EREMO, p. – The ice cream cone is never the star of the show.
Its role is clear: to keep the scoop upright, not to spill out and not overshadow the main player.
But being so supportive takes work. That’s why David George believes the cone deserves more respect.
“When you have a car, you know there’s a lot of engineering,” he said, standing next to boxes of bright red cones. “A simple cone sounds like a simple thing, but it’s not that simple.”
Mr. George is the third generation president of Joy cooking group, the largest manufacturer of ice cream cones in North America. You may not know Joy by name, but you’ve probably tasted her cones. Mr. Softee? A Joy customer. DairyQueen? So Joy. Your local ice cream shop? Probably.
Inside Joy’s 530,000-square-foot flagship factory in western Pennsylvania, one of four Joy cone facilities in North America – jumbo spinning furnaces that look like a joint partnership between NASA and Dr. Seuss operates 24 hours a day, producing 15 to 20 million cones per day during its busiest season, February to July. They include crunchy, squeaky cake cones; sturdier, cookie-like sugar cones; and wide-mouthed caramel-scented waffle cones.
These are cones designed to taste like childhood summers. They are as comforting as a piece of cake, as delicious as cotton candy.
Joy now produces 41.3% of the cones sold in American stores, according to an April 2022 report by IRI, a data analytics company, and probably more, since they also make private label cones. Malcolm Stogo, an ice cream consultant, estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the cones sold in the food service are Joy’s. Its closest competitor, Keeblercontrols 14.5% of in-store sales.
Joy’s rise has resulted from attracting past cone company customers or acquiring competitors. In March, Joy bought New ConeMister Softee truck supplier for over 50 years.
“They have the ability to control the business. They have the equipment to control the business, “said Mr. Stogo.” They don’t depend on any location, because they have factories all over the United States. So, frankly, I think they will be more dominant in three or four years. “
In 2010, when Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna they opened their Brooklyn ice cream shop, Large Dairy of the Hills, they only served homemade cones. “It lasted about five days,” said Mr. Smith.
They couldn’t make the cones fast enough and customers craved what they knew. Then they added Joy cones. (Mr. Smith and Mrs. Cuscuna, who no longer owns Ample Hillsserve both homemade cones and Joy a the Socialtheir new store in Prospect Heights.)
“If they weren’t making a decent product, I’d kick and scream a little more,” said Mr. Smith. Also, he added: “I think for most of us the cone is an afterthought.”
Not in Joy’s Pennsylvania factory, where cone making is a highly technical and obsessed process.
Huge barrel-shaped vats contain the pale batter for the cones, mainly flour, water, and sugar, along with tapioca flour for the cake cones. Joy uses brown sugar in her waffles and sugar cones, as Mr. George said this makes them more robust and sweeter.
A labyrinth of pipes transports the batter to another room, where it is sprayed onto cast iron molds that rotate inside the ovens at 350-400 degrees for between 90 and 110 seconds, depending on the size and type of cone. For the sugar and waffle cones, another machine takes the cones out of the molds and slips them into the spinners to be rolled up. A floor attendant inspects each cone for any imperfections: cracks, bumps, uneven coloration.
Joy focuses on her three basic cone styles. Special varieties, such as cookie conesthey represent only 4% of revenue.
“It’s already a niche business,” said George. “So it’s not like we always come out with new tastes, because then you’re talking about a niche of a niche.”
Where Joy has innovated is in its technology: a robotic arm that gently moves the cones from the oven to a conveyor belt to be packaged, or a machine that comfortably wraps and seals the cones. The engineers also modified the cone design, moving the grid pattern at the bottom of the cake cone upwards to strengthen it. Most of the cones are extremely delicate, and next to some machines lie stacks of broken cones.
Joy hasn’t always been a behemoth. Two Lebanese immigrants – Albert George, Mr. George’s grandfather, and a brother-in-law, Thomas J. Thomas – founded the company in 1918 in Brookfield, Ohio. It nearly failed in 1964 after a fire broke out in the factory. Mr. George’s father, Joe George, took over that year and concentrated on building proprietary ovens and selling cones in stores. In five years, the company was profitable.
Over time, smaller cone manufacturers have struggled to keep up with rising operating costs. In the past few decades, many have closed down or been acquired by Joy.
“The last thing I wanted to do was close my business or sell it to Joy,” said Ron Marinucci, who sold his company, Novelty Cone, to Joy in March. But he was about 60 and no one else was willing to take over.
“They make an extremely good product,” she said of Joy. But the problem with one or two companies dominating the business, she added, is that they can control prices.
Mr. George said Joy’s prices have only risen a few cents per cone over the past 10 years, roughly following inflation. Cones are an inexpensive luxury, he said. “We want to make sure this is always the case.”
Ice cream shops focus on this. Several owners said they preferred Joy primarily for their reliability and cost.
“Cones of joy are refreshing in their normalcy and not flashy,” said Victoria Lai, founder of Jubilee of ice cream, a series of stores in the Washington, DC area that serve the company’s sugar cones. As supply chain challenges make it harder to find ingredients, he said, Joy cones are constantly available.
But Kristine Tonkonow, the founder of the Konery, a cone maker in Brooklyn, thinks ice cream lovers deserve more options. “Imagine if Coke it was the only company that made fizzy drinks, “he said.” It’s really the way the waffle cone industry is. “
When he started the business in 2014, he looked at a Joy cone. “I thought it could be better. It could be more delicious, it could be cuter, “she said.
The cone should be as exciting as ice cream, he thinks. Hers come in bright colors and flavors like orange cream and salty blue corn. They cost three to four times as much as Joy, Ms. Tonkonow said. But she has a wide range of clients, including Whole Foods Market, theme parks and independent shops such as Malaysian ice cream in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
“I don’t think we could get past Joy,” Ms. Tonkonow said. “But we would like to give them a run for their money.”
Tiffany Parris, a Social customer on a recent Sunday, said she was interested in choosing a flavored cone, but only if she could have tasted it earlier. Otherwise, she “is too risky,” she told her, calling the Joy sugar cone she was eating “a classic”.
Susan Soorenko, the owner of by Moorenko, an ice cream shop in the Washington area, said Konery’s products were expensive and would complicate the ordering process. “There’s no way I’m going to offer that range of choices,” she said. “It’s a recipe for chaos.”
She uses Joy cones, but she doesn’t feel loyal to them. She finds the taste of the sugar cones too intense. “If a local company came to me, or even a non-local company, and said, ‘We can tiptoe with Joy,’” she said, “I would definitely try.”
But he doubts it will happen.
“The great thing about ice cream is that for practically everyone it is so tied to nostalgia,” he said. “That’s what you remember about your grandmother who took you out.” For many Americans, those moments are related to cones of joy.
Even if another worthy competitor shows up, “it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Because he’s competing with a memory.”