With a $20 ice cream maker and a hunger for a more healthful indulgence, Los Angeles lawyer Justin Woolverton concocted a dessert that quickly developed a cult-like following. A few years later, his line of light ice cream, called Halo Top, has exploded into surprising market dominance. Halo Top recently bested stalwarts Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs for the top sales spot in its niche — grocery store ice cream pints.
Halo Top’s appeal is simple: a no-shame pint of low-sugar, high-protein ice cream with just 240 to 360 calories for the entire carton. Vanilla, at the low end, compares with 1,000 calories for a Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s pint.nThe gold foil that seals each Halo Top carton instructs “Save the bowl” or “Stop when you hit the bottom” — a nod to the way many fans consume the product. That’s how budding YouTube personality Travis Stewart eats Halo Top.
Halo Top Creamery has no offices or headquarters. It usesa third-party manufacturer and distributor, and it’s a formula that works. The company recently led Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs in grocery store pint sales. Halo Top’s push to become America’s bestselling grocery store pint accelerated in May, according to market research firm IRI Worldwide.
It closed the gap with leaders Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs the next month and landed the top spot in July. For the 12 weeks that ended Aug. 6, IRI said, Halo Top had sales of $86.9 million, compared with $83.3 million for Ben & Jerry’s and $78.6 million for Haagen-Dazs.
To be fair, Halo Top rules just one supermarket category, not counting sales of sherbet or gelato or sizes other than pints, in a U.S. industry with 2016 sales of $6.6 billion, according to Nielsen. Still, experts consider the conquest a major achievement for a small company.
The idea for Halo Top came out of Woolverton’s experiments with reducing his intake of refined sugar and carbohydrates. Although Woolverton’s first ice cream attempt convinced him that others might buy it, there was a huge financial hurdle. Woolverton was already dragging around $350,000 in law school loans when he decided to fund his business using the good credit he built during four years at the law firm Latham & Watkins.
Woolverton said he was more than ready for a change. His work there hadn’t turned into one of the John Grisham novels he had so often enjoyed and that had inspired his legal career.
There were problems from the start. A lawsuit forced a name change from the original Eden Creamery to Halo Top, ultimately leading to a better-looking brand. In 2012, Halo Top carved out shelf space in Sprouts, Erewhon and Whole Foods in a cold-call process Woolverton found nerve-racking in spite of his experience as a litigator. As he landed the new accounts, fresh pressures developed, such as a longer supply and distribution chain. There were also formulation problems to rectify, tweaking the proprietary mixture of no-calorie stevia and erythritol in addition to the usual milk, cream and eggs.
Coming up with a longer-lasting formula took Woolverton to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Dairy Innovation Institute. Ice cream manufacturers told Woolverton his formula, with so much protein in it, was too thick — “too viscous was how they put it,” he said — to safely run through production pipes.
Woolverton fiddled with the formula once more, this time to make it less viscous. Fortunately, the ice cream maker was willing to let the fledging business try again, as long as Woolverton agreed to pay for anything that broke. As he developed the product, Woolverton also was carefully assembling a team, starting with the Bouton brothers, Doug and Ryan.
Doug Bouton was another disenchanted lawyer Woolverton met through their amateur basketball league; he’s now Halo Top’s president and chief operations officer. Ryan Bouton, a former actor, was brought on to handle social media and wound up staying.
As the company grew through word of mouth, Halo Top kept adding flavors, usually with the assistance of its rabid social media fan base. Halo Top has more than 550,000 followers on Instagram. Once there’s a sizable list of flavor suggestions, Halo Top’s 50 employees offer their votes, too.
The company has stuck close to its frugal beginnings, and the 38-year-old fitness buff sees no reason to change the recipe. There’s no fancy headquarters building filled with hipster offices, just a low-rent co-working space in L.A.’s Fairfax District.
The staff gets together on a varying schedule at the co-working space and the rest of the time communicates electronically or by smartphone. Third parties manufacture and distribute the 25 flavors sold in every major U.S. grocery chain. Some see it as the type of business that can succeed through the strength of its brand alone.
A great story so far on a startup in the ice cream space. Grab a spoon and hold on for the ride.