When it comes to ice cream, I divide the world into two categories: Häagen-Dazs and not Häagen-Dazs.
The latter represents ice creams of varying quality — some are good, some are bad and some are simply what I buy because they happen to be on sale. And the former? It’s, well, Häagen-Dazs, the epitome of what a frozen dessert should be: cold, creamy and utterly decadent. Sure, there are those fancy-schmancy ice creams made by hipster types who favor milk sourced from boutique farms. But I’ll stick with my Häagen-Dazs rum raisin, thank you very much.
Except Häagen-Dazs, with its mouth-watering lineup of more than 50 products (yes, there’s more to life than rum raisin), is seemingly no longer content to settle for its status as a first-rate but decidedly mass-market brand. Now, it wants to be part of the artisan movement, too. And to that end, it has not only launched an Artisan Collection of six new ice creams, it has also sponsored cutting-edge documentary maker Morgan Spurlock (of “Super Size Me” fame) to create a film, “Crafted,” that explores “what the artisan mind-set means,” as one Häagen-Dazs publicist describes the project.
To which I say: Do you really need to go there, Häagen-Dazs?
In case you’re one of the half-dozen or so remaining Americans who still eats canned tomato sauce or pre-wrapped American cheese, you may have missed the memo. But suffice it to say that ours has become a gourmet nation. Retail sales of gourmet products topped $85 billion in 2014, a 19.5% increase since 2012, according to the Specialty Food Association, the industry’s trade group. Add foodservices sales into the calculation and the gourmet industry is a $109 billion behemoth.
All this has clearly inspired mainstream brands (and restaurant chains) to hop on the gourmet — or, more specifically, the artisan — bandwagon. In turn, critics have called out the artisan wannabes for being just that — wannabes. After all, the dictionary tells us that “artisan” refers to products made in a “traditional or non-mechanized way.” Somehow, that doesn’t imply takeout pizza from a national chain.
But Häagen-Dazs, which is owned by global food giant General Mills and licensed in the U.S. by Nestlé, is a more complicated case. It could be argued that the brand has true artisan credibility. As the story goes, in the late ‘50s, Reuben and Rose Mattus, a New York couple with culinary ambitions, set out to make an ice cream with a higher butterfat content — remember the maxim: fat equals flavor — and no preservatives. And to distinguish it further, they gave it a Danish-sounding name — a nonsensical name, but a memorable one just the same.
Even in an era when gourmet was hardly a buzzword (much less artisan), the formula worked. Ice cream lovers gladly paid a premium for their Häagen-Dazs — the product sold for about 45% more than the standard ice creams of the day. But to Reuben Mattus, the popularity of his product was no surprise. “When I came out with Häagen-Dazs, the quality of ice cream had deteriorated to the point that it was just sweet and cold. Ice cream had become cheaper and cheaper, so I just went the opposite way,” he once said.
To a great extent, Häagen-Dazs hasn’t deviated from its formula: It still uses quality ingredients, it still sources its vanilla from Madagascar (considered the gold standard by many a gastronome) and it still swears by that goofy name. So, why is Häagen-Dazs suddenly going artisan? Surprisingly, the brand’s U.S. sales don’t suggest a need for a course correction: From 2012 to 2014, sales increased by nearly 9% to $636 million, according to data supplied by Häagen-Dazs. Moreover, Häagen-Dazs continues to win praise from hard-core foodies and taste testers. (The brand has ranked high in panels conducted by publications ranging from the New York Times to Consumer Reports.)
But apparently, that’s no longer enough for Häagen-Dazs. I suspect the lure of “artisan” as a potent marketing tool is just too hard to resist. In our food-snob culture, handmade is hip and small is the new big, so anything a mass-market name can do to glom on to the trend is considered smart positioning. As veteran food writer Allen Salkin remarked to me: “The new Keebler elves are hipsters in Brooklyn.”
For its part, the Häagen-Dazs team says it’s not trying to cash in on the artisan movement so much as to celebrate it — the Spurlock film looks at everything from artisan chefs to artisan knife makers — and to remind foodies of its historical connection to it. The brand also dismisses the idea that it no longer qualifies as artisan by virtue of its global scale. “We like to think that artisan is not about size, it’s about mind-set,” said Häagen-Dazs brand manager Kerry Hopkins.
And while Spurlock, a thumb-his-nose-at-the-establishment kinda guy, is already getting criticized for his partnering with a mass-market brand, he takes the view that Häagen-Dazs isn’t your typical mass-market brand — at least when it comes to ice cream. “It’s not Dairy Queen,” he told me last week.
But here’s the deal: Dairy Queen doesn’t act is if its Dilly Bars have that Brooklyn seal of hipster approval. Häagen-Dazs wants it both ways — to be big enough to be available at your corner market and “small” enough to seem like a small-batch ice cream. And yet, small-batch (or artisan) ice creams are typically available only in limited quantities or select markets. When I asked the Specialty Food Association to point me in the direction of a top artisan ice cream maker, it suggested Batch, a Boston-based outfit that was a finalist in last year’s sofi Awards (the foodie equivalent of the Oscars). I looked forward to sampling the ice cream, so I could compare it to my beloved Häagen-Dazs — that is, until I learned it’s not available outside New England. That’s how an artisan brand rolls, after all.
Speaking of sampling, I did get around to trying the Häagen-Dazs Artisan Collection, a line that the brand created by working with actual artisans who craft gourmet bonbons, cookies, jams and the like. But the Artisan Collection flavors I tried just weren’t very good. Or rather, they weren’t very good in that Häagen-Dazs way. I associate the brand with a culinary sparseness — its ice creams aren’t great because of their complexity. Just the opposite. When I taste Häagen-Dazs’ rum raisin, I get plenty of rum (albeit non-alcoholic) and plenty of raisin and not a whole lot else. When I taste Häagen-Dazs’s Artisan Tres Leches Brigadeiro or Artisan Spiced Pecan Turtle, I get an ice cream that’s trying too hard to win me over with a cornucopia of tastes and textures.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that artisan implies a product that’s complex. Artisan can equate to plain ol’ vanilla (and plain ol’ vanilla ice cream — sure enough, Batch makes one). If anything, the confusion about the definition of artisan may be the fact there’s no true definition — you can’t say something is certified artisan the way you can say it’s certified organic. As Salkin reflected, artisan is “a free word” for marketers to use. So use it, they do.
And mind you, as skeptical as I might be about certain aspects of hipster culture (let’s just say I don’t go for the lumberjack look), I like my artisan foods. On a nice Sunday, you’ll find me at Smorgasburg, the weekly Brooklyn Mecca of all things edible and artisan. (Among my favorite vendors: Brooklyn Soda Works and Porchetta.) And the last time I bought pre-sliced American cheese? It probably was when Clinton (as in Bill) was running for president.
But just because something isn’t made by today’s generation of Keebler elves, I don’t automatically write it off. Häagen-Dazs didn’t need to wave the artisan flag to convince me to buy its product. For while plenty of bright folks can quibble about the true definition of artisan, I’m pretty sure there’s no arguing the meaning of delicious. When Häagen-Dazs does what it does best, it always passes the delicious test.
And when you come right down to it, what more could you want from a bowl of ice cream?