What Are Dippin' Dots, Really? The History of Cryogenic Ice Cream

Invented in the late-1980s, the novelty ice cream spheres are a cultural touchstone for many who grew up in the 1990s.

Dippin' Dots in a plastic bowl shaped like a helmet, being held in a hand.

If you were a kid in America in the 1990s, or really any year since, you probably remember your first taste of Dippin’ Dots. Maybe it was at an amusement park, a cool treat after the thrill of riding your first roller coaster under the summer sun. Or maybe it was in between innings at a baseball game, after begging your parents for what felt like hours. Regardless, you’ll never forget the sensation of the impossibly cold, impossibly round bits of ice cream. There was the crunch of biting into them, and then the sweet release of letting the ice cream melt, ever so slowly, on your tongue.

Back then, getting to eat a bowl of Dippin' Dots was far more urgent than understanding what they actually were or where they came from. But the history of the theme park staple is a story-worthy treat of its own.

Dippin’ Dots was invented in the late 1980s, when novelty frozen desserts like astronaut ice cream and frozen yogurt and flavors like bubblegum were already proven hits. The product is the brainchild of microbiologist Curt Jones, who was working in cryogenics, flash-freezing animal food, in 1987.

"He kind of had his eureka moment when he was explaining the technology to his family," says Dippin’ Dots’ senior director of sales, Adam Gross. "He said, ‘You know, if I were to put the same process to ice cream mix, I could create an ice cream bead.’ And then the light bulb went off for him."

The technical term, cryogenic encapsulation, is what happens when ice cream mix is dripped into liquid nitrogen. Conventional ice cream is made from a rich base, which is churned while its temperature is lowered to around 30°F. It's a gradual process that incorporates air and ice crystals to produce a rich but light-on-the-tongue dessert that melts easily. When that same base is dropped into -300°F liquid nitrogen, however, it freezes immediately, without incorporating any additional air. That rapid freeze also means there's no time for ice crystals to form in the beads. The result is tiny, dense, creamy balls that unfreeze extremely slowly.

After honing his process and polling friends for an appropriate name for the business, Jones and his wife Kay opened the first Dippin' Dots storefront in Lexington, Kentucky; flavors included vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, Neapolitan, peanut butter, and strawberry cheesecake yogurt. But the shop closed nine months later when they were unable to attract many customers. One year later, in 1989, a family member had the inspired idea to bring it—on vending bikes—to Opryland USA, a theme park in suburban Nashville that has since closed. “It started to gain some traction there,” says Gross. In 1991, the Joneses came up with the slogan, "ice cream of the future," which did wonders for their branding. By 1992, Dippin’ Dots was in the Kennedy Space Center, and that’s when people started waiting in lines for a taste.

After that initial foray into amusement parks, the product gained a near fanatical following and, thanks to franchised operations, could be found in places like stadiums, water parks, and shopping centers. By the late 1990s, Dippin’ Dots carried anywhere from 25 to 30 flavors, with top sellers including cookies and cream, rainbow ice, banana split, and chocolate chip cookie dough. In 2006, at the height of the company’s success, they were selling $47 million worth of tiny balls of ice cream. Since then, they’ve suffered through bankruptcy filings in 2011; ownership changes in 2012; and recently had to lay off workers, as many amusement parks, along with shopping malls and stadiums, remain closed due to the ongoing pandemic.

Dippin’ Dots is still shipping directly to customers’ homes, though the only direct-to-consumer option is a 30-serving bulk bag. I can personally attest that the dots arrive fully frozen, thanks to a prodigious amount of dry ice. They should be eaten the day they arrive, though—a standard home freezer won’t keep them chilly enough to stay in discrete ball for, and the dry ice can sublimate quickly.

A Dippin' Dots vendor at a carnival.

While Dippin’ Dots may be the granddaddy of cryogenic ice creams, it hardly has a monopoly on the category. Its top competitor today is probably Mini Melts, which markets itself as the more gourmet alternative to other cryogenics. They use a base with a higher butterfat percentage, which results in a creamier and richer taste. "It’s more on the level of Häagen-Dazs, where our closest competitor is more like a Good Humor," says Barry Bass, the South Florida–based distributor of the ice cream. The company claims that its higher-end ingredients attract a larger market. "It’s a product that appeals not just to kids, but to adults as well," Bass says. Like Dippin' Dots, Mini Melts also profits from its vending machines, which dispense the ice cream beads without the need for a salesperson—quite the benefit in these pandemic times. Later this year, they hope to offer local home delivery via DoorDash.

Novelty ice cream’s target consumer may be the young and sugar-obsessed, but there are even adult ice cream makers for whom the product still holds great appeal. Nick Morgenstern is owner of cult-favorite Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream in New York City, where his 88 flavors include combinations like banana kalamansi and burnt sage. Even so, for Morgenstern, novelty products like Dippin’ Dots play just as important a role in the history of American ice cream as more classic varieties. "They're really all about the innovation of their process and their production," he says of treats like cryogenic ice cream. "It was created purely from the technology of, ‘Look we can make this thing that's totally unusual and weird.’" While Morgenstern uses a fairly traditional approach for making his ice cream, he's also dipping his toe into the waters of more faddish concoctions. "I'm obsessed right now with ice cream novelties... We've been really pushing into that world," he says. "I’m constantly surprised at how much traction we have with focusing on the weirder stuff. We make it, and people buy it!" he says.

In 2015, Jones left Dippin’ Dots and founded 40 Below Joe, a concept that transforms coffee and dairy-free creamer into tiny frozen spheres. It officially launched to the public in 2018, and is now shipping directly to customers’ homes. One point of contention in the early development process: Would freezing coffee negatively affect its taste? "We started to experiment with it, and I found that I could still capture all the flavor and essence of coffee," Jones told Feast magazine. "Most baristas will tell you that as soon as you draw an espresso shot, you want to use it right away, because it starts to oxidize or change a little. That was my curiosity: I wonder if I froze it at 320°F below zero, if it would lock in? You’re putting it in nitrogen, which also displaces oxygen, so I thought maybe it would just lock it in. And then what would it be like a week, two weeks later? A month later? We kept checking it, and it never changed. We have some product that’s even a couple years old, and you can’t tell the difference from the day it was frozen."

Though Disneyland and many zoos have reopened and other amusement parks are sure to follow, many Americans aren't ready to visit though spaces. But for those who truly love the frozen spheres and want a little shot of nostalgia for the pre-pandemic times, (and have a family that can comfortably consume 30 servings of the treats in a couple days' time), ordering a bag online might help alleviate the doldrums of isolation. Alternatively, you can find Dippin' Dots in sealed single-serving pouches at roughly 12,000 convenience stores around the country.

It's safe to say the frozen spherical treats are here to stay, in one form or another. As Morgenstern notes, "They have a place of such cultural significance."

July 2020