In a normal year, during a normal summer, for most people warm days would be regularly and pleasurably punctuated with an ice cream. Whether you prefer a towering triple scoop of gelato or have a liking for ice cream encased in a sumptuous layer of chocolate and served on a stick, ice cream is synonymous with the taste of summer.
This year, however, isn't normal, and neither is this summer. What should have been the peak ice cream season for the Northern Hemisphere, saw instead most ice cream parlours, shops and restaurants shuttered for months. No care-free summer days spent lazing in the park, licking or nibbling an indulgent ice cream; our lives were socially distanced and in lockdown.
Despite this, ice cream is still a global favourite – but the ice cream industry has had to be nimble to make it happen.
Helping many ice cream makers was Tetra Pak, a world leading food processing and packaging solutions company. Close up, from these challenging circumstances, the company saw new opportunities for growth arise, which will help ice cream producers adapt now and thrive in the future.
"Roughly half of the world's ice cream is produced with the help of Tetra Pak equipment," says Peter Lindstrom, the Managing Director at Tetra Pak Ice Cream Solutions. Tetra Pak plays a unique role in the ice cream industry. In a nutshell, the company is the leading provider of equipment to make ice cream – from the mix-plant, freezers, ingredient dosers, extrusion and all the way to the end-of-line solutions - seamlessly integrating processing , automation and technical services.
According to Peter, although the world almost came to a halt during the lockdowns, indulgence did not stop. Instead it shifted shape as consumers sought reassurance from the familiar and sought out the delicious as comfort in their homes. The industry saw a move away from single serve impulse buys, which were replaced by a striking trend towards multipacks of premium ice creams instead.
"The larger brands in the market have definitely seen sharply growing demand for ice cream, but obviously not for single serve portions or food-services, but take-home bulk products and multipacks," Peter explains. "One of our customers, for example, saw sales of its premium product in China grow by 40% during the lockdown, much of it driven by e-commerce providers that do instant deliveries, enabling consumers to order a box of ice creams on a stick and have it in their home freezer within an hour."
It's a trend that was not limited to China: "Producers in the United States and elsewhere are experiencing significant growth as well."
For many, this growth opportunity came rather unexpected during this otherwise challenging period. To meet the need, says Peter, producers had to have access to the right distribution channels and have the equipment that made it easy to quickly convert the processing and packaging from single serve to a multipack production – with an emphasis on premium products. Distribution channels, however, were just as important, says Peter: "What we're seeing is that many smaller brands – that don't already have access to space in supermarket refrigerators – struggle because they relied on the impulse market and food services, such as selling through small kiosks and to restaurants etc."
In the longer term, however, there is potential for all ice cream producers to take advantage of the global love for ice cream. Peter anticipates that overall consumption will continue to grow, with more planned purchases and less impulse purchases. Those investing in innovative premium products now are likely to see the biggest upturn in the future.
"Most of the growth isn't in the lower end of the market, it's for premium products… consumers really indulged and are choosing the high-end options," says Peter. Consumers have discovered a taste for premium and novel products during the lockdown, with fancier ice creams – especially for products with "inclusions" in the ice cream like fruits and salted caramel proving to be especially popular.
Another trend that's here to stay is sustainability. Despite COVID-19, consumers still expect companies to stick with their environmental goals; since they want sustainable products.
Peter says that the demand for sustainability is not at odds with the trend for premiumisation, but rather supports it: "People who are prepared to pay for premium are also happy to pay a little bit more for products that they know to be sustainably produced."
Another big trend boosting the industry is the growing popularity of dairy-free ice cream. Consumers have many different reasons to go dairy free; it could be health reasons, food allergies, or concerns about animal welfare and sustainability. But while consumers are increasingly reaching for plant-based products, they ultimately still expect a product that ticks all the ice cream boxes: rich, creamy and delicious rich flavour – factors that can be difficult for manufacturers to achieve when using dairy alternatives.
Peter says that "consumers still want the product to be indulgent - the texture has to be the same and it has to almost match a dairy based product." That's where Tetra Pak's expertise in developing new products comes in; the company helps its customers to develop and fine-tune even the most unusual and complicated recipes to create delicious ice creams with all the added extras – from almond and fruit pieces to lashings of chocolate – whether they are dairy- or plant-based.
With 10 Product Development Centres (PDCs) globally, these specialised centres act as a one-stop shop for new product and category trials. They are uniquely equipped to address the technical challenges and opportunities of developing and reformulating food and beverage products in a cost- and time-effective, highly flexible way without the need to close down a production line to experiment and test.
That flexibility was tested in the wake of COVID-19 travel restrictions. From the specialised ice cream PDC centre in Aarhaus, Denmark, Peter and his team are helping customers to innovate with live-streamed product trials for customers that are far away and in lockdown.
Whether virtual or face-to-face, any product trial starts with an idea. "Ice cream invention happens either at customers or here at Tetra Pak," Peter explains. Most of the time, it's the customer who comes to Tetra Pak with what he jokingly calls "some crazy idea". However, Tetra Pak also has an in-house consumables group that discovers exotic raw materials and conceptualises the next generation of ice creams. "Together we are trying to create our own crazy products to inspire and excite manufacturers."
From there the trials and tribulations of product development get underway as Tetra Pak bring their expertise, equipment and most notably their Extrusion Wheel technology to put recipes through their paces. Peter says: "We need to test: is it sustainable? Is it nice and creamy? What happens to it after it has been frozen to minus 25 degrees?"
When it comes to the look and feel of a product, customers can easily assess that in real time, as they follow the trial live from afar; they can even see what's happening inside certain machines. To allow for tasting, however, for that all-important sensory profile, Tetra Pak arranges for samples from the trial itself to be sent to the customer. "So, you're not just relying on Danish tongues," he says with a chuckle.
The innovation doesn't stop at flavour and textures. Peter says they need to consider every aspect of new product development to help their customers get the highest quality version of the new products on supermarkets shelves, as quickly as possible.
To keep up with changes in demand, Tetra Pak is now helping many customers to upgrade or expand their lines with Tetra Pak's pioneering equipment, which makes it possible to quickly change between products.
Even during the pandemic, customers continued to invest in "premium equipment to cater for premium products." Already, Tetra Pak sees many customers invest in upgrades and expansions to be ready for 2021, COVID-19 or not.
The at-home consumption trend has also led to an increased demand for creative packaging options. "We are working with partners to continually develop the offering for multipacks and creating even more exciting solutions, where you can combine multiple products into one pack."
In the end of the day, Peter says, for the consumer it has to look "shiny and delicious. They buy with their eyes."
Ice cream is one of life's greatest simple pleasure for millions worldwide. But its production can be anything but simple, with ever evolving flavour and format trends, shifting consumer behaviour and a growing expectation for a company to be sustainable at every touchpoint.
Through world class expertise and state of the art end-to-end solutions, behind the scenes Tetra Pak is working to provide ice cream manufacturers not only with hassle-free flexible solutions, but increased efficiency, quality, sustainability and consumer-centred innovation too .
As the person who plays a key role in the production of half of the world's ice cream, Peter's insights provide an unparalleled and fascinating look at the frozen world of ice cream. But we could not say goodbye without getting one final inside scoop: What's his own personal favourite type of ice cream? "It's like choosing between your children," Peter exclaims when faced with the question. "It changes every day… being in the business I'm in, I like all ice creams." And can you blame him, when you have exclusive access to the ice cream flavours of the future.