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New Zealand’s Real Fruit Ice Cream Gets an American Makeover

In New Zealand, one of summer’s great pleasures is known as real fruit ice cream: a scoop of vanilla blended with fruit in a machine that produces an airy, barely sweet twirl with a buttery texture. The dessert, which likely originated in the country’s berry orchards, has become a national favorite over the last few decades, prized for its freshness and simplicity.

In the United States, it’s just beginning to catch on in cities like Boston, Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas. But along the way, the no-frills treat has undergone a full-bore makeover.

At most American shops that sell it, real fruit ice cream can be mixed with graham crackers and Oreos; drizzled with hot fudge, caramel or chamoy; and enjoyed atop a chocolate- and sprinkle-dipped cone. Some shops build sundaes or milkshakes around it. And some suggest that, even with all the add-ons, the dessert has nutritional benefits. (“It’s almost healthy” is the unofficial slogan at Nico’s Real Fruit Ice Cream in Portland, Ore.)

“The American ice cream experience is just very American,” said Hap Cameron, a New Zealand native who runs Happy Cones Co., a real fruit ice cream shop in Edgewater, Colo. “It’s bigger, more choice, 20 to 40 flavors of ice cream.”

Dennis Little manufactures the Little Jem, a blender for making real fruit ice cream, in Nelson, New Zealand. He said that in recent months, he and his brother and business partner, Chris Little, have received hundreds of inquiries from Americans wanting to open real fruit ice cream shops. Some ask whether they can put cookies into the Little Jem.

“In New Zealand, if you did cookies or some sort of lollies, I don’t think you would sell very many at all, to tell you the truth,” Dennis Little said.

Ice cream may be a classic American confection, but New Zealand leads the world in consuming it — an average of 20.1 liters, or 5.3 gallons, per person, according to 2023 data from Euromonitor International, a market research company. (The United States ranks fourth, with 13.1 liters, about 3.5 gallons.)

What sets American ice-cream culture apart is that “it’s almost hedonistic,” said August Radbill, an owner of Far Out Ice Cream, a real fruit ice cream shop in Brookline, Mass. “I am going to indulge so much, and I am going to get a large with hot fudge, gummy bears and put everything on it because I am not worried about calories.”

When Mr. Radbill and his business partner, Drew Beja, opened the shop in 2021, the menu included just two flavors and four fruit options — similar to what Mr. Beja had first seen on a 2015 trip to New Zealand’s South Island. But customers kept asking for toppings. “Eventually we gave in,” Mr. Beja said.

Zeds Real Fruit Ice Cream, in Austin, offers several flavors and toppings, and sundaes like berry Butterfinger: strawberry real fruit ice cream festooned with chocolate sauce and Butterfinger candies. Mack Brown, an owner, said sales have been so brisk that he is seeking a location for a second Austin shop.

It’s often the garnishes that get people to try the ice cream, Mr. Brown said. “Americans love the idea of toppings and drizzles rather than the ice cream itself.”

The United States has seen its share of frozen fads: rolled ice cream, nitrogen ice cream, Dippin’ Dots. The recent rise of real fruit ice cream may be driven in part by tourism; the number of American visitors to New Zealand rose by 84 percent from March 2015 to March 2020, according to Stats NZ, the country’s official data agency.

On a Wednesday afternoon at Zeds, eager customers pressed their noses against the window to watch their creations come to life. A pink drill whipped together fruit and ice cream, and the soft-serve-like concoction gushed out in a colorful swirl.

“I tend toward things that feel more naturally sweet,” said Kelly Ferraro, a career coach who was enjoying a cone with her 6-year-old son, Liam Bloch. “So I like when the fruit is the sweetener.”

Liam, whose chin dripped strawberry ice cream and chocolate sauce, was more succinct: “I like chocolate.”

Ozan Uy, who works in software and had ordered pineapple ice cream with chamoy, said the novelty of real fruit ice cream was intriguing. But he found the texture too drippy.

“Would it go in my top 10 ice cream experiences?” he said. “I wouldn’t say yes.”

Lillie Phillips, an owner of Welly’s Real Fruit Ice Cream in Port Angeles, Wash., has encountered similar skepticism. Many Americans are traditionalists when it comes to ice cream, she said. They want mint chip and chocolate — so she offers classic scoops in those flavors, too.

American customers have complained to Mr. Cameron, who runs Happy Cones, that his real fruit strawberry ice cream doesn’t taste like what they’re used to — “a strawberry ice cream full of colors and artificial flavors,” he said.

Mr. Cameron grew up in Nelson, New Zealand, and spent summers working at a berry orchard that served real fruit ice cream. His aim with Happy Cones, which opened in 2015, was to celebrate the dessert in its purest form, without dozens of adornments. “I really wanted to stay true to our Kiwi roots,” he said.

Today, even he offers toppings: caramel sauce, crushed honeycomb and rainbow sprinkles.

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