Whether you have a sweet tooth or have been making ice cream since you were a kid, starting an ice cream shop of your own might sound like a dream career. And while there’s certainly the opportunity to have some fun when you own this type of business, you’ll also put plenty of hard work into starting an ice cream shop. It’s best to discover some unmet need in your community that your ice cream shop could fulfill, but there are also plenty of opportunities to start a unique shop that can attract customers. Before you jump into this venture, though, take a few minutes to understand just what’s involved in starting a shop of your own. 

Business Overview

Ice cream shops offer customers convenience and the chance to indulge in frozen treats. Many stores sell soft serve or traditional ice cream, as well as gelato, sorbet, and frozen yogurt. Some also offer milkshakes and smoothies. Most ice cream shops offer many different toppings and a wide variety of flavors, giving customers more choices and access to premium products that they wouldn’t have in their freezer at home. 

There are many different ice cream shop business models available today. The traditional model, where servers scoop ice creams and prepare sundaes, remains popular. But there’s also an increase in the “self-serve” model where customers prepare their own sundaes and then pay according to the sundae’s weight. 

Industry Summary

According to IBIS World, the ice cream shop industry recently underwent a period of growth, and the industry is predicted to continue to grow in the coming years. From 2014 to 2019, the industry experienced 1.8% annual growth, and the number of businesses increased to 14,040. The number of employees also grew to 124,191. In 2019 alone, the industry brought in $5 billion in revenue. 

That growth is due to multiple factors. During the same time period, the per capita sugar and per capita dairy consumption also increased, meaning more people indulged in desserts, like ice cream, than during previous years. The years of 2014 through 2019 also saw an increase in disposable income. More consumers had the extra money necessary to buy fresh ice cream at shops, whereas they’d be more likely to buy cheaper ice cream gallons at the store when money is tight. 

Industry Trends

Many trends are changing the ice cream shop industry. According to Food Truck Empire, one of those major trends is an increased demand for non-dairy ice creams, like those made with oat, almond, or banana bases. Lactose-free and low-fat desserts are also becoming highly popular. 

Shops can also take advantage of the demand for ice cream flavors and toppings that reflect the local community. This is particularly important in tourist locations, where tourists wish to experience the flavors of the area. Developing unique ice cream flavors with locally inspired names can add a special touch to a customer’s visit to an ice cream store. Ice cream shops that make their own ice cream have an advantage in this area, since they can make their own unique flavors. However, any shop can make a specialty sundae or shake that’s inspired by the local culture. 

Target Market

Most ice cream shops market to adults who may or may not have children. The target market of a shop has available disposable income and wants to indulge in a special dessert or snack, usually during the summer months. Tourists are often a primary target market, but shops also rely on local customers to help sustain them, especially if they remain open into the fall. 

Skills, experience, and education useful in running an ice cream shop

Opening and running an ice cream shop doesn’t require a business degree, but certain skills and experiences can make the process smoother and more successful. 

Food service experience. Experience in the food service industry, especially in an ice cream shop, will help a shop owner to understand some of the challenges that come with serving ice cream. 

Food service safety knowledge. A shop owner will need an understanding of safe food handling and storage procedures. This knowledge can also help an owner to acquire a food service license for the business. 

Ice cream making experience. If an ice cream shop is going to make its own flavors, then experience in making ice cream and in coming up with new flavors will be important. 

Customer service skills. A shop owner with strong customer service skills can help to maintain a great shop reputation and gain loyal, repeat customers. 

Management skills. Ice cream shop owners need to hire, train, and manage staff, so previous management experience is important. Additionally, ice cream doesn’t have a long shelf live to taste fresh.  Managing inventory and running specials to get old inventory out the door is important in minimizing waste. 

Costs to Start an Ice Cream Shop

It can cost $50,000 or more to start an ice cream shop, but exact pricing will depend on many variables, including the shop’s size and location. If a business owner can rent or lease an existing ice cream shop that has gone out of business, they can save on the major expense of purchasing some equipment and renovating the space. 

Common startup costs for an ice cream shop include: 

  • Equipment like freezers and shake machines
  • Inventory
  • Furniture
  • Supplies like cups and spoons and cleaning supplies
  • Signage

Steps to Starting a Ice Cream Shop

Step 1. Write your Business Plan

After coming up with the idea, the next step in starting your business should be to write a business plan.  Not only will a bank require you to have a business plan, but multiple studies have shown that a business plan helps increase the odds of starting a successful business.

Related:
How to write a business plan
Free sample business plans

Step 2. Form a Business Entity

A business entity refers to how a business is legally organized to operate. There are four primary business entities to choose from which include the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation and LLC.  Each type of entity has its own pros and cons such as liability exposure, costs and administrative requirements. 

Related: Comparison of Business Entities

 Step 3. Select your Location

While most ice cream shops could benefit from a high-traffic location, sometimes the cost of rent is more than is sustainable.  Shops in high-traffic retail locations will have higher rent costs, but the value they offer in terms of walk-in traffic and building public awareness of the business can help to offset this higher rent cost. 

Related: Choosing a business location

Step 4. Apply for Business Licenses and Permits

At a minimum, an ice cream shop will need specific licensing to be a food business (typically Department of Health) in addition to certification in food safety and sanitation.

In addition, there are general business registrations at the local, state and federal level that an ice cream shop might need such as a sales tax permit, Employer Identification Number, and Occupancy Permit among others. 

Related: Common business licenses, permits and registrations by state

Step 5. Find Financing 

Coming up with a good business idea and having the skills to run it are one thing, but getting the funding to start a ice cream shop is another.  Funding to start a ice cream shop can be difficult due to the often high cost of building renovations and food-related equipment.  In order to get a loan, the borrower(s) will need to have good credit and be able invest 15-25% of their money towards the total start-up costs. 

Related: Finding the money to start a business  

Step 6. Get your Marketing Plan in Place

A great shop location will help to generate walk-in traffic, but most shops also rely on marketing to help reach potential customers. Marketing techniques may include an active social media presence, print advertising, and online advertising. Local food and ice cream competitions and festivals also offer a way for ice cream shops to connect with potential customers. Marketing expenses will depend on the types of activities performed, but shop owners who can do at least some of their marketing activities can help to keep costs down. 

Related: Low-cost ideas to market a new business

Step 7. Get Insurance

An ice cream parlor will need several insurance policies to be fully covered: 

  • General liability insurance helps to protect the shop in case any customers are ever hurt while on the properly, like by a slip or a fall. This policy usually covers expenses like legal fees and medical bills. 
  • Commercial property insurance protects the shop in case its building, equipment, and inventory are ever damaged by an event like a fire. 
  • Worker’s compensation insurance helps to cover expenses like medical bills or lost wages if an employee is ever hurt while working. 

The cost of insurance policies will depend on many factors, and the shop’s location, the value of the building, the value of its equipment, and the number of employees can all affect price. Requesting quotes from multiple insurance providers is the best way to get an idea of insurance costs and to find the policies that may be best for a shop. When comparing the quotes, pay attention to variables in the policies like coverage limits and exclusions, premiums, and deductibles. 

Step 8. Hiring Employees

Any ice cream shop will need at least a few employees to keep up with demand during busy times. Indeed reports that ice cream shop servers earn an average of $8 per hour. According to PayScale, ice cream shop general managers earn an average of $12 per hour.

Employee salaries are just one expense that comes with hiring help. An ice cream shop may also need to budget for workman’s comp insurance, paid time off, and even health insurance contributions for full-time staff. 

Related: Hiring your first employee


Amazon has several books that go into detail on starting and running an ice cream shop:

How much can you potentially make owning an ice cream shop? 

Ice cream shop profits will vary depending on the shop’s size, location, and the presence of local competitors. Shops that can fulfill unmet need in a community, or that develop a unique model, like offering specialized flavors or dairy-free options, stand the greatest chance at becoming profitable businesses. 

Things to consider before starting an ice cream shop

There’s plenty of competition in the ice cream shop industry, so start start planning ways to differentiate your shop from others early on. Work to identify an unmet need in the community, and build your shop to fit it. Maybe you’ll decide to offer premium ice creams that aren’t available locally, or maybe you focus on also offering alternative non-dairy products for people with food allergies. Build your shop so that it’s different than others, from the decor to the experience to the products. This can help to build your customer base. Even investing in an ice cream cart can help to get the business out in the community to increase sales and build awareness of the business. 

Most ice cream shops are seasonal businesses, so plant to see your greatest income during the summer months. Many stores decide to close during the late fall and winter, but they still need to pay for expenses like rent and electricity during those times. Other stores remain open through the winter, but see reduced business during that time. 

Diversifying your shop’s offerings can help to increase sales even during the off-season. Many ice cream shops also sell candy, while some diversify into hot beverages and other dessert foods. Some venture into catering or establish relationships with local grocery stores so that they can sell their shop-made ice cream quarts in the frozen foods section, bringing in steady income. 

Resources: 
Ice Cream Alliance
International Association of Ice Cream Distributors and Vendors
National Ice Cream Retailers Association