Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ice cream wars: Baskin lacks freshness; Cold Stone needs fan base

Ice cream wars: Baskin lacks freshness; Cold Stone needs fan baseAs the weather gets chillier, popular ice cream chains Baskin-Robbins and Cold Stone Creamery are still trying to attract customers with cold treats and hot desserts. Baskin-Robbins introduced the ice cream chain concept to Korea, while Cold Stone Creamery brought its unique concept of ice cream mixed on a cold granite stone.

Baskin-Robbins is perhaps the most popular ice cream chain, attracting a broad base of customers with its wide variety of ice cream and yogurt flavors, ice cream cakes and other desserts. But its franchise is showing signs of wear, as some stores are looking old and worn and the service is quite spotty.

On the other hand, Cold Stone Creamery offers ice cream creations or ice cream mixed with various candy, fruits, nuts and ingredients on a frozen granite slab. This unique concept is catching on, but the Cold Stone franchise has a long way to go to catch up with Baskin-Robbins.

Price-wise, Baskin-Robbins has a more affordable price point starting at 2,500 won for a scoop of ice cream. A small Cold Stone creation is more expensive at 3,800 won but it comes with different mix-ins.

Baskin-Robbins grows complacent

Baskin Robbins was started out as separate ice cream shops by brothers-in-law Burton Baskin and Irvine Robbins in California in 1945, but eventually merged as Baskin-Robbins in 1953. It was considered the pioneer in the franchising business for ice cream shops in the U.S.

The SPC Group, which also owns Paris Croissant and Shany, has grown Baskin-Robbins to become the most popular ice cream franchise in Seoul. You can find it almost everywhere, from the underground shopping areas to a neighborhood store to busy shopping districts.

The Baskin-Robbins store’s facade is typically decked out in bright colors and posters for the month’s new ice cream flavor and ``Hard Rock Yogurt.’’

At the counter, there are dozens of ice cream tubs with flavors ranging from the plain Vanilla to this month’s flavor Wizard’s Halloween. The names of the ice cream flavors are written in Korean and English. The calorie content is also provided for anyone who would like to compare calories of a scoop of Jamoca Almond Fudge (270 calories) versus Rainbow Sherbet (100 calories).

The huge poster of a delicious-looking scoop of yogurt mixed with toppings on a waffle dish was enough to make this reporter want to try it out. The Hard Rock Yogurt looked quite similar to one of those creations offered by Cold Stone Creamery.

But unfortunately, there was no chance to try out the Hard Rock Yogurt dessert. Despite being prominently advertised on the store’s posters, the staff at a branch in northern Seoul informed this reporter that it was ``out-of-stock.’’ Asked why it was no longer available, the staff just gave a shrug and said the other desserts were available.

But when this reporter tried to order a banana split, the staff said it was also unavailable, but no reason was also given.

The menu also featured various desserts, such as parfaits, banana split and ice cream fondue, as well as hot and cold drinks like cappuccino blast and hot chocolate. Running out of options, this reporter chose the brownie & ice cream combination, which was fortunately available but it took 10 minutes before being served.

When the dish came out, it was a disappointing mix of two scoops of ice cream, two slices of dry brownies, a dollop of melting whipped cream sprinkled with chocolate chips and a puddle of cherry sauce.

The Baskin-Robbins store looked slightly old, despite the colorful walls and decorations. Some of the tables had some balled-up pieces of tissue and paper, while some tables still had some plastic cups on it. There was also no available paper or plastic cups, or any pitcher of water for the customers at the counter.

Overall, Baskin-Robbins has seemed to have grown complacent at top of the ice cream chains in Korea. There should be more effort by the franchise to make sure that whatever products they so heavily advertise are actually available at the stores.

Cold Stone lacks fun

Cold Stone Creamery made a name for itself in the U.S., not just for mixing ice cream on a slab of frozen granite, but for its fun-filled atmosphere and good service. The ice cream chain was started in Tempe, Arizona in 1988 by founders Donald and Susan Sutherland, with their desire to serve the ``world’s best ice cream.’’

In Korea, Cold Stone Creamery opened its first outlet in Jongno in 2006. The master franchise for Korea is owned by CJ Foodville, which operates VIPS, Tous Le Jours, A Twosome Place, China Factory and The Place.

At Cold Stone, customers can choose from the ``creations’’ such as Strawberry Banana Rendezvous (strawberry ice cream, bananas, strawberries, pie crust and white chocolate chip) and Cheesecake Fantasy (cheesecake ice cream with blueberry, strawberry and pie crust). Customers can also build their own creation by choosing an ice cream flavor, adding choice of ingredients and mixing it all together. The result is what Cold Stone likes to call ``the ultimate ice cream experience.’’

Cold Stone has both Korean and English menus available, but there are no nutritional or calorie information available for its offerings. Even on the company website, nutritional information is given separately for ice cream and the mix-ins. This makes it hard for customers to find out exactly how much calories are in one bowl of ice cream creation.

This reporter ordered a ``love it’’ or medium-sized Chocolate Devotion. Based on Cold Stone’s nutritional information sheet, chocolate ice cream is 227 calories, chocolate chips are 120 calories, brownie is 170 calories and chocolate fudge is 90 calories, plus waffle bowl is 160 calories. This brings the total to a whopping 767 calories. This is perhaps why the company would rather not place the calorie count on the menu.

In the U.S., Cold Stone Creamery’s crew is known to burst into song whenever a customer puts some money in the tip jar. In Korea where there is practically no tipping culture, this sing-for-tips gimmick falls flat.

Many customers don’t even realize there is a tipping jar next to the cashier, with the sign ``We sing for donations.’’ At the time of this reporter’s visit, the jar was 1/4 full and there was no customer dropping any coins or bills in it.

Usually, the servers also try to spice up their routine by throwing ice cream scoops in the air and other tricks, but none of that was seen.

The only sort of excitement that Cold Stone offered was a spin-a-wheel promotion on the street. Anyone can line up and spin the wheel for a chance to get coupons for free waffle cups and size upgrades.

On its website, Cold Stone Creamery says that the first five words of its mission statement are ``We will make people happy.’’ But somehow the Korean franchise seemed to have missed that part, because there’s a dull and cold (pardon the pun) atmosphere that does not make Cold Stone Creamery any different from the other ice cream chains.

If Cold Stone Creamery wants to challenge Baskin Robbins in Korea, it has to work to make its stores livelier and more attractive for customers to come in and sample its delicious, albeit calorie-laden, ice cream creations.


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