Courtney Lay is the Ice Cream Queen — well, officially, the business development manager for ice cream, novelties and frozen desserts at H-E-B corporate in San Antonio. That's a mouthful, but not a surprising career development for her.
“I’ve always been an ice cream fanatic. When I was 14 or 15, I got a work permit for my first job at the Peppermint Stick restaurant in Long Grove, Illinois. My favorite part of the job was making shakes and malts in those old-fashioned metal cups. I’d always ask the customers if they wanted the extra in the cup. If they said no, I’d drink it,” Lay laughs.
That could be the greatest perk ever in the history of the American labor movement.
Until now, maybe. Every Tuesday and Thursday, she has standing two-hour sessions with her staff. They taste ice cream, brainstorm new flavors, try to predict trends, and discuss the virtues of chocolate vs. cherry vanilla. Lay says she balances her work-related consumption with exercise and yoga.
These days Lay’s pet project is Swoon, H-E-B’s new line of super premium ice cream designed to compete and beat those high-end, high-priced pints from Ben & Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs, and other ritzy ice cream makers. Swoon spent three years in development before hitting H-E-B supermarkets this summer. Its target demo: customers who want deep, knee-shaking flavors — and don’t mind paying a little extra for their favorite diet buster. Swoon pints go for $3.98, about a buck less than the next freezer case over. H-E-B landed on the name Swoon after suggesting several names to customers in the testing stage. (One of the rejects was "LegenDairy." Too punny.)
Swoon currently has nine flavors: Cherry Pistachio, Texas Brownie a la Mode, Banana S’mores, Triple Chocolate (has H-E-B been reading my diary?), Coconut Horchata, Walnut Carrot Cake, Dulce Churro, Chocolate Hazelnut Swirl, and Salted Caramel — with more to come. Next up are Blueberry Streusel and Cookie Lovers. Lay’s goal is to have 21 flavors to Swoon over.
With her last name, shouldn't Lay be working in potato chips instead of ice cream? "I was teased about that all the time when I was growing up," she says. "I guess I'm just more of a sweets person."
I used to think that supermarket house brands were leftovers or factory seconds from established food manufacturers. Say Bird’s-Eye bought too much green beans, or a batch of beans didn’t look exactly right. Bird’s-Eye would sell the extra beans to a supermarket, who’d slap their own label on them and sell them for slightly less than the national brands.
Wrong. “We have our own ice cream plant in San Antonio,” says Lay. “We make only HEB products there. We have several lines of ice cream, from Hill Country Fare to Creamy Creations to Swoon. We make a lot of ice cream in our plant. We test our new ice cream products in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio before we put anything in the stores. We must have tested 50 flavors of Swoon before releasing the nine flavors we have now,” Lay said.
One of the rejected flavors: Strawberry Red Velvet Cheesecake. Customers turned thumbs down during the testing stage. Good decision.
“The biggest challenge for us is to educate our customers that we actually do make our own products. Creamy Creations ice cream came out 20 years ago. When we went to markets with Creamy Creations, many of our customers didn’t understand it, or even understand it today. We have more than 100 partners (employees) in our ice cream facility and they really are ice cream fanatics.”
What makes it premium?
Naturally the government sticks its nose (I would suggest spoons) in the ice cream industry. For a product to be labeled “ice cream,” it must contain at least 10 percent butterfat. Then there are categories: “premium” ice cream has between 12 and 14 percent butterfat, “super premium” between 16 and 18 percent butterfat. “Super premium” usually is denser, heavier, and has more “inclusions.” (That’s industry talk for mix-ins.) Anything higher than 18 percent butterfat and you’d need a jackhammer for the first few bites.
Hill Country Fare is “ice cream.” Creamy Creations is “premium.” Swoon is “super premium.” Anything below 10 percent butterfat is “frozen dessert” and no thank you. That’s the big ol’ tub of ice cream you buy for when your kids have friends over.
While the government imposes butterfat levels for ice cream, it doesn’t monitor the industry to make sure everybody’s following the rules. There’s a shock. Think I’ll tweet that tomorrow around 5 am.
H-E-B came up with fanciful flavors for its Swoon line, but the names accurately describe what’s under the lid. There’s no wondering what’s in the pint, like Chubby Hubby or Phish Food from Ben & Jerry’s. You won’t need to bring your reader glasses to the frozen food aisle for the fine print. (They’ll fog up, anyway.) Lay likes to spell it out. There’s no mystery to Cherry Pistachio.
Will there ever be a decent low-carb ice cream? Because so far, not even close. Those 230-calories per pint brands aren’t making it for me, either.
“We are always thinking about developing that — I call it the ‘better for you’ category. It’s definitely the wave of the future. People are looking for healthier options. They want to indulge, but feel good about it.”