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Celebrating 40 Years of 31 Flavors

December 11, 1985|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Baskin-Robbins co-founder Irv Robbins retired in 1979 and sold his Encino home with the ice cream cone-shaped swimming pool.

But he's still an ice cream man.

Robbins came to Washington this week to celebrate Baskin-Robbins' 40th birthday by opening an ice cream exhibit in the Department of Agriculture and sharing a birthday cake . . . an ice cream cake, of course.

Chain Has Alumni

Taking a few moments to reminisce about the Southern California-based franchise that made him a wealthy man, Robbins went to lunch in one of Washington's finer Pennsylvania Avenue restaurants, J. J. Mellon's, where the owner Joe Malhotra said that he had once owned a Baskin-Robbins store.

"It's been good to me, as you can see," he told Robbins with a smile as he seated him at a table.

Robbins, 68, said he often runs into successful Baskin-Robbins alumni, even though he has now retired to Rancho Mirage, where he swims every day, plays golf three times a week, collects classic cars and eats "a quart of ice cream every two or three days," occasionally dousing his morning cereal with it.

Robbins' story is pretty well known in Southern California. The son of a Russian immigrant dairyman, Robbins and his late brother-in-law, Burton Baskin, were operating six ice cream stores between them in the Los Angeles area when they decided to merge, flipping a coin to see whose name would appear first. They decided to sell their stores to their managers, thereby creating a franchise.

In 1959 the first Baskin-Robbins outside California opened in Arizona, and by 1965 the stores had spread nationwide. Now it is the world's largest franchised ice cream operation with more than 3,200 stores in the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, Europe and the Middle East.

The stores' trademark has been its selection of 31 flavors, the idea being that you could buy a cone every day for a month and not have the same one twice. The chain has now produced some 550 flavors, an undertaking that created, as a by-product, some of Robbins' favorite stories.

Some of the names were at least as memorable as the ice cream: Baseball Nut (in 1957, when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles), Beatle Nut (in 1961, after the singing group), 0031 Secret Bonded Flavor (during the James Bond craze), and Lunar Cheesecake (in 1969, when the United States put a man on the moon.)

One ice cream that Robbins thought sounded particularly refreshing was Cold Duck Ice, with a flavor similar to cold duck sparkling wine. But when the flavor hit the Japanese stores, store owners advertised it by hanging dead ducks around the stores.

"We almost collapsed," said Robbins.

Anybody's Suggestion

Some suggestions never made it to the store, like Statutory Grape and Last Mango in Burbank. But many did, and almost anyone could come up with a flavor idea.

Robbins recalled when he and Baskin were behind the counter one day and a boy walked in, apparently for his first visit in a Baskin-Robbins.

"He said, 'My god, I've never seen so many flavors. The people who think of these flavors must be plumb nuts.'

"Burt handed him a certificate and said, 'Congratulations. You've just invented a new flavor.' "

A short time later, Plum Nuts was available.

Kahlua ice cream tasted wonderful and Robbins couldn't understand why it wasn't selling.

"Then one of the owners told me that the average person is not familiar with Kahlua and cannot pronounce that word, and is too embarrassed to try and get it wrong," said Robbins. "So we re-introduced it as Fresh Coffee Liqueur."

Goody Goody Gumdrops presented a problem, which was that the gum drops froze in the ice cream "and became hard as rocks," said Robbins.

To alleviate problems like this, the Baskin-Robbins lab often comes up with new, freeze-resistant formulas for additives like gum drops, bubble gum, chocolate chips, peanut butter and coffee.

The company uses a $2,000 coffee pot more than six feet tall to brew its own coffee extract used in its Jamocha Almond Fudge, a process that Robbins said other ice cream companies do not use for their coffee ice creams.

"I cannot understand why people are so dumb," said Robbins. "I'm talking about our competition. They can't even copy it right."

The stores' top-selling flavor is Pralines 'N Cream, and the company has sued competitor Haagen Dazs for creating a Pralines & Cream flavor. The suit is pending on appeal.

Baskin-Robbins has underwritten the ice cream history exhibit at the Department of Agriculture, and it contains some interesting facts.

In AD 62 the Roman emperor Nero sent slaves to the mountains of Apennines to retrieve snow and ice, which were flavored with nectar, fruit pulp or honey.

First Lady Dolley Madison served ice cream at the White House in 1812 at her husband's second inaugural ball.

Religious leaders of the 1890s criticized the consumption of "sinfully" rich ice cream sodas on Sunday. So ice cream merchants responded by leaving out the carbonated water and calling it a sundae.

'Sissy Food'

In the 1950s, Gen. Lewis B. (Chesty) Puller of the Pentagon considered ice cream "sissy food" and refused to serve it to his Marines, asking instead for beer and whiskey. The public and the Temperance Union raised such an outcry that the Pentagon soon issued a statement announcing that ice cream would be served in Korean mess halls at least three times a week.

One thing the exhibit does not tell is Robbins' personal favorite flavor.

"I will change from time to time," said Robbins. "But right now I think the most outstanding flavor in history is. . . .

"Are you ready for this?

"Gooey, Chewy Chocolate. The flavor is magnificent."

Pentagon generals might even like it.

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