Baskin Robbins Ice Cream (Photo by David McNew/Newsmaker)
Long before Ben & Jerry's made Cherry Garcia and Phish Food, Baskin-Robbins co-founder Irvine Robbins worked to break the vanilla-chocolate-strawberry juggernaut in America with flavors such as Beatle Nut and Lunar Cheesecake.
Robbins, who died May 5, 2008, at 90, recognized the frozen confection's appeal and opened stores dedicated to the dessert before the concept of an ice cream parlor existed. Partnering with his brother-in-law Burton Baskin in 1948 to form the company that would become Baskin-Robbins, Robbins saw their efforts result in "the world's largest chain of ice cream specialty stores, with more than 2,800 locations throughout the United States and 5,800 around the globe," according to the company website.
Robbins is remembered today as an innovative leader and optimist. "You look at any giant corporation, and I mean the biggies, and they all started with a guy with an idea, doing it well," he is widely quoted as having said.
He and Baskin were also early adopters of a franchising system, realizing that selling stores to their managers was a quick way to expand.
Robbins was the son of a dairyman and grew up serving up scoops in his family's Tacoma,Wash., store. "Sticking a scoop into the ice cream was the greatest thrill of my life," he once told USA Today.
He opened his first ice cream shop in 1945 after returning from service in World War II. Baskin, his sister's husband, opened his own store a year later. By 1948 they had six stores between them. When they merged the stores, they flipped a coin to see whose name would go first in the new chain’s name.
Two factors set Baskin-Robbins apart. One was quality. In 1954, Baskin-Robbins ice cream won a gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair. It has won gold medals every year, according to the company website.
The other was variety. The marketing concept of “31 flavors," one for each day of the month, is still in place today. The pair loved creating unusual flavor combinations and sought inspiration from current events and their travel.
After Robbins and his wife returned from a trip to New Orleans with souvenir pralines, they mixed the pralines with vanilla ice cream and a caramel ribbon – and Pralines 'n Cream was born. According to the company, “It was such a hit that stores all over the country began running out. Advice columnist Dear Abby pleaded in print for its return. Headquarters received petitions with hundreds of signatures. And in Santa Barbara, students picketed local stores until Baskin-Robbins delivered a special production run of the flavor. It has been a permanent flavor ever since."
When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, they were greeted with Baseball Nut ice cream, complete with raspberries for the umpires. Lunar Cheesecake was produced in honor of the 1969 moon landing. Just before the Beatles’ first U.S. tour in 1966, a reporter asked Robbins what flavor would honor the group. Baskin-Robbins hadn’t come up with one yet, but Robbins replied, "Uh, Beatle Nut, of course," and had it in stores in five days, according to the company
In a 1976 interview with The New York Times, Robbins – who said he ate three or four scoops a day – noted that Americans had become adventurous in their ice cream choices. “They’re not embarrassed to ask for some of these wild flavors,” he said. “I think we’ve had a little bit to do with making it more acceptable.”
He also famously noted that, "Not everyone likes all our flavors, but each flavor is someone's favorite."
Not every flavor made it to market. According to the company website, less successful attempts include Ketchup," "Lox and Bagels" and "Grape Britain." Robbins was enthusiastic about "Goody Goody Gumdrops," which combined vanilla ice cream with tiny gumdrops, but it was pulled from the market for fear someone would break a tooth on a frozen gumdrop.
Today, the company says it's created more than 1,000 different flavors, with Mint Chocolate Chip and Pralines 'n Cream its top sellers.
"I've even had people stop me in my car, which has the license plate '31 BR,'" he told Investor's Business Daily in 1999. "I guess some people think it's legal to stop on a California freeway if you're doing it for ice cream."
Baskin and Robbins sold the company to United Fruit Co. in 1967. Baskin died not long afterward, but Robbins stayed on as company chairman for 10 more years.
Robbins and his wife retired to a home with a six-flavor ice cream counter. And their boat? It was named "The 32nd Flavor."
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."