No matter how a young Jacob Goodfellow spent his summer days — swimming at the pool or riding bikes with his friends in his northern Virginia hometown — they often ended the same: at the soft serve ice cream shop.
The lines were long. But the wait for a brownie sundae was well worth it.
Years later, when Goodfellow returned home with his then-fiancee and now wife, Madeline, the soft-serve stand was their first stop. And when the couple began to dream of opening their own ice cream parlor in Utah, the Virginia store became a training ground, where they learned how to make a rich and creamy soft serve.
Now they own and operate William’s Dairy Bar in Provo. The shop, named after their son, opened in May, becoming the newest addition to a small but growing market of premium soft serve businesses in Utah.
Since 2017, the year that Buzzfeed named Auntie Rae’s Dessert Island in Holladay the best soft serve in Utah and about 10 years after the frozen treat started trending across the U.S., at least three soft serve-only businesses have opened in the state: Normal Ice Cream, Spilled Milk Ice Cream & Cereal Bar and William’s Dairy Bar.
Cloud Ninth Creamery, Ginger Street and The Churro Company also offer the airy confection in addition to other foods and desserts.
These modern businesses benefit from the drive-ins and drive-thrus — like Arctic Circle, Dairy Keen and Iceberg Drive Inn — where generations of Utahns and other Americans first tasted the signature swirled sweet.
In fact, Utah ice cream makers say that nostalgia factors into why they opened their businesses and why soft serve can outlast other trends — if you can call it a trend at all.
They also say soft serve provides more flexibility than other types of ice cream, making it the best ice cream on the market.
A love like no other
Alexa Norlin, who owns Normal Ice Cream, said one reason she opened her business is that she became fed up with all the “extra cold” drive-thru soft serve. It was all she could ever find.
“The only place in town I would ever eat soft serve at is Nielsen’s,” said Norlin, who ironically is lactose intolerant, “but it’s not even soft serve, it’s frozen custard.”
Spilled Milk owners Marvin and Sara Philip said their family enjoys being creative with their ice cream at home, so a similar venture made sense when they decided to open a business with their five children.
“We’ve always been a fan of mixing our ice cream with cereal,” Marvin Philip said. “... And we found a way to be able to do that with soft serve — to mix it inside rather than putting it [only] on the outside of our ice cream.”
William’s Dairy Bar, likewise, is a family business, with 3-year-old William Goodfellow happy to taste test.
“He likes a cone with chocolate ice cream, rolled in sprinkles, with a cherry on top of it … and a cup of gummy worms on the side,” his father said. “I’m sure it’ll evolve over time, but that’s his favorite setup.”
Flexible means fun
Invented in the 1930s, soft serve contains less milk fat and more air than traditional ice cream. It’s also produced at a different temperature. All factor into the taste, texture and appearance. But the merchants say soft serve edges out regular ice cream because of its flexibility.
Norlin, who worked as a pastry chef before opening Normal, said soft serve can almost be treated like a plate of dessert, while ice cream, even with mix-ins, is the same temperature and texture.
“A lot of the importance in tasting is about texture — almost more about texture than flavor. And if you have temperature differences, too, that just accentuates it.”
Goodfellow and Marvin Philip agreed. Ice cream, and some soft serve, can feel limited and too traditional, Philip said. Mix-ins and toppings can add varying textures to soft serve, like the crunch from a cereal or a candy. “The options are really endless for how people enjoy it,” Goodfellow said.
And the confectioners certainly have taken that to heart.
William’s Diary Bar offers 10 flavors, including black cherry and pistachio, and more than two dozen toppings, such as toasted coconut and brownie batter. The Goodfellows rotate certain infusions at least once a week, ranging from cookie butter to banana.
“A lot of people were really hesitant about [the banana],” Goodfellow said, noting that people don’t like artificial flavors. So he bought fresh bananas, pureed them and marinated them in the ice cream mix. “… And it tasted like real banana, and people were shocked.”
Spilled Milk serves seven signature flavors, all of which start with a vanilla soft serve and come in a flavored cone, such as green matcha, cinnamon brown sugar or coconut.
The most popular, Marvin Philip said, is Over the Rainbow, which includes Fruity Pebbles, Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms marshmallows, Airheads Xtremes and an Orange Dream cone.
“It’s definitely popular with children. A lot of kids love it, but a lot of adults who are young at heart love it, too,” Sara Philip said.
Normal’s offerings differ at each location. The store focuses on more conventional flavors, including the ever-present chocolate and vanilla, as well as monthly rotations like Earl Grey, peach and olive oil.
The truck — now called the Lab — features experimental combinations, like mascarpone soft serve with tomato jam, also on a monthly rotation.
Norlin said she finds a lot of joy in making soft serve and toppings that people have never heard of — stuff that’s different. She admits, however, that she’s toned down her flavors quite a bit.
“I just feel like you have to get them to try it, which is the hardest part,” she said. “... You kind of have to gain their trust.”
The best business to be in
Norlin said there’s still a little bit of a gap in the market, although Normal and Spilled Milk seem to be filling it rapidly.
Since opening in 2017, Norlin has permanently placed the Normal truck in Trolley Square, opened a store near 900 South and 200 East, and partnered with restaurants and retail stores. She also has launched a Normal Pint Club and dessert workshops.
Since launching the first Spilled Milk truck in Sugar House in June 2019, the Philips have expanded their fleet to five trucks across Utah and plan to open a brick-and-mortar location in Salt Lake City’s 900 East and 900 South neighborhood later this year.
Meanwhile, Goodfellow said opening William’s Dairy Bar during the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult, but business has been good — although the success might be due in part to the state’s triple digit temperatures.
People buy soft serve for the same reason the confectioners started their companies: because they love it and it reminds them of their childhood. And they buy it from Normal, Spilled Milk and William’s Dairy Bar because those shops provide a high-quality product and exceptional service, the owners say.
“I always tell myself the only reason we can be unapologetic and do whatever we want is because we have, for the most part, exceptional customer service and a perfect product,” Norlin said. “Obviously, you know, everybody has their downfalls on certain days, but we really do strive for that.”
The Philips also say the Spilled Milk experience is important to them. They want customers to indulge in all their senses — the taste of the soft serve, the sight of the signature cones, the sound of the music booming from their trucks.
Sara Philip loves handing customers their cones, then watching their reactions. “It is the best business to be in, serving ice cream,” she said, “because you just get to see people be happy, and it’s awesome.”
“There’s something magical about it,” he said. “My favorite moments are always when little kids come in here ... and we hand them this beautiful cone covered in sprinkles, and they just light up. And that takes me back to when I was experiencing that as a kid, and to see my son experience that, too, it’s a truly special thing.”
Soft serve shops
The soft serve shops also offer such items as milkshakes, ice cream bars and floats, as well as gluten-free, vegan and sugar-free options. See their websites for details.
Normal Ice Cream • 169 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City, or the Lab at Trolley Square, 602 E. 500 South, east entrance; 385-299-5418. Both open noon-10 p.m. daily. Currently, all orders must be placed online at normal.club for pickup.
Spilled Milk Ice Cream & Cereal Bar • 900 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City; 900 E. 12313 South, Draper; and 310 E. 800 South, Orem. Open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and noon-11 p.m. Saturday. Also at 254 S. 200 East, Roosevelt. Open 3-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Text 801-556-1715 or visit spilledmillkicecream.com for other times and locations.
William’s Dairy Bar • 490 N. Freedom Blvd., Provo; 385-268-5150 or williamsdairybar.com. 3-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 3-11 p.m. Friday, 1-11 p.m. Saturday.
Correction: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 4: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Normal Pint Club and Normal Ice Cream's dessert workshops are two separate features..