Ranking chain ice cream shops from worst to first

Few things are as universally pleasurable as a scoop of ice cream on a hot summer day. There is something about the cool, creamy, and perfectly sweet sensation of the frozen treat on our lips that reminds us of the good things in life — birthday parties, holidays, and the always-anticipated last day of school. 

In fact, for many of us, the sheer delight of enjoying ice cream in its many forms is so powerful that we refuse to allow our indulgence to be limited to a particular season or special occasion. Thankfully, this need has been recognized and celebrated by many chain restaurateurs, resulting in a plethora of year-round ice cream shops for us to choose from. 

Alas, not all ice cream is created equal and it can be overwhelming to figure out which places are worth the trip — and which you should probably skip. For this reason, we have done the work for you and ranked chain ice cream shops for you, from worst to first. You are welcome. 

14. Dippin' Dots

Dippin' Dots is a familiar staple for people with kids, people who were kids in the 90s, or childless adults who, for one reason or another, spend a lot of time at amusement parks (no judgment!). Invented in 1988 by Curt Jones, a microbiologist, Dippin' Dots is what happens when you mix cream and sugar with cryogenic technology. Sounds scientifically delicious, right? 

Here's the problem — Dippin' Dots is ice cream the same way that Soylent is food. In other words, not so much. This is not to say that a cup of colorful frozen pellets isn't a neat-o treat for the kids to experience in-between rides at Chuck E. Cheese. It's just that once the novelty of eating something akin to frozen Nerds wears off, which is basically immediately, it's hardly worth a return visit. For frosty treat geeks who are interested in ice cream that is created in a lab, you might be better satiated at Creamistry (we'll get to that one later). 

13. Carvel

Perhaps best known for their ice cream cakes, touting such names as Fudgey the Whale and Cookie Puss, Carvel's confections have been a fixture at kids parties for decades (Fudgey turned 40 in 2017). Founded by Greek-American Tom Carvel (nee Athanassios Karvelas) in 1929, Carvel initially cornered the market with their innovative "soft ice cream" (aka soft-serve) and quirky commercials

Since then, however, Carvel has done little to bring their products up to the dessert standards of today. Despite adding some interesting flavors to their repertoire, like Kit-Kat and cotton candy, the uber-soft, somewhat watery consistency of Carvel ice cream does little to excite us. Nevertheless, points are given for the nostalgia attached to the nearly century-old brand. Old favorites like the flying saucer and other well-known Carvel treats represent something bigger than just dessert — they are the realization of an American Dream. Therefore, Carvel will always have a place on our list (just not a great one).

12. Baskin-Robbins

When it comes to chain ice cream shops, Baskin-Robbins is about as chainy as chain can get. With more than 7,900 locations around the world, this megachurch of frozen goodies is a presence in just about any city, borough, or township you might happen to find yourself in. Although the brand has become a corporate entity, Baskin-Robbins' well-known 31-flavor concept, offering a different flavor for each day of the month, is  what put them on the map. 

But what Baskin-Robbins offers in retail availability and flavor diversity, it lacks in texture and satiation. While some of their flavors are a little interesting, most fail to deliver a full-bodied, palate-pleasing experience like many its competitors. Even their short-lived Stranger Things 3 marketing gimmick did little to improve their reputation as generic. Ultimately, Baskin-Robbins probably remains a local fixture because of its vast selection of flavors and reasonable prices, which continue to make them a favorite for family outings (and Ferris Bueller) — not because they have the best ice cream in town. However, that corporate backing probably doesn't hurt much either. 

11. Cold Stone Creamery

If you have ever been to Arizona in the summertime, you know how important ice cream is to one's survival. With temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees, it is no wonder that one of the country's most popular ice cream chains, Cold Stone Creamery, was born out of Tempe, Arizona

The concept of Cold Stone Creamery is that ice cream should not only be delicious, it should also have a lot of stuff in it. While ordering a simple scoop of ice cream is permitted (we think), the whole point of going to Cold Stone is to have a crew member toss your chosen flavor onto a frosty slab of stone (hence "cold stone") and manually mix-in one or more goodies of your choice (sometimes known as toppings). The icy temp of the cold stone prevents your personalized concoction from melting during the mixing process. Once completed, you are handed a unique amalgamation of your palette preferences. Viola!

Cold Stone ice cream is good — it is dense and creamy, and they offer a wide variety of favors, like cake batter, cheesecake, and cotton candy. The main issue with their choose-your-own-adventure gimmick is that it creates the paradox of choice. It can be hard, maybe even stressful, to decide what base plus mix-ins is going to generate the desired flavor outcome. This sometimes leads to regret and/or a tummy ache, and almost always in long waiting lines. 

10. Friendly's

We know what you are thinking and before you question our credibility for ranking Friendly's higher than Cold Stone or Baskin-Robbins, allow us to explain. 

While not a national treasure, and certainly not as popular as they once were, Friendly's continues to be an east coast staple. Although the chain restaurant offers a full food menu, everyone knows that their ice cream is where it's at. However, nothing about Friendly's is sophisticated or cool (other than the actual temperature of the ice cream). 

They deliver well on the classics, like hot fudge sundaes, and even present some funky variations. They are also pretty good about flavor and toppings diversity. Having a good handle on the demographic of their client base and competitors, Friendly's has done their part to offer things like the Friend-Z, which is comparable to the beloved Dairy Queen Blizzard. Though Friendly's ice cream is not the best quality, their prices do not reflect a claim otherwise, and we admire their dedication to the fun of ice cream and continued enthusiasm to stay in the game.

9. Shake Shack

With its roots in a New York City hot dog stand, Shake Shack quickly morphed from a roadside quick bite into kind of a big freakin' deal. The title is deceiving, however, as there is a lot more to Shake Shack than just shakes. In fact, they don't even serve ice cream. They serve frozen custard which may be enjoyed by way of cup, cone, float, or concrete. For those not in the know, the main difference between ice cream and frozen custard is that, in addition to milk and cream, custard is made with egg yolks. This extra ingredient is what is responsible for frozen custards dense flavor and consistency.  

But is Shake Shack really all its shaked up to be? 

One benefit of visiting Shake Shack is that, depending on where you live, it might be your only chance to experience the delight of frozen custard. Also, for the semi-health conscious with an occasional penchant for fried food and a sweet tooth, Shake Shack seems to be a nice compromise. In contrast to most chains, the simplicity and transparency of Shake Shack's ingredients and sourcing helps its customers feel good (or at least less guilty) about scarfing down a 3,000-calorie meal in one sitting. While no one believes that ice cream (or frozen custard) is healthy, knowing that your milkshake was made sans artificial growth hormones does help some sleep better at night. As far as taste goes though, the shack doesn't do all that much to shake us up — in fact, they're pretty boring.

8. Dairy Queen

One of the more universally-known ice cream shop chains, Dairy Queen has earned its place on our list with the long-standing popularity of signature items like the Blizzard, which has several different flavor profiles to choose from. Their classic chocolate-dipped soft-serve cone, DQ bakes, and Dilly bars have also been known to bring the boys to the yard. In fact, Dairy Queen is so revered for its frozen treats that people often forget they also serve burgers, fries, and chicken fingers.

While the quality of Dairy Queen ice cream is not that noteworthy (in fact, it's pretty basic), they maintain major street cred for the convenience and consistency of their products. One of the best things about Dairy Queen is that, unlike most of the chain ice cream shops on our list, it's goodness is accessible via drive thru. Let's be honest — nothing says America quite like a hearty meal of fried food and ice cream without having to leave the comfort of your vehicle. Needless to say, this luxury should be enjoyed in moderation, as Dairy Queen is not geared towards the calorie-conscious —but then again, it is ice cream we're talking about. 

7. Creamistry

Combining dessert and science has never been so delicious or entertaining. Being a patron of Creamistry is like having the coolest (pun intended) project at the science fair. Customers get to choose from over 60 flavors, and four base options (premium milk, organic milk, sorbet, or vegan). From there, they sit back and watch as fresh ingredients are physically transformed by liquid nitrogen, which freezes them at -321 degrees, in a matter of mere seconds. The result? A shockingly thick and creamy cup, cone, or shake of utter yumminess. 

While Creamistry is a little on the pricier side (a single scoop starts at $6), between their flavors, combos, and toppings, they do have some serious selection. Add in the "wow" factor of feeling like you are in a futuristic space lab when you are only like 10 minutes from your house, and you have yourself a pretty sweet deal. 

6. Handel's

When Alice Handel started selling ice cream out of her husband's gas station in 1945, she had no idea it would be the beginning of a legacy. For more than 70 years, Handel's has served a loyal fanbase with an abundance and diverse selection of homemade flavors. It doesn't take more than a taste of Handel's ice cream to understand how they have been around for so long. Rich and  satisfying, the high quality of their ingredients is apparent in every scoop. In fact, Handel's stellar reputation has earned them a laundry list of media recognition, including mentions in National Geographic's "10 Best of Everything" in 2006 and 2015

If you plan to visit one of Handel's 50 locations, we suggest indulging in one of their more popular items, Handel's pops, which consist of a scoop of ice cream — vanilla, chocolate, mint chocolate chip, or the flavor-of-the-month — on a stick and dipped in chocolate. Simple but oh so delicious. In addition to vegan, fat-free, and no sugar added options, Handel's also serves seven kinds of sherbet and five flavors of shaved ice. Though not a household name, Handel's holds a soft spot in the hearts of its regulars, some of which are rumored to be of the celebrity persuasion. 

5. Andy's Frozen Custard

While there are quite a few frozen custard joints sprinkled among the U.S. (i.e., Shake Shack), we feel that Andy's Frozen Custard is a plentiful and solid representation of the delightfully thick and creamy (thanks to the added egg yolk) midwestern/southern favorite. Though a bit of a chain restaurant eye soar, what Andy's lacks in decor it makes up for in the satisfying yumminess of their treats. Do not let their dated, no-frills atmosphere deter you from stopping in to try one of their decadent offerings — which include splits, sundaes, malts, shakes, freezes, and floats. This stuff is the frozen custard to be all frozen custards.

Much like Dairy Queen, Andy's offers a host of fast food in addition to the frozen custard they are known for, and all may be enjoyed on-site or en-auto via drive thru. For those new to frozen custard, we suggest trying a concrete

4. Ben & Jerry's

Anyone who has ever said that nothing life changing came out of Vermont has clearly never tried Ben & Jerry's ice cream. The brainchild of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream launched in 1978 out of a converted gas station in Burlington, Vermont. While not the first of its kind to venture away from the traditional vanilla/chocolate/strawberry profile, Ben & Jerry's came in like a flower child wrecking ball with groovy choices like Oreo mint, wild blueberry, and honey coffee.  

Four decades plus later, Ben & Jerry's fans have come to adore their complex flavors with rich ingredients and punny names — like Cherry Garcia, Americone Dream, and Phish Food. It doesn't hurt that the New England-based company also has yet to succumb to the trend of re-branding their "look," and have stayed true to their blue-sky-green-pasture packaging, as well as their iconic font and logo. And while you may be mostly familiar with their tiny pints in the freezer section of local grocery store, the brand does also serve their delicious ice cream in Scoop Shops around the U.S.

Although ranking at number four on our list, Ben & Jerry's certainly has the quality, flavor, variety, and cutting-edge spirit to be number one. However, with all the exciting directions that the ice cream world has taken us over the last five years, it was simply too hard to discount the disruption that some of the newer, more hand-crafted, hipster-y ice cream shops have made. Speaking of ... 

3. Salt & Straw

If you dig mixology and use beard oil, then Salt & Straw might just be your cup of tea-infused-black-pepper-crusted-cumquat ice cream. While that may sound like a very strange and slightly disgusting flavor, it could easily be a monthly offering at Salt & Straw. And if it was, trust us, it would be it DELICIOUS. 

With nearly 20 locations along the west coast, ice cream aficionados who visit Salt & Straw can choose to indulge in one of their classic flavors — like Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons, Chocolate Gooey Brownie, or Honey Lavender. If patrons are feeling a little dangerous, they can also opt to explore one of the shop's artisan flavors-of-the-month, which have included Fish Sauce Caramel with Palm Sugar, Bone Marrow and Smoked Cherries, and Ramen. But don't get too attached to any of these controversial concoctions because Salt & Straw is pretty serious about rotating them out every 30 days. However, some of the more popular flavors have been known to return the following year (like The Great Candycopia, OMG).

2. Jeni's

If dessert mated with fine dining, Jeni's would be its lovechild. With wonderfully whimsical options like Brown Butter and Almond Brittle, Brambleberry Crisp, and Brandied Banana Brulee, your taste buds will dance with delight as you sample your way through Jeni's well-appointed selection of flavors at any one of their nearly 40 locations

Founded by visionary Jeni Britton Bauer — an artist, baker, and essential oil and perfume connoisseur — all of her passions are clearly represented in the shop's creative and divinely-inspired creations. What also makes this Ohio-based brand unique is its mission to only use whole ingredients and dairy sourced from grass-fed cows, as well as its commitment to community collaboration via the fellowship model of business operation. 

So, if you like a little adventure in your ice cream (but perhaps not as much as Salt & Straw), appreciate strong values and the finer things in life, you will probably love Jeni's.

1. Haagen-Dazs

With so many delicious, successful, and innovative chain ice cream shops to choose from, it may surprise you that we anointed the classic and mainstream likes of Haagen-Dazs as our top pick. Available at over 600 retail locations and countless supermarkets across the United States and beyond, the Danish-sounding yet Bronx-born ice cream company has consistently impressed us with the high-quality of their ingredients and velvety smooth texture of their products. 

Forget the dog and pony show, Haagen-Dazs keeps it relatively simple with flavors like Butter Pecan, Chocolate Peanut Butter, and Java Chip. Even when they do spice it up a bit, like with their Decadent Collection or with some newer additions like Bourbon Vanilla Bean Truffle and Stout Chocolate Pretzel Crunch, the trusted brand still manages to make these more dimensional creations seem effortless.  

In a world where people line-up to pay $6 for a single scoop of ice cream that boasts notes of organic garlic and cardamom-infused espresso beans (not an actual flavor), Haagen-Dazs' dedication to uncomplicated delectableness and full-bodied richness still reigns queen. This is not to say that we don't love and appreciate the wide variety of options that now lay on the frozen dessert spectrum. As humans, we crave the balance of yin and yang. But when ranking ice cream, the ultimate comfort food, we believe in the power of brand reliability and 24-hour convenience store accessibility.