8124 Transit Road, Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Cold Stone Creamery
Rating: [learn more]
Signature menu item, the ice cream Creation, remains one of the best - if least healthy - desserts around, consisting of any appealing combination of flavors and candies you like.
Actual ice cream isn't fantastic on its own, and flavors vary between locations; frozen yogurt is worse. Hard to walk out with something small.
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"Our favorite Cold Stone ice cream, the truly sublime white chocolate, has disappeared from the menu, removing the glue that kept us coming back over and over again for more."
When Jenny's Ice Cream in Williamsville started to offer the "smoosh-in," a physical mix of hard-serve ice cream with whatever candy, brownies, or other items you preferred, lines began to form outside of the small shop next to the village's famous red cider mill. Thus the very reason that Cold Stone Creamery seems to exist - the smoosh-in, renamed the "Cold Stone Creation" - was already well-known in Western New York roughly 20 years ago. Yet in recent years, the expanding Cold Stone chain has become the dominant vendor of this specialty form of ice cream, and now operates four stores in the area; with Jenny's in apparent decline, Cold Stone has recently been threatened more by its own growth than anything else.
The Story: To understand Cold Stone Creamery's recent troubles, you need to start by understanding its successes. Starting with one store in 1988, then two stores in 1990, the chain began to franchise in 1995, awarding its 500th franchise in 2002 and hitting 1,000 stores by 2005. Today, there are "nearly 1,400" Cold Stone Creamery locations, each specializing in selling the smoosh-in-styled Cold Stone Creations, as well as sorbets, pre-packed ice cream, and boxed cakes.
Rather than aping Dairy Queen, which thrives on reasonably priced small items, the formula here is Jenny's meets Carvel. And it has worked: visiting a Cold Stone location in any state results in a uniformly good dessert - a custom-mixed ice cream and candy dessert dropped into a waffle bowl, or a healthier sorbet and fruit mix served in a paper cup - that people have proved willing to line up for. Buffalo Chow's editors were frequent customers in California until we discovered something better. More on that in a moment.
Unfortunately, recent headlines - including one in the Wall Street Journal - have suggested that Cold Stone has hit a wall after years of aggressive expansion via franchising; in June, the Journal reported that over 20% of the stores were for sale as franchisees discovered that profitability was hard to achieve or maintain, despite selling cups of ice cream that average $5 per person. The problem wasn't necessarily over-saturation of the franchise - some thought that it might be - or a bad product, but rather a tough economy, non-competitive costs of supplies, and overly aggressive promotions to bring customers in. Add to that several regional surges in new Italian-style frozen yogurt popularity, starting in California and spreading to New York, and Cold Stone's future began to look shaky.
Highs: If anything's going to save Cold Stone, it's the power of the ice cream-based Creations, which continue to offer the sort of sinfully delicious dessert experience that health-conscious customers resign themselves to enjoying "once in a while." A Creation is based on a few steps: selecting your preferred flavor (or flavors) of ice cream in one of several sizes, picking various sweet ingredients, and watching someone behind the counter use two metal scoops to blend them together by hand. By default, the Creation is served in a paper cup, but if you want it in a waffle bowl - better yet, a chocolate dipped waffle bowl - that's always an option, and a wise one in every way save for your health.
Since the Creation is only as good as you make it, depending on you to choose your favorite ingredients from a large collection of less than obviously marked plastic containers, Cold Stone makes the process easier by offering wall-mounted menus of possible options. There are two options for coffee lovers, an Apple Pie version with actual pie filling, caramel, and graham cracker crust mixed in, and many chocolate versions; ice cream, brownies, chips, fudge, cookies, dough, blocks of Ghirardelli chocolate, and other chocolate items can be mixed and matched as you see fit. The chain also includes certain pieces of cake and fruit at all locations; certain shops have locally popular items, including more nuts, candy, and fruit choices.
Our photos show a waffle bowl-encased version of Coffee Lovers Only, which mixes almonds, Heath bar, and caramel into a coffee ice cream, as well as a cup-served version of Mud Pie Mojo, also with coffee ice cream, but adding fudge, peanut butter, almonds and Oreos. Both went down silently, without complaints - the sign of dessert satisfaction around these parts. Another picture shows a custom mix of items, and though we've never had a really bad mix here, you'll be safest sticking to the recipes on the wall if you want to be guaranteed happiness.
Lows: Our favorite Cold Stone ice cream, the truly sublime white chocolate - a mix of the chain's basic Sweet Cream and chocolate ice creams in a fashion that was completely addictive when fused with brownies and candy bar chunks - has disappeared from the menu, removing the glue that literally kept us coming back over and over again for more. On a recent visit, we tried to create a facsimile by mixing half of each type of ice cream with two our favorite add-ins - brownie and Heath bar bits - and while the resulting flavor was good, it wasn't quite right. Ultimately, it only takes one or two experiences like this to realize that Cold Stone's ice cream is nothing special; it's the fusion of the sugary, multi-textured ingredients with fine ice cream that results in a memorable dessert.
We were decidedly mixed on Cold Stone's new NrGize Lifestyle Yogurt offering, which like the ice cream is sold for a little under $5 with two items mixed in. As huge fans of the aforementioned Italian-style frozen yogurt, which has spread like wildfire from Italy to Korea to California to New York, and will hopefully continue that growth into this area, we recognized NrGize by its "tart frozen yogurt" description as a Cold Stone attempt to tap into the trend started in the United States by Pinkberry. We tried to order a version just as we've loved it elsewhere, the plain tart yogurt with pineapple and blueberries mixed in. Sadly, the Cold Stone version - hard-packed and icy, served at a temperature that freezes the fruit that's been mixed in - is only half as good as the versions we've had elsewhere, and costs just as much. Neither of the fruits tasted fresh, and the blueberries were some of the smallest we've ever had.
One of us described NrGize as "the closest option we'll have to real Italian frozen yogurt until Yogurtland or Pinkberry opens here," worthy of a recommendation to some people just to try it. If you do try it, be careful not to assume that all Italian-style tart frozen yogurt is like this; NrGize is not the real thing, it's just a decent placeholder.
Our only other comment on the Cold Stone experience is that ordering was somewhat of a challenge to endure for a while. Walking in, customers were greeted by a combination of seemingly forced, gimmicky phrases and uninspired teenaged singing that came straight from a not-so-bright corporate playbook on how to create a new franchised brand. The kids behind the counter were required to salute, with at least modest enthusiasm, the latest tip to be dropped in their jar; they were also trained to tell you that your medium ice cream was "a Love It size," and so forth. On our recent visits to the Williamsville location, all of the play-acting has disappeared - we hope, as part of an internal re-examination of the chain's typical customer experience - and frankly, we're glad to see it gone.
The Verdict: As much as we loved Jenny's back in its heyday, if we're looking for a sinful, smoosh-in-like dessert these days, we always go to Cold Stone. The convenience of its locations, the variety of ingredients, and the overall quality of its finished desserts all are continued lures, though the chain could stand to improve its ice creams and particularly its Italian yogurt offerings to keep up with recent premium dessert trends. Our feeling is that Cold Stone has a great foundation in place, and the ability to grow to become even better; if it declines, management will be entirely to blame.