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Supercold Dippin' Dots make for hot business

Once forced to sell one of his cars and raid his savings to launch Dippin’ Dots, inventor Curt Jones has seen explosive growth. The ice cream treat is now served at nearly 2,000 locations across the country, from mall kiosks to amusement parks and stadiums.
Curt Jones
Curt Jones, founder of Dippin' Dots ice cream, visits a kiosk at Cool Springs Galleria in Franklin, Tenn.John Russell / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Steve Rusakiewicz had never heard of Dippin’ Dots, much less wrapped his tongue around the colorful flash-frozen ice cream in BB-sized pellets.

But taking a respite from the muggy July heat at the Six Flags amusement park near this St. Louis suburb, the 28-year-old Rolla, Mo., man plunked down $6 for a medium-sized cup of the icy treat and instantly proclaimed himself hot for the dots.

“I gotta say, man, they’re pretty darn good,” a smiling Rusakiewicz said through his mouthful of Cookies 'n' Cream. He said the treat “starts off like a rock candy but ends up like ice cream.”

“This just blows me out of the water,” he declared. “I’ve never seen ice cream like this before.”

Curt Jones finds such testimonials supercool.

“When some people see it for the first time, it’s always interesting to watch their reaction,” said the inventor of Dippin’ Dots and founder of the ice cream chain.

Jones, a one-time southern Illinois farm boy whose entrepreneurial spirit dates to his teenage days selling everything from eggs to brooms, has made a mint with the tiny, cryogenically frozen beads of ice cream, sherbet and yogurt he invented nearly two decades ago.

Once forced to sell one of his cars and raid his savings to launch Dippin’ Dots, Jones has seen explosive growth. The ice cream treat is now served at nearly 2,000 locations across the country, from mall kiosks to amusement parks and stadiums.

Available in some two dozen flavors, Dippin’ Dots are sold on five continents, with prices often a bit of a premium over “conventional” ice cream. At Six Flags here, a five-ounce small fetches $5, a 12-ounce large $7.

Jones said he expects wholesale business this year to be near $50 million — about $14 million more than just three years ago. About half of sales come from national accounts including theme parks and stadiums, much of the rest from franchisees numbering roughly 150, many with multiple locations, he said.

The company has morphed from a one-man operation in Grand Chain, Ill., into a 200-worker operation based in Paducah, Ky. Jones said he expects Dippin’ Dots to grow about 15 percent this year, with franchisees to open about 50 new retail sites, half of them walk-in stores.

Such growth hasn’t gone unnoticed. Twice in recent years, Dippin’ Dots has been named to Inc. magazine’s list of fastest-growing privately held companies. In March of last year, Franchise Times magazine listed Dippin’ Dots tops among its Fast 55, noting that the company’s franchise units had spiked 13,154 percent since 1999.

“I always thought it had a chance to do well. But I’m kind of surprised by how it’s taken off,” said Jones, a 46-year-old microbiologist with expertise in cryogenics, by which things are frozen at hypercold temperatures.

Jones always loved fresh ice cream since the days he helped make it occasionally on the family’s corn, soybean and pig farm in deep southern Illinois’ Pulaski County. At the time, Jones made pocket money fixing radios or selling brooms for $3 a pop, eggs for 50 cents a dozen.

“It was always, ‘What’s our next venture and how are we going to make money at it?”’ he said.

At the urging of one of his community college chemistry teachers, Jones went on to study premed at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale but quickly shifted direction. Intrigued by microbiology from an industrial perspective more than a medical one, he landed two microbiology degrees.

One day, Jones was crafting a batch of ice cream with a neighbor when he wondered aloud if freezing the stuff faster would make it taste better, “less icy.” After months of tinkering with recipes and shapes, Jones in 1988 perfected instantly superfreezing tiny balls of ice cream using a nitrogen-based vapor.

Jones dubbed his creation Dippin’ Dots and proclaimed it the “Ice Cream of the Future.” He made it in his garage before shifting production in 1990 to what used to be a liquor store in Paducah.

Five years later, Jones opened a 32,000-square-foot Paducah plant, then spent another $7 million in 2003 to retool its production room, add liquid nitrogen tanks and milk silos, and build a freezer-warehouse covering 18,000 square feet.

“I just had no way of knowing the impact it had on some people,” Jones said.

Now looking to supermarkets for growth, Jones is test marketing Dots 'n' Cream — Dippin’ Dots folded into a more conventional ice cream. While traditional Dippin’ Dots are stored at 40 degrees below zero, Dots 'n' Cream — for now available in vanilla, chocolate, mint chocolate chip or banana split — is the first by Dippin’ Dots that can be stored in a conventional freezer.

Jones, who now lives in Nashville, also runs a music publishing company and even has helped produce an independent movie. He’s working to develop an ethanol plant in southern Illinois, not far from his childhood haunts.

In his spare time, he plays basketball three times a week and ballroom dances with his wife, which keeps his 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame “fairly solid” despite the ever-present temptations of his creation.

“I’ve gotta watch it a little bit,” the ice cream lover concedes.