The Ultimate Ranking Of America’s Most Popular Ice Cream Chains
Whether it’s a hot summer day or a special occasion in the dead of winter, there’s always a reason to have some ice cream. While this delicious frozen treat is available in various forms all throughout the world, the U.S. has likely cornered the market when it comes to huge ice cream retail chains. Americans love ice cream, and it shows. According to IBIS World, at the start of 2023, there were over 11,000 ice cream shops in the United States. The industry grew 0.6% per year from 2018 to 2023. Ice cream is a consistent part of many Americans’ lives and celebrations, which isn’t all too surprising — after all, what’s a birthday party, really, without cake and ice cream?
IBIS World also states that California is home to the largest amount of ice cream shops, followed by Texas and then New York. And while mom-and-pop ice cream shops are the charm and treasure of many downtown and old town districts, it’s the ice cream chains that are bringing in the huge profits. However, not all ice cream chains are created equal. Depending upon how you like your ice cream — creamy, fancy flavors, or toppings galore — you might have a favorite spot you bring your friends and family to. Or maybe you’re still looking for that sweet spot.
Read on for a ranking of the top 11 U.S. ice cream chains to visit next time you’re looking for that ultimate refreshing sugar fix.
11. Dippin’ Dots
When we think of ice cream creations, many visualize a charming, small-town old man churning out classic flavors in the back of a little shop that the local children flock to. While that’s an idyllic sentiment (and one that’s honestly not too far off course for some chains on this list), Dippin’ Dots has an almost space-age origin story by comparison. The company was founded in 1988 by microbiologist Curt Jones, who employed cryogenic technology to create flash-frozen ice cream treats (via Dippin’ Dots).
For those who’ve had Dippin’ Dots, your first experience might have been at a county fair or other event with vendors. Dippin’ Dots like to find us at summertime festivals and amusement parks, and we’re not mad about it. You can sometimes also find them in little portable freezers at gas stations and grocery stores. And, if you happen to live in New York City, you can visit one of the company’s brick and mortar locations.
Every flavor is unique and delicious, but some of our favorites include the Banana Split and Cookies N’ Cream, which comes mixed in with real pieces of Oreo. Dippin’ Dots are always a fun surprise treat, but they rank low on our list due to the fact that they often are indeed just a surprise. With fewer physical locations compared to more prominent companies, this ice cream chain pops up when and where it feels like it, so unless you’re lucky enough to have a grocer that carries Dippin’ Dots, they will remain an elusive summer indulgence.
10. Dairy Queen
According to Foody Data, Dairy Queen is the most popular ice cream shop in America, boasting over 4,000 locations in its corporate franchise chain. It would seem that Dairy Queen has achieved the perfect trifecta of flavor variety, affordability, and accessibility — pretty much anyone in the U.S. can hit a DQ drive-thru for a Blizzard in the taste of their choosing.
About those Blizzards … Dairy Queen is famous for them, and they are worth the trip. At the time of publication, there are 15 Blizzard varieties available, including the regular flavors, seasonal limited-time flavors, and the Royal Blizzard, which comes with the center filled with fruit or chocolate. If you’re a traditionalist and can’t get behind the wacky varieties available, Dairy Queen still has vanilla soft serve with or without the chocolate-dipped shell, a staple since the chain’s opening day. Dairy Queen also offers ice cream cakes — both regular soft serve sheets and rounds and Blizzard cakes.
The downside to Dairy Queen? It’s never going to be the highest of quality. Fast food ice cream is fast food ice cream, and since DQ also has so many other things on its menu food-wise, there’s less of a dedication to ice cream than those chains that focus solely on dessert. But hey, we will never discourage you from getting a Blizzard. For what they are, they’re amazing.
9. Cold Stone Creamery
Cold Stone Creamery has transformed the ice cream industry by providing customers with something that other chains do not — power and creativity. While most ice cream shops are scoop and serve, Cold Stone allows you to make your own creations with mix-in items, enabling you to fully customize your ice cream. The chain has a multitude of menu items made up of delicious curated mix-ins, or you can go freestyle by selecting your own base, mix-ins, and toppings.
Due to the fact that each order is mixed on a frozen stone, the texture of the ice cream itself is very soft. It’s one step above soft serve, and some of the mix-ins freeze up when mixed together. It makes for a weird texture combination that might not be fantastic for some with sensory issues. But still, Cold Stone is a wonderful choice when you want an ice cream fix.
8. Marble Slab
While Cold Stone is more prolific and well-known when it comes to frozen slab-style ice cream, it actually wasn’t the first. Cold Stone arrived in 1988, but Marble Slab beat it to the punch by opening its first store in 1983. The chain specializes in small-batch ice cream and has well over a dozen flavors to choose from. Some popular choices include Birthday Cake, Dark Chocolate, Blue Cotton Candy, and Cool Mint. The mix-in list is also impressively extensive, including bananas, gummy bears, health bar pieces, and various sauces.
Marble Slab has also taken ice cream cakes to the next level. You need to order them 48 hours in advance, but it’s worth planning ahead for some of these crazy creations. Visit to the Candy Shoppe is one such example — it’s an ice cream cake made with Pink Bubblegum and Blue Cotton Candy ice cream, which is then paired with yellow cake and loaded up with a generous amount of various candy toppings. If you happen to live near a Marble Slab location, consider it for your next party or get-together.
7. Salt & Straw
Salt & Straw was founded in Portland, Oregon, in 2011 by two cousins (via Williams Sonoma Taste). It’s relatively new to the ice cream arena, and its name is derived from an old-fashioned ice cream-making process that involves using salt water (which has a lower freezing point) to freeze the cream and then employing hay to incubate the ice cream. It’s that simple, pure ice cream vibe that Salt & Straw is aiming for. It has attracted customers at posh and popular spots like Downtown Disney in California and the CocoWalk in Miami.
In alignment with being so health conscious, Salt & Straw also focuses on alternative diets. In January 2023, the chain released five vegan flavors for its Dairy-Free Decadence series (via VegOut). While these were only slated to be available that month, each location should have at least one vegan offering on the menu at all times.
If you are looking for uncomplicated ice cream with readable ingredients, find a Salt & Straw near you. Unfortunately, this isn’t doable for everyone, which earns it a lower ranking on our list. Salt & Straw has locations in California and Oregon, as well as the Seattle and Miami areas.
6. Ben & Jerry’s
Oh, Ben & Jerry’s, the famous ice cream chain responsible for both pushing the flavor envelope and comforting the broken hearts of generations on their worst days. Plenty of us have indulged in one of the company’s creative pints at least once. Yes, Ben & Jerry’s makes vanilla, but also Phish Food, Cherry Garcia, and other flavors that will knock your socks off.
The company also enjoys plenty of celebrity endorsements. Jimmy Fallon helped boost the success of The Tonight Dough, while Lights! Caramel! Action! is in partnership with award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay (via Vermont Business Magazine).
The chain also produces dairy-free, vegan, and gluten-free flavors, so everyone can join the ice cream party. So why is it only No. 6 on our list? Because Ben & Jerry’s has been around for so long, and everyone’s had it. With so many competing ice cream brands now joining the race for most eclectic flavor mashups, Ben & Jerry’s just isn’t as novel as it used to be. If you have a craving for Ben & Jerry’s, the company has Scoop Shops all across the U.S., as well as international locations. Scoop Shops tend to show up at tourist destinations like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and New York’s Times Square.
Handel’s started as a small Ohio-based ice cream store in 1945. The chain was founded by Alice Handel, who used fruit from her own backyard to create its first flavors (via Handel’s). It has since blown up into a major chain, experiencing rapid expansion as a large portion of the nation has caught wind of its delicious, hand-churned ice cream. In 2022, Franchise Times rated it a top 500 franchise in the U.S., and the chain’s 2021 sales were 60.5% greater than the previous year. Handel’s credits part of this success to its walk-up window format — similar to a drive-thru but allowing customers to hang out and be social while waiting for their orders.
In what is perhaps a slightly salty response to Baskin-Robbins, Handel’s has beat out its famous 31 flavors by offering over 45 at each of its locations. And forget about vanilla and strawberry — Handel’s has flavors like Key Lime Pie, Bananas Foster, and Cinnamon Sticky Bun. The chain also has vegan sorbets, sugar-free selections, and shaved ice. It’s pretty difficult to find a downside to Handel’s.
Can you spell Häagen-Dazs correctly on the first try? We had to double check our work. But have you spoken its name? Likely so. One of the original comfort-food ice creams on the market to roll out truly unique, upscale flavors, a pint of this good stuff is still a welcome treat at the end of the day.
Founded by a Jewish couple in 1959, per Tori Avey, Häagen-Dazs has always been certified kosher and uses a higher percentage of butterfat than most ice cream brands. And its unique brand name? Completely made up. The name is a nod to Denmark for aiding the Jewish people during World War II, but it doesn’t actually mean anything in Danish. However, many of us choose to translate it into "wickedly good ice cream."
Because of its higher butterfat content and intent to use higher-quality ingredients than its competitors, Häagen-Dazs is never going to be the most affordable ice cream. But, after all these years, it still holds up as one of the most delicious.
Häagen-Dazs has brick-and-mortar ice cream shops in over 20 states. From California to Florida, you can find Häagen-Dazs primarily in shopping districts. And yes, while this brand is readily available in virtually any grocery store, there’s something special about getting a freshly scooped version of your favorite flavor at an authentic shop.
3. Bruster’s Ice Cream
Bruster’s is a popular ice cream chain that churns all of its flavors in-house. This means that each location has slight menu variations, but the chain’s consistently high-quality frozen happiness keeps customers coming back again. In fact, in 2018, Gravy Analytics named it one of the top 25 ice cream shops in the U.S. Not bad!
Besides the traditional ice cream flavors, Bruster’s also has oat milk ice cream. This vegan, non-dairy option comes in over a dozen flavors that don’t shy away from boldness. Try Peach Melba or Chocolate Raspberry Truffle if you want a yummy treat that won’t upset allergies or dietary preferences.
Bruster’s has been around since 1989, and it has more than 150 flavors that it rotates through its menu — which means there’s always something new and different to try. The chain has grown to almost 200 locations across much of the U.S.
It needs to be said: Carvel has an absurd amount of soft serve flavors, and it’s not bad news. While almost every ice cream chain has chocolate, vanilla, and sometimes strawberry when they’re feeling crazy, Carvel has gone above and beyond with a multitude of options including pistachio, mint, and coconut. Whether you get it plain or with "crunchies," the chain really has added some fun twists to the world of soft serve.
If you prefer more traditional ice cream, Carvel has plenty of scoops to choose from, too. And don’t get us started on the ice cream cakes. Carvel has made itself extremely likeable with its diverse menu and long-standing presence in the industry. In fact, according to the company’s website, Tom Carvel started selling out of an ice cream truck way back in 1929, preceding all the other chains on this list.
If you live in New York, you have the strongest chance of finding a Carvel to frequent, but the chain is also scattered nationwide.
It’s likely not surprising that Baskin-Robbins tops our list. It is familiar, consistently delicious, and often at the forefronts of our minds when it comes to a destination for everything from birthday cakes to soccer after-parties. Baskin-Robbins has done an excellent job of weaving itself through the tapestry of our lives, and it would seem it’s here to stay.
Thanks to Baskin-Robbins’ "Flavor of the Month" promotion, there’s always a reason to go back and try something new and different. Or, stick to an old favorite like Jamoca Almond Fudge or Gold Medal Ribbon.
This major ice cream chain is also known for its ice cream cakes, which have expanded in offerings over the years. The selection includes not only birthday cakes but also gender reveal cakes, officially licensed NBA cakes, and even a turkey-shaped cake during the holidays.
Baskin-Robbins is the perfect combination of quality flavor, creativity, and accessibility, thanks to its over 2,500 U.S. locations (via Statista). The one downside? Affordability. Picking up a scoop or two isn’t a big deal, but the chain’s ice cream cakes tend to be more expensive, per Insider. And yet, we keep going back, because, really, who can resist a good scoop of mint chocolate chip during the summer months?