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Burt Baskin: More Than the Flavor of the Week

Legacy.com / Nick Ehrhardt

Burt Baskin: More Than the Flavor of the Week

Burt Baskin knew that a great dish of ice cream can brighten even the worst of days. And each day, people all over the world make their days a little bit better with a trip to Baskin-Robbins, the ice cream empire he founded with his brother-in-law, Irv Robbins. In 2013, the 100th anniversary of Baskin's birth, more than 6,700 Baskin-Robbins stores were spreading smiles and brain freezes in more than 30 countries around the world, 31 flavors at a time. The two men's passion for ice cream became a worldwide phenomenon, and their names are forever synonymous with the cold, creamy treats they created. Through hard work, shrewd reinvestment and a tireless dedication to flavor innovation, Burt built one of the most delicious legacies in modern history.

The man who would become a king of ice cream began his career selling men's fashions in a small shop in Chicago with his father, but life took an unexpectedly sweet turn for Baskin in 1941, when he started dating Shirley Robbins. Not only did Baskin meet his future wife, he also met his future business partner, Shirley's brother Irv Robbins. Irv was starting out in the family business, ice cream, having opened in his own shop in Glendale, Calif., in 1945. After a visit to California the following year, Burt was convinced that it was his business, too. Before they joined forces, however, Irv's father encouraged them to start out separately so that they would form their own ideas about what the business should be, instead of just compromising with each other to get along.

They did just that –– each building their own small chain of ice cream shops in California. In 1948 they merged into the enterprise that would become the giant we now know as Baskin-Robbins. Together, Burt and Irv revolutionized the way Americans thought about and consumed ice cream, thanks to three key innovations.

First, they sold just ice cream. Their focus on one product was unheard of at the time, when most ice cream was sold as an afterthought at diners and lunch counters. By concentrating on ice cream, they made a name for themselves as purveyors of a quality product. That led to their second innovation: franchising. The first franchise restaurant in America opened in the 1850s, so the concept was not completely new, but Baskin-Robbins turned franchising into a science by providing a standard product from a central location to all of their restaurants. The standardized product meant you knew exactly what you were getting, no matter where you got it.

But perhaps their most important innovation was their dedication to differentiation. In other words, Baskin-Robbins has a lot of flavors. Their belief in new flavors came about thanks to Burt's service in World War II. He ran a Navy PX in the south Pacific, where he obtained an ice cream freezer from an aircraft carrier supply officer and started experimenting with exotic fruits to create new and exciting flavors. He brought his love of flavor experimentation back to his civilian life, where he was always creating new tastes for his customers. When Baskin-Robbins opened, it advertised 31 flavors, one for each day of the month. It marked a quantum leap from the chocolate-strawberry-vanilla trifecta offered at most restaurants, and even a big step beyond the 21 flavors Howard Johnson's offered at the time. And Baskin didn't stop at 31. He kept inventing and experimenting, creating hundreds of flavors so that his customers always had something new to try.

The Baskin-Robbins formula turned out to be an enormous success. From their initial eight stores, Baskin-Robbins continued to expand, and by 1960 they operated more than 100 locations. They expanded to around 500 stores in 1967, when they sold the business to United Fruit Co. for $12 million.

What should have been a long retirement for Burt was tragically cut short, however, when he suffered a fatal heart attack in December 1967. He was just 54. Despite his early death, Baskin accomplished a great deal in his lifetime, building an empire from nothing but ideas and passion. His professional accomplishments stand as an example of what a dedicated mind can accomplish, and how sweet the fruits of labor can be.

Written by Seth Joseph