Ice Cream: Classic Sweet Indulgence Breaks the Mold

Amy Sherman
Strawberry ice cream from Brooks Ice Cream Parlor in San Jose.

You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream. Not just any ice cream, either, but small-batch, ultra-premium ice cream. According to the most recent State of the Industry report by Dairy Foods magazine, indulgence, variety and high quality are all trends that have traction and have helped to build a new category of artisanal ice cream. But just how did ice cream become so upscale and wildly creative? A perfect storm of many factors, including greater demand for unconventional flavors and ingredients, rising disposable income, and the explosion of social media marketing, has helped to propel high-quality ice cream into a phenomenon that often has led to lines around the block at ice cream shops and pints heading north of $10.

“Smorefflicious,” ice cream waffle dessert from Little Gem Belgian Waffles in Berkeley.

One early pioneer, Humphry Slocombe, tapped into the psychological power of frozen treats. “Ice cream is always an affordable luxury and connected with emotions,” Humphry Slocombe co-founder and marketing director Sean Vahey said. He points out that whether we ate ice cream when we were sick or at a birthday party as children, we never let go of how it makes us feel. Equally powerful is Humphry Slocombe’s combination of social media presence (with over 200,000 followers on Twitter), partnerships in the both the culinary and entertainment world, especially theatrical productions including Broadway productions and Cirque du Soleil, use of high quality and often locally sourced ingredients, and the constant introduction of novel new flavors. 

“Ice cream is always an affordable luxury and connected with emotions,” 

- Sean Vahey.

The farm-to-table movement also took hold at ice cream shops such as Smitten, which offers ice cream made to order through its patented liquid nitrogen ice cream machines, often featuring seasonal flavors with the freshest fruit of the moment. Salt & Straw also broke boundaries with a similar ethos of new flavors and local, seasonal ingredients and partnerships, but its name also hints at an element that sets the modern ice cream purveyors apart from the rest of the pack: salt. Savory elements add sophistication to a treat that is traditionally exclusively sweet. Salt & Pepper ice cream from Humphry Slocombe, Salted Malted Chocolate Chip Dough from Salt & Straw, and Salted Butterscotch from Tinpot Creamery are just a few of the more overtly salted flavors, but a hint of salt is often the flavor enhancer that while subtle, often makes ultra-premium ice cream flavors pop. Demand for this type of ice cream has been so great, it’s not unusual to find ultra-premium scoop shops across the street from one another. 

Another strong trend in ice cream has been Asian ingredients and ice cream styles. While green tea ice cream has long been a favorite at Japanese restaurants, there’s been an explosion of matcha ice cream options in the past few years. The Japanese dessert mochi ice cream was the fastest-growing category in the ice cream market as of 2018, according to FoodDive. More recently, additional Asian styles of ice cream have taken hold, including rolled ice cream from Thailand, powder or snow ice cream from Taiwan and bingsu, a Korean style of sundae made from shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, and fruit, typically topped with ice cream. Other styles of ice cream include tropical ingredients such as purple yam and pandan from the Philippines, Mexican style paletas or popsicles and Indian style ice creams including the dense and creamy kulfi and falooda, a kind of milk-based ice cream float made with rose syrup. 

Korean-style shaved ice, chocolate pistachio bingsoo, from U:Dessert Story in Berkeley.

Recently there have been twists on the way ice cream has traditionally been served, too. Beyond the requisite sugar cones and waffle cones, you’ll find Asian egg waffles or Belgian waffles being used; one ice cream shop, CREAM, even turns cones literally on their side, transforming them into “tacos” to hold ice cream. And in many of today’s sweet shops, the wafer cookies of old-fashioned ice cream sandwiches have been replaced by the likes of glazed donuts and French macarons. What these twists all have in common? High-quality ice cream and handcrafted confections that are made to order. 

While ice cream is an indulgence, it’s not always an unhealthy one. Another trend mentioned in the Dairy Foods report is “formulations that fit with current lifestyles and eating habits.” In short, that means plant-based ice creams, frozen desserts made using probiotics, unrefined sugars, and alternative sweeteners like monk fruit, and ice cream made from dairy alternatives such as coconut milk or oat milk.

Interested in trying some of the ice cream styles mentioned above? Try ordering from one of the merchants below.

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San Francisco

Humphry Slocombe

SoMa, San Francisco

Pints include unique flavors like Honey Graham with a base of raw blackberry honey ice cream and homemade graham crackers, plus add ons like frosted peanuts and party packs.

Salt & Straw

Hayes Valley, San Francisco

Flavors that made the brand famous include Honey Lavender and Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper.


Hayes Valley, San Francisco

Decadent fresh flavors and some vegan options like Brown Sugar Chocolate, with cookie dough chunks available, too.

Matcha Cafe Maiko

Japantown, San Francisco

Matcha or black sesame soft serve in cones and parfaits, with layers of East Asian toppings including agar jelly, syrups, red beans, and mochi balls.

Lush Gelato

North Beach, San Francisco

Argentine-style Italian gelato featuring produce from local farms, like Banana Salted Caramel and Yerena Farms Strawberry.


Mission, San Francisco

Specializing in ice cream sandwiches made with brownies, chocolate chip cookies or snickerdoodles. 

San Francisco’s Hometown Creamery

Inner Sunset, San Francisco

With scoops like Madagascar Vanilla and Fresh Mint Chip, Hometown lives up to its “farm-to-cone” mantra.

Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous

Dogpatch, San Francisco

A San Francisco upstart focused on out-of-the-box flavors, from Sloe Gin to Chicory Coffee.

East Bay

U:Dessert Story

North Berkeley

Asian specialties including a matcha float with matcha ice cream and whipped cream and brick toasts filled with mango or Thai iced tea ice cream.

Mr. Dewie's Cashew Creamery


Ice cream made from a cashew base, with dairy- and gluten-free flavors such as banana nut and coconut.


Rockridge, Oakland

Decadent fresh flavors and some vegan options like Brown Sugar Chocolate, with cookie dough chunks available, too.

Little Gem Belgian Waffles

Telegraph, Berkeley

Signature waffle and ice cream creations, as well as customizable waffle and ice cream treats.

Fenton’s Creamery

Piedmont Avenue, Oakland

An old-school ice cream parlor in Oakland that’s known for its over-the-top signature sundaes.

Humphry Slocombe 

Elmwood, Berkeley

Offering ultra premium pints like Matchadoodle (matcha with snickerdoodle cookies), plus sundae kits, party packs, and a variety of sauces and toppings.

South Bay

Brooks Ice Cream Parlor 

Blossom Valley, San Jose

Classic and Indian ice creams, which are vegetarian and egg-free, including a falooda float, made from rose syrup and ice cream.


Willow Glen, San Jose

Handcrafted rolled ice cream in Asian flavors like Thai tea, ube and fresh avocado.


Raynor, Sunnyvale

Wide selection of ice cream cakes and scoops, with popular South Asian flavors like Alphonso mango and falooda kulfi.

Nox Cookie Bar

Downtown San Jose

Customize Nox’s generously portioned BIG’wich ice cream sandwiches with a choice of seven different cookie styles and a dozen different ice cream flavors.

Smitten Ice Cream

Santana Row, San Jose

Decadent fresh flavors and some vegan options like Brown Sugar Chocolate, with cookie dough chunks available, too.


Tin Pot Creamery

North Los Altos

Small-batch ice cream featuring local purveyors, plus waffle cones, bowls, and ice cream sandwiches.

Oh! Honey Snow Ice

Cuesta Park, Mountain View

Airy Taiwanese snow ice cream in bowls with toppings such as fresh fruit, cookies, condensed milk, handmade sticky rice balls, and sweet red beans.

Rick’s Ice Cream

Adobe Meadow, Palo Alto

Whoever said you couldn’t have ice cream and cake at the same time hasn’t been to Rick’s. Get one of their signature Ice Cream Cupcakes and pick from 10 ice cream flavors and your choice of yellow or chocolate cake flavors.

Scoop Microcreamery

University South, Palo Alto

Pick up a pint or more of home-made ice cream from this small mom and pop shop. Try artisanal flavors like Hella Nutella, Brown Sugar Banana or Thai Iced Tea.

Sweet Honey Dessert


Try a Vanilla Frost at Sweet Honey topped with an assortment of ice cream flavors, grass jelly, fruits and more. One thing you’ll learn for sure – Hong Kong knows its desserts.

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The list of restaurants highlighted in the story. Order delivery or grab pick-up from any of the places near you.


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