" event.
Of course, you don't have to skip the coffee flavor or caffeine buzz. For instance, TCBY (an acronym for The Country's Best Yogurt) offers the monstrous Toffee Coffee Cappuccino Chiller featuring frozen yogurt, milk, coffee flavoring and whipped cream.
Bumping up against you-name-your-favorite old-fashioned local parlor are some butterfat heavyweights.
Cold Stone Creamery, which started in Arizona and quickly established a stronghold in California and, of all places, Alaska ("We were selling ice cream to Eskimos," said company representative Christopher Enser), has 350 locations nationwide.
A big draw is the franchise's commitment to making fresh ice cream on its premises every day, plus offering customers a chance to view their customized mix-in of ingredients including berries, nuts, candies and chunks of cakes and brownies.
"When we opened the first store three years ago in Arlington Heights (Ill.), we had customers who were driving up to an hour to visit," said Enser, 28, co-owner of Cold Stone Creamery stores in suburban Chicago.
"They had experienced Cold Stone in Arizona, California or another place," he said.
Just this month, a Chicago landmark became home to an ice-cream import. Australian Homemade opened in Marshall Field's on State Street.
The national chain has set up shop on the first floor, making ice cream fresh every day.
In addition-apparently management doesn't read People-Australian Homemade also will be roasting and blending trademark coffees.
The frozen frenzy reminds business people and customers alike of other buzz-worthy fresh-made market niches, such as espresso drinks and doughnuts.
Enser said Cold Stone Creamery is "not afraid to say we want to be the Starbucks of ice cream."
He elaborated that the "whole experience" of Cold Stone is critical, right from greetings from employees at the door (or in a longer queue on hot nights) to explaining how workers "spade" ice cream onto a 15-degree granite stone for custom mixing.
"We don't plan television commercials or national radio advertising campaigns," Enser said. "We hope for word-of-mouth recommendation from customers."
Anne Galioto and Brian Zboril were two such customers one night. They took a mile-plus walk after work to see "what the buzz was all about." Galioto said they weren't disappointed.
"We ordered the cake batter ice cream with graham crackers and chocolate chips," said Galioto, 30, who is finishing a doctorate in psychology. "The ice cream is delicious and really does taste like cake batter."
"Apparently, this place is sort of the new Krispy Kreme," said Zboril, 34, a trader, referring to the Southern chain of doughnut shops that has won over customers by offering a free, hot, glazed doughnut whenever you enter a store.
Both Galioto and Zboril joked that they "saved up some calories" during the day to allow for the splurge.
"I had Lean Cuisine for lunch," Galioto said with a smile.
"I had a bag of carrots," Zboril added.
The couple planned to dine later at a tapas restaurant, so Galioto favored the kid-size portion (allowable, said Enser, and reasonable at $1.99 for one mix-in).
"We had to upgrade," Zboril said.
"So `Ice Cream Boy' ordered a medium size," reported Galioto, gently kidding her boyfriend. "It's a lot of ice cream."
Exactly the point if you ask Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI, based in Washington, D.C.
He is well-known if not always well-liked for his organization's stance on the fat content in foods such as movie popcorn, deep-dish pizza and Chinese takeout.
Now CSPI has turned to ice cream in a report published in its July/August newsletter.
"We recognize that most people know ice cream is a splurge item," Jacobson said. "Our findings show just how big a splurge it can be."
For example, the Haagen-Dazs Mint Chip Dazzler is a sundae in a cup crammed with three scoops of mint-chip ice cream, hot fudge, Oreos, chocolate sprinkles and whipped cream. That's 38 grams of saturated fat or equal to about a day and a half's worth in a healthy diet.
What's more, the Dazzler's 1,270 calories is about 500 more than the body can physically metabolize at one sitting, according to scientific findings.
The extra calories typically become fat cells in the body.
"It's as if these ice cream shops were competing with each other to see who could inflict the greatest toll on our arteries and waistlines," said Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at CSPI.
"It's not just regular ice cream but premium ice cream (which tastes richer and creamier because of increased butterfat)," Hurley said. "It's not just one scoop but two or three. It's not just the cone but a chocolate-dipped waffle cone.
"It's not just hot fudge, nuts and whipped cream but every conceivable combination of cookie, candy and chocolate."
Nonetheless, lines form nearly every night at Cold Stone Creamery and Original Rainbow Cone alike.
Original Rainbow Cone, long a fixture on Chicago's South Side, has been offering its seemingly sane version of a splurge for 77 years.
Original Rainbow's legendary oblong scoops of chocolate, orange sherbet, strawberry, pistachio and Palmer House (cherry-flavored ice cream with cherry chunks and walnuts) attract long lines at its original location near 95th Street and Western Avenue plus at its longtime booth at Taste of Chicago.
"It's all about moderation, right?" said Lynn Sapp Stenson, owner of Original Rainbow.
True enough, said Julie Burns, a Western Springs, Ill., nutritionist who counts the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls sports teams among her clients.
"Lots of people who try to eat healthy feel deprived," Burns said. "I think a little ice cream is OK if it helps people keep in the right direction of replacing old habits with new habits."
Ice cream lovers, take note: Burns actually recommends against low-fat ice creams because they contain higher amounts of sugar. CSPI, sometimes called the "food-police" organization, estimates that there are 4 teaspoons of sugar in every 4 ounces, or half-cup, of regular ice cream.
Better to have the real stuff and "a reasonable portion size," Burns said.
Of course, a reasonable serving of ice cream is open to, ahem, wide interpretation. One person's scoop is another person's smidgen.
"Nutritional information for ice cream is based on a half-cup," Burns said. "But I don't know too many people who stop at a half-cup of ice cream. A cup is about the minimum for most people."
Even the Bears are getting in line for fresh-made premium ice cream. Burns said she is planning to add the local Oberweis Dairy ice cream to the team's training table.
She likes the brand because it is made locally (and is fresher because it doesn't have to ship far) and free of bovine growth hormone and antibiotics.
For his part, Frank Riordan, the executive and Mapquest user, has his own strategy for getting his mix-in ice cream and eating it too.
On a return visit to Cold Stone, he related his formula to five of his employees during a recent work break (now, there's a boss who knows how to treat his staff).
"I recommended that these guys order the small size," Riordan said. "It's plenty."
There were nods all around. Software engineer Tim Jager was sampling the strawberry shortcake concoction of sweet cream ice cream, strawberries, pound-cake bits and whipped cream (which can be a mix-in or topping).
"It's my first time here," said Jager, 25. "I think strawberry shortcake is my new favorite flavor."
(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.