Where the ice cream cones come from in Dairy Queen and Mister Softee

HERMITAGE, Pa. — The ice cream cone is never the star of the show.

Its role is clear: keep the scoop upright, don’t filter, and don’t overshadow the main player.

But being so supportive requires work. For this reason, David George believes that the cone deserves more respect.

“When you have a car, you know it takes a lot of engineering,” he said, standing next to bright red cone boxes. “A simple cone sounds like something simple, but it’s not that simple.”

Mr. George is the third generation president of the Joy Baking Group, the largest manufacturer of ice cream cones in North America. You may not know Joy by name, but you’ve probably tried her cones. Mr Softee? A happy customer. The queen’s diary? Also Joy. Your local ice cream parlor? Probably.

As the kingdom of ice cream has expanded, with more flavors, toppings, and trendy treats introduced each year, the world of cones has only gotten smaller. Joy has cornered the cone market on a basic premise: When it comes to cones, people don’t want creativity. They want familiarity.

Inside Joy’s 530,000-square-foot flagship factory in western Pennsylvania, one of four Joy Cone facilities in North America Giant rotating kilns that look like a joint partnership between NASA and Dr. Seuss run 24 hours a day and churn out 15 to 20 million cones a day during their busiest season, February through July. They include crunchy and squeaky cake cones; sturdier sugar cones, like cookies; and caramel-scented wide-mouth waffle cones.

These are cones designed to taste like the summers of childhood. They are as comforting as a piece of cake, as delicious as cotton candy.

Joy now makes 41.3 percent of the cones sold in U.S. stores, according to an April 2022 report from IRI, a data analytics company, and likely more since it also makes private-label cones. Malcolm Stogo, an ice cream consultant, estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the cones sold in food service are from Joy. Its closest competitor, Keebler, controls 14.5 percent of store sales.

Joy’s rise has come from attracting customers from past cone companies or acquiring competitors. In March, Joy purchased Novelty Cone, the supplier of Mister Softee trucks for more than 50 years.

“They have the ability to control the business. They have the team to control the business,” Stogo said. “They are not dependent on any particular location, because they have factories all over the United States. So frankly, I think they’ll be more dominant three or four years from now.”

In 2010, when Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna opened his ice cream shop in Brooklyn, Ample Hills Creamery, they only served homemade cones. “That lasted about five days,” Smith said.

They couldn’t make cones fast enough, and customers wanted what they tasted like. So they added the Joy cones. (Mr. Smith and Mrs. Cuscuna, who no longer own Ample Hills, serve homemade cones and Joy cones at Social, their new store in Prospect Heights.)

“If they weren’t making a decent product, I’d be kicking and screaming some more,” Smith said. Plus, he added, “I think for most of us, the cone is an afterthought.”

Not at Joy’s factory in Pennsylvania, where cone making is a highly technical and obsessive process.

Huge barrel-shaped vats hold the pale batter for the cones, mostly 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 stronger and sweeter.

A maze of pipes carries the dough to another room, where it is injected into cast-iron molds that rotate inside ovens at 350 to 400 degrees for 90 to 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 slides them onto the rotating wheels to roll them up. A floor worker inspects each cone for blemishes: cracks, bumps, uneven coloration.

Joy focuses on her three basic taper styles. Specialty varieties, like cookie cones, make up just 4 percent of revenue.

“It’s already a niche business,” George said. “So it’s not like we come out with new flavors all the time, because then you’re talking about a niche niche.”

Where Joy has innovated is in her technology: a robotic arm that gently moves the cones from the oven to a conveyor belt for packaging, or a machine that conveniently wraps and seals the cones. Engineers also modified the cone design, moving the grid pattern at the bottom of the cake cone up to strengthen it. Most of the cones are extremely delicate and there are lots of broken cones next to some machines.

Joy wasn’t always a giant. Two Lebanese immigrants, Albert George, Mr. George’s grandfather, and his brother-in-law, Thomas J. Thomas, founded the company in 1918 in Brookfield, Ohio. It almost went bankrupt in 1964 after a fire broke out in the factory. Mr. George’s father, Joe George, took over that year and focused on building patented ovens and selling cones in stores. Within five years, the company was profitable.

Over time, smaller cone makers have had a hard time keeping up with rising operating costs. In recent decades, many have closed or been acquired by Joy.

“The last thing I wanted to do was close my company or sell it to Joy,” said Ron Marinucci, who sold his company, Novelty Cone, to Joy in March. But he was in his 60s and no one else was willing to take over.

“They make an extremely good product,” he 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 prices have risen only a few cents a cone over the last 10 years, roughly tracking inflation. Cones are an inexpensive luxury, he said. “We want to make sure it’s always like that.”

Ice cream parlors bet on that. Several owners said they preferred the Joy primarily because of its reliability and cost.

“Joy cones are refreshing in their normality and not in their glitz,” said Victoria Lai, founder of Ice Cream Jubilee, a series of stores in the Washington, DC area that serve the company’s sugar cones. As supply chain challenges make finding ingredients more difficult, she said, Joy cones are always available.

But Kristine Tonkonow, the founder of Konery, a cone maker in Brooklyn, thinks ice cream lovers deserve more options. “Imagine if Coca-Cola was the only company that made soft drinks,” she said. “That really is what the waffle cone industry is like.”

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 prettier,” she said.

The cone must be as exciting as the ice cream, she thinks. Theirs come in bright colors and flavors like Orange Creamsicle and Salty Blue Corn. They cost three to four times as much as Joy’s, Tonkonow said. But he has a wide range of customers, including Whole Foods Market, theme parks and independent stores like Malai Ice Cream in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

“I don’t think we can top Joy,” Tonkonow said. “But we’d like to give them a run for their money.”

Tiffany Parris, a customer of the Social on a recent Sunday, said she was interested in choosing a flavored cone, but only if she could try it first. Otherwise, “it’s too risky,” she said, calling the Joy sugar cone she was eating “a classic.”

Susan Soorenko, owner of Moorenko’s, a Washington-area ice cream parlor, said Konery’s products were expensive and would complicate the ordering process. “I am in no way offering that variety of options,” she said. “It’s a recipe for chaos.”

She wears Joy cones, but doesn’t feel loyal to them. She finds the flavor of the sugar cones too intense. “If a local business came to me, or even a non-local business, and said, ‘We can go toe-to-toe with Joy,'” she said, “I would absolutely give it a try.”

But she doubts that will happen.

“The thing about ice cream is that, for pretty much everyone, it’s very much tied to nostalgia,” he said. “It’s what you remember that your grandmother took you out.” For many Americans, those moments are tied to Joy Cones.

Even if another worthy competitor emerges, “it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Because he is competing with a memory.”

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