Due to food allergies and sensitivities, Frönen co-founder Jessy Gartenstein was in search of a replacement to dairy ice cream that also had a short list of recognizable ingredients.
"For most of my life I only ever really looked at the certifications on a product – when I started really looking at the ingredients on the product, I was really surprised I couldn’t pronounce half of them," Gartenstein told FoodNavigator-USA, referring to the amount of gums, stabilizers, and thickeners a pint of store-bought ice cream typically has.
As a solution, she and co-founder Erik Nadeau began making their own version of a dairy-free 'nice cream' from blending coconut cream, honey, and fruit as college students and sampling it with friends.
Surprised that they couldn't find a dairy-free ice cream with a clean ingredient list at their local supermarket, Nadeau and Gartenstein entered The University of Chicago's 2017 New Venture Challenge pitch contest and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation's summer accelerator program to help bring their product concept to market.
"We were public policy majors and had no food background at all.... the pitch contest and summer program really helped us learn how to get to the next level of scale and come up with a more refined business plan," Gartenstein said.
The startup landed its first retailer account with Mariano's in April 2019 and Chicago Whole Foods Market locations shortly after. Now, Frönen is in close to 400 stores including Wegmans and has an upcoming launch in Nugget Markets on the West Coast, according to Gartenstein.
'Honey being a sweetener was something really compelling for retailers'
Always keeping taste and a simple short ingredient list in mind, Gartenstein said how honey and its naturally lower calorie and sugar count is what catches retailers' attention.
Gartenstein and Nadeau observed that the most retailers' ice cream aisles had plenty of indulgent and 'light' ice cream options -- the latter of which tends to use zero calorie sweeteners and sugar alcohols to keep calorie counts down -- but that most retailers were lacking a sweet, still indulgent product with a short list of simple ingredients.
"I think for sure the honey being a sweetener was something really compelling for retailers. We experimented with a lot of different sweeteners and they just didn’t taste as good. I think the honey helped a lot with the texture and that’s why we decided to go forward with that on all of our flavors," she said.
The brand's flavor lineup includes Madagascar vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, banana coconut, and its two most recent flavor launches: peanut butter and mint chip.
A serving of Frönen ranges between 90 to 110 calories depending on the flavor (except for its new peanut butter flavor which is 200 calories per serving) and contains no more than six simple ingredients.
"If a five-year-old can’t pronounce it then it’s not going to be in our ice cream," she said.
Dealing with coronavirus delays
Gartenstein said the small business has felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Coronavirus has delayed things a little bit. We’re definitely seeing some new store launches that are being pushed back slightly but we’re really hoping by the end of this year to continue saturating the Midwest and Midatlantic regions," she said.
And for a small brand that relies heavily on store sampling and trials, Gartenstein said that the company is looking for new ways to reach consumers and connect with retailers.
"We’re really trying to understand now how the stores are going to be reviewing going forward because we usually go and meet with the buyers in person and send samples. I think a lot of that is going to be virtual, and we’re really curious to see how that impacts the review cycles and resets," she said.
Its online business has taken off as a result of shoppers staying home and ordering food online to avoid going into stores, noted Gartenstein, which has presented another sets of challenges for a small brand expanding into new regions.
"It’s really expensive to ship online and really a pain in the summer when ice cream melts," she said.
The other challenge to their business has been finding labor to help transport the products from its frozen storage facility to UNFI and KeHE distribution warehouses, she added.
"The other thing which we really didn’t expect is because of the virus there aren’t a lot of people available to pick and pack orders... if there's an order for a pallet with a mixed amount of flavors on it there isn’t someone always available to actually take the cases and put them on the pallet."
Nevertheless, Gartenstein said the brand is pushing forward with its planned store launches and remaining flexible in order to navigate the crisis.