Sales Skyrocket for Iconic Ohio Ice Cream Chain Handel’s | Franchise News

When Jim Brown at Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream says the brand is embedded in its die-hard customers’ lives, he means it. It’s a baby’s first taste of the frozen dessert. It’s catered at first communions, church confirmations and high school graduation parties. It’s often a first date meet-up spot. Customers have even brought Handel’s to loved ones in end-of-life care, when they can’t eat solid foods or need help keeping some weight on, Brown said.

“When I say we’re completely involved from cradle to grave, it’s a fact,” Brown, the company’s chief operating officer, said.

The Youngstown, Ohio-based ice cream chain is ranked No. 405 on the recently published Franchise Times Top 500, an annual ranking of the 500 largest U.S.-based franchise systems by global systemwide sales. In 2021, the brand saw a 60.5 percent increase in sales over 2020, when it also grew despite nationwide pandemic restrictions, something Brown attributes to the brand’s walk-up window format. It finished 2021 with $59.4 million in sales.

“Listen, COVID was a real nightmare for all of us. And I think the one salvation for us is that” Handel’s ice cream “was a treat that people had become accustomed to,” Brown said. The company also turned to a new sales channel last year when it partnered with DoorDash to offer delivery. Delivery can be a challenge for ice cream if it’s not done properly, so Handel’s limits its delivery menu.

At the end of 2021, Handel’s had 75 units—13 more than in 2020. The brand was one of the top sales growth percentage performers in the Top 500 treats segment, securing the No. 2 spot, behind Jeremiah’s Italian Ice. Jeremiah’s, with its 102.6 percent growth, hit $28.4 million in sales last year from 60 units.

Handel’s has a dedicated following all over the country, Brown said. s“We have so many customers that are with us at least once a week,” he said. “We don’t necessarily know them by name, but we do know them by what flavor of ice cream that they get. And I will tell you that when it comes to serving customers once a week, we’re doing better than most churches.”

The 77-year-old brand serves 45 flavors at each store on any given day, and those flavors can rotate with the seasons. The end of summer leaves behind peach, and brings pumpkin and apple pie varieties.

The Handel’s brand began as an in-home operation, where Alice Handel made ice cream and handed it out to neighborhood kids. “Those kids had to be just loving life,” Brown quipped.

Handel’s husband soon grew tired of the neighbors hanging around the house and suggested she sell the ice cream at his gas station. “Not too long after she started selling ice cream out of the gas station, she was selling more ice cream than he was pumping gas,” Brown said.

Eventually the two expanded the ice cream business into its own store and the rest, Brown said, is history. Now the brand has a catalog of about 180 flavors that stores rotate through.

One of the brand’s signature Ohioan offerings is grape ice cream. “If people ask for grape ice cream, you know that they had it here in Youngstown,” he said. (Fun fact: The flavor isn’t common in ice creams because of the fruit’s high water content and acidity, so it’s hard to master a good consistency.)

Brown compared picking his favorite flavor to picking a favorite child, but he settled on chocolate pecan, another brand staple.

“All the nuts that we use in our ice cream are based on our recipes, in terms of how long they’re roasted, how much butter, how much salt. These are proprietary ingredients that nobody else has. And that’s another thing that makes us a little bit different than everybody else,” Brown said. “We have farms that produce milk for us.”

“We’re pretty much straight from the cow.”

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