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Dippin' Dots Does Coffee Dots

Dippin' Dots Does Coffee Dots

Dippin' Dots: The ice cream of the future! (photo by Creative Commons user eob)

Bruce Horovitz | USA Today

The guy who reinvented ice cream is desperately trying to reinvent his company — before it melts.

More than two decades ago, microbiologist Curt Jones devised a way to flash-freeze ice cream into colorful pellets about the size of BB’s. Now in a tough economy, the outside-the-box company he founded, Dippin’ Dots, is searching for a new concoction to take it beyond the quirky-but-costly ice cream’s seasonal popularity in amusement parks and stadiums.

“We changed the way folks eat ice cream,” Jones, 49, half-boasts. “Now, we’ve got to change our business model.”

Summer is the season when Dippin’ Dots rise to the top of every kid’s must-eat list. The company does 60% of its business in summer. But in this coming summer-of-the-recession, all bets are off for a sweet treat that at $5, $6 or even $7 a pop can cost cash-strapped parents as much as they’re used to plopping down for a burger.

The dots, cryogenically frozen with liquid nitrogen at 320 degrees below zero, are so tongue-tinglingly cold and flavor-packed that it’s hard for most kids to resist. The question is: Do Dippin’ Dots have legs?

“You’ve probably made up your mind that you’re going into poverty when you step inside an amusement park,” jokes Howard Waxman, publisher of Ice Cream Reporter, a trade magazine. “But something this pricey is an especially tough sell at retail outside the amusement park.”

Which is precisely where Jones hopes to go with the brand this summer via upcoming rollouts of Dots ‘n Cream ice cream blends and ice cream cakes. Yet that may be the least of Jones’ challenges.

Dippin’ Dots is several million dollars in debt after years of lawsuits and countersuits. Jones says although his company has millions of dollars in assets, the bank can foreclose on it at any time. Rivals have successfully sued Jones for filing an invalid patent. After stepping aside and letting someone else run the company for several years, founder Jones recently returned as president in a recession.

It hasn’t been easy. With sales tanking, he found himself laying off nearly a quarter of the company’s payroll — including the president and operations chief. And desperate for cash, he came within a whisker of selling the company.

So why is Jones still smiling?