Delivery is becoming an integral part of the fabric of restaurant business right now as restaurants look for safer, more convenient ways to get their food to the public while dining rooms are closed and customers are largely sheltering in place. That’s led to some interesting developments in Detroit’s world of ice cream this spring. As warmer weather rolled into Southeast Michigan, several ice cream companies in the region have opted to bring their frozen treats directly to customers.
These aren’t your typical ice cream trucks rolling down streets playing music and attracting children like magnets to buy $2 popsicles and ice cream sandwiches; rather, these are bespoke ice cream services with hands-free online ordering and door-to-door delivery. The product is relatively expensive and limited.
Kyle Hunt is the co-owner of Huddle, a custard stand with a walk-up window in downtown Detroit. He and his wife, Lea, had planned to unveil a new ice cream truck this spring, rolling it out for private events such as weddings and birthday parties. Going into March, Huddle had already tentatively booked several events for their truck in the 2020 season. But as the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Michigan and Detroit’s many offices emptied out, downtown suddenly became a “ghost town,” Hunt recalls. Sales at the custard stand dried up and limits on gatherings put many of their events on hold. While food businesses — even ice cream — were considered essential under the state executive orders, “there’s just no one down there to even make it worth it,” he says. The Hunts had to quickly rethink their business plan.
Kyle Hunt prepared the truck for service, getting it painted and setting up an online ordering platform. For the past two months, each week Huddle has opened up for delivery orders around metro Detroit, bringing pints of custard, sugar cones, and sprinkles to the doorsteps of customers looking for a treat while staying in. Deliveries are made on a schedule based on clusters of addresses in different areas, and customers receive a text when their order has arrived. Hunt estimates that the shop has averaged around 600 pints a week for delivery to addresses in Detroit, Grosse Pointe, Ferndale, and Royal Oak. Huddle regularly sells out.
Huddle has also adapted to provide socially distant, drive-thru birthday parties. In those cases, orders are placed for a large batch of pints and the truck is parked near groups of families who one at a time line up to safely retrieve their pint from the vehicle’s window. “It’s fun because the kids are thrilled about it,” he says.
The Hunts aren’t alone in pivoting to ice cream delivery. Ice Cream Plant, a vegan and allergy-safe ice cream company based out of Eastern Market, has transitioned partially to online ordering and delivery direct to consumers during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, Ice Cream Plant primarily did self-distribution through sales to local restaurants and grocery stores. While grocery store sales rose slightly during the past two months, many restaurants that Zimmerman and his wife Sarah previously sold ice cream to began temporarily closing due to the novel coronavirus. By pivoting to delivery, they were able to keep their four part-time employees paid during the crisis.
Ice Cream Plant now accepts orders online with a minimum $40 purchase for delivery — the equivalent of four pints. The company also partnered with Nosh Pit, a vegan restaurant in Hamtramck, to produce gluten-free, vegan cookies for ice cream sandwiches. Zimmerman has been impressed by the volume of sales from delivery. The company is doing around 10 orders of $40 or more per week in addition to its regular wholesale deliveries to replenish freezer aisles. “It’s been off the chain,” he says.
Although the response to on-demand ice cream has been positive, neither Ice Cream Plant nor Huddle sees door-to-door delivery as a long-term adjustment. Rather, it’s an inelegant, temporary bandage on a problem besetting every aspect of the food industry. As a small business, preparing orders and arranging for delivery in a logical way is time-consuming work.
“I don’t know if I’ve slept in about two months,” Hunt says. His wife, Lea, mostly stays home caring for their 8-month-old baby. That leaves production, planning, and delivery almost entirely up to him. “We’re working probably quadruple what we usually work,” he says.
Hunt’s days start at 6 a.m., usually with a visit to a dry ice supplier to keep his product cold. He then returns to his 60-square-foot shop downtown to load up ice cream into Huddle’s 1970s-era ice cream truck, “Tan Jan,” and make deliveries. He returns to the shop at around 7 p.m. to make pints for the next day’s stops — a process that can take four hours. Then the whole process repeats.
Finding a sensible route is complicated. At first, Hunt used MapQuest to plan his stops, but found that it couldn’t add more than 25 addresses. He’s since invested in a different app that allows him to load in up to 150 stops. “The truck is getting a lot of miles now,” he says, chuckling.
For Ice Cream Plant, Zimmerman is primarily doing deliveries in his 2010 Volkswagen. While he tries to plan routes around deliveries to local grocery stores, it doesn’t always work out. “We had to reign in our delivery area a little bit, because it was just getting out of hand,” he says. “Say we get an order from Downriver, I just cross my fingers and hope that I get another two orders from Downriver just because it’s a hike to get down there.” It’s also complicated by the fact that ice cream melts quickly in transit.
Ice Cream Plant had been preparing for around 50 percent growth going into 2020, but is now expecting more muted sales numbers due to the pandemic. But Zimmerman is proud that the company was able to pivot. “It was a good test of like, ‘How do we respond to adversity?’” he says. The company also learned some valuable information about the market. Going forward, Ice Cream Plant plans to invest more in vegan soft serve and is looking into how to package its ice cream sandwiches for sale at grocery stores.
For now, Huddle is putting delivery on the backburner, and Tan Jan in hibernation for all but socially distant events. A few weeks ago, Huddle reopened its walk-up window as a test to see how customers might behave if the shop came back for the remainder of the spring and summer season. “It worked really well,” Hunt says. “People were all waiting in line the proper distance away from each other, and it’s nice because then I can just hand them a cone, and I think it gave people a little bit of normalness for a second.”
Huddle is now open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday in downtown Detroit. Ice Cream Plant is available for delivery online and sold at local grocery stores throughout Southeast Michigan.
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