‘A learning experiment’: 16 Handles takes a punt on savory ice cream

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

French Fry frozen yogurt is one of 16 Handles' first forays in savory ice cream flavors. Image provided by 16 Handles
French Fry frozen yogurt is one of 16 Handles' first forays in savory ice cream flavors. Image provided by 16 Handles
The US ice cream chain is testing the waters with a rare foray into savory flavors. Are consumers ready for French Fry frozen yogurt?

Testing the appeal of novel flavors through limited edition products is a well-established strategy in the food industry. In ice cream, traditional flavors like vanilla, chocolate and strawberry have historically been the most popular among consumers, but it’s a space where flavor innovation thrives. And recently, consumer interest in unconventional ice cream flavors is growing, according to Mintel.

The market research company claims that non-traditional flavor profiles such as savory have seen an increase of more than 50% in new product launches since 2021. Elsewhere, floral flavors are receiving attention from consumers, particularly in APAC, where half of 25 to 34 year-old Thai consumers are interested in them.

However, both savory and floral flavors remain quite niche; they represented less than 1% of all global ice cream product launches in 2023. Nevertheless, Mintel suggests that flavor experimentation should not be discounted by ice cream makers.

US self-serve frozen yogurt and desserts chain 16 Handles is one company that doesn’t shy away from experimentation. From Butter Beer through Caramel Popcorn Finale and Sour Swirl, the New York City-hailing chain has now ventured into savory flavors with French Fry frozen yogurt.

A limited-edition offering that will be available until mid-July, the French Fry ‘fro-yo’ is being promoted in a tongue-and-cheek campaign that takes a swipe at the perpetually out-of-order ice cream machines in fast food restaurants with the tagline: “Sorry, our French fry machine is down’.

Image via 16 Handles

A bright yellow soft-serve fare, French Fry ‘tastes like crisp, salty fries’ and has real potato French fry pieces mixed in for a sweet and savory combination. According to the nutritional information shared by 16 Handles, one portion (100g) of French Fry contains 130 calories, 4g of fat, 20g sugar and 3g of protein.

“This is one of our first launches in the savory category, so it's a bit of a learning experiment,” 16 Handles CEO Neil Hershman told us. “It took a lot of work to turn down the sweetness in order for the potato flavoring and saltiness to come through.

“We went through about 10 or 12 different variations until we were satisfied. One of the best decisions we made was sourcing really high-quality cooked French fries to add into the mix once chopped into tiny pieces.”

How have consumers responded to previous flavor experiments that the chain has put out? “Experiential flavors like the French Fry, or our recent launches – think Butter Beer, Sour Swirl - have been really successful for us as limited-time offerings drawing crowds during their launch.

“When combined with effective marketing, our customer base feels like they are ‘on the inside’ and helping us create the next big thing -- and they love sharing on social media which is a great compliment.”

French Fry Fro Yo
The new limited-edition flavor up-close. Image: 16 Handles

Besides that desire to be ‘in’ on a new flavor trend, are there more concrete demand drivers for sweet and savory flavor combinations in the ice cream and desserts space right now?

“I'm not sure the demand is there for a long-term and sustainable frozen dairy-based savory flavor,” Hershman explained, “but for a limited time offering with a marketing surge and experiential opportunity, we have seen troves of new and lapsed customers visiting our locations, which has been a great thing.”

Overall demand for 16 Handles’ soft-serve is “larger than it's ever been; frozen yogurt is as popular as ever”.

The company, once a New York City brand, has been growing through franchising and is now present across five states and more than 30 locations, including Texas, Florida and South and North Carolina.

More experimentation to follow

Tapping into another major trend in food, 16 Handles tapped into better-for-you ice cream in January 2024 by launching a keto-friendly soft serve (Keto Chocolate Brownie), a zero-sugar offering (Cinnamon Rice Pudding) and a high-protein fare (High Protein Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana with 6g of protein, double that of standard flavors). How are consumers responding to that type of ice cream products, particularly as demand for weight-loss treatments has sky-rocketed in the past year in the US?

“Keto, and more broadly what we now call our ‘zero-sugar-added’ flavors have had a huge increase in demand over the past six or 12 months, and we are going to continue innovating in this category,” Hershman confirmed.

“Weight loss used to focus on exclusively cutting out fats, but I think there's now a larger, more educated consensus that some fats are good, especially considering the alternative may be synthetic ingredients and unhealthy amounts of sugar.

“We really try to make our artisan flavors with all natural ingredients and less sugars, and that's what our customers seem to appreciate.”

But in the short run, more experimentation: “In a few weeks we our launching Fire Ball Frozen Yogurt, which is our spiciest flavor ever full of real cinnamon,” Hershman said. “Think Hot Tamale or big red, but as a soft serve!”

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