Baskin-Robbins Gives French Vanilla The Deep Freeze

Ice cream chain Baskin-Robbins has decided to retire five flavors, including French Vanilla. Michele Norris talks to Bruce Tharp, a consultant to the ice cream industry and winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers, about the difference between regular and French vanilla, and what the public reaction has been so far.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This next story is about ice cream, but a metaphor might be useful in serving up this tale. Think of a company that has to make a few layoffs. Someone's got to go, someone who might be popular or who's sweetened the bottom line. In this case, we're talking about the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain. And though they offer 31 flavors on any given day, they keep a stable of 1,300 recipes. Too many, apparently, because the company is going to retire five flavors: caramel praline cheesecake, campfire s'mores, apple pie a la mode, superfudge truffle and French vanilla.

French vanilla - well, that made us curious, so we called on Bruce Tharp. He's a consultant for the ice cream industry, and he's going to explain why French vanilla is now getting the deep freeze.

Mr. Tharp, we should say that you know a thing or two about ice cream. You teach ice cream food science at Penn State University. You won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Ice Cream Association.

So does this make sense to you? Is this a smart move for Baskin-Robbins?

Dr. BRUCE THARP (Adjunct Professor of Food Science, Pennsylvania State University): Well, I'm not going to pass judgment on whether it's smart or not. It is surprising because French vanilla does have a strong following among ice cream consumers.

NORRIS: What's the difference between French vanilla and regular vanilla?

Dr. THARP: French vanilla is distinguished from regular vanilla by the presence of egg yolks. It gives it a little bit of yellowish color, although that can be manipulated by whatever types of colors are added. What it does do is give it a characteristic flavor, sort of an egg custard flavor that people associate with that.

NORRIS: So why would Baskin-Robbins move away from this? What would be a possible explanation?

Dr. THARP: Well, it's hard to go inside their heads and decide why they would do it. It's possible, however, just speculating, that they may see that there is not a big consumer differentiation between French vanilla and regular vanilla, and it would be having two flavors in their line at any given time, which are quite similar to each other, and so they may want to make room for something else.

NORRIS: What do you think the reaction will be when people head to Baskin-Robbins and realize that French vanilla is no longer on the menu?

Dr. THARP: Well, there's - it's going to be a strong reaction among those who are devoted to that product. It's already showing up on the Internet in various blogs and things here and there, people ranting about the removal of their favorite flavor or something they hold holy or something like that.

NORRIS: Well, why are they ranting about French vanilla, and not about campfire s'mores or apple pie a la mode?

Dr. THARP: Well, I think that the appeal of French vanilla has been a lot broader than those other ones, and it's been around for a long - a much longer time. These other flavors are more temporal flavors, whereas French vanilla is part of history.

NORRIS: Now, what is the history of French vanilla ice cream?

Dr. THARP: Well, it's been part of the ice cream industry's product line for a very long time. I don't know for sure when it began, but it probably goes way back to colonial days. Egg yolks show up in very old ice cream recipes, including some that were made by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

NORRIS: And where did they make their ice cream?

Dr. THARP: They made it in their kitchens.

NORRIS: The old-fashioned way, with the hand crank?

Dr. THARP: That was even before the days of the hand crank. The hand crank didn't come along until about the 1840s. Before that, ice cream was made just by putting a bowl down and some ice and salt, and stirring it up with some kind of a paddle.

NORRIS: And stirring and stirring and stirring. You'd have to do a lot of stirring, wouldn't you?

Dr. THARP: Ad infinitum.

NORRIS: Well, Mr. Tharp, it's been a pleasure to speak to you. I think I have to go and see if there's ice cream in the freezer here at NPR.

Dr. THARP: Well, I'll do the same thing here, Michele. Thank you very much for having me.

NORRIS: Bon appetit. Thank you.

Dr. THARP: Bye.

NORRIS: That's Bruce Tharp. He teaches ice cream food science at Penn State, and he also won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Ice Cream Association.

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