Everything You Need To Know About Soft Serve Ice Cream

Everything You Need To Know About Soft Serve Ice Cream

Everything you need to know about soft-serve ice cream. In this post, we are going to talk about everyone’s favorite swirled treat – soft serve. Made famous by brands like Mister Softee and Pinkberry soft serve can be a fun and unique alternative to traditional ice cream. But what exactly is soft-serve and how it is different from other desserts like ice cream or gelato? Is it healthier and what exactly makes it soft? And, most importantly – soft serve machines. How do they work?

Having owned and operated a soft-serve ice cream I am sharing with you everything you need to know about soft-serve ice cream. At the end of the article, I’ll let you know if I think running a soft-serve business is a good model to follow or not. First, let’s answer the most important question – what is soft serve?

What is Soft Serve Ice Cream?

Soft Serve is a swirled frozen dessert that comes out of a soft-serve machine. It is soft and light due to a lot of air being whipped into it and its lower serving temperature. The gross profit margins on soft serve can be very high but soft serve machines require a lot of maintenance in terms of cleaning, which can increase business expenses.

In this post, I will be looking at everything soft serve. I have divided this post into four sections:

  1. What Is Soft Serve and How Is It Different from Other Frozen Desserts?
  2. Soft Serve Machines
  3. Soft Serve Finances
  4. Soft Serve Trouble Shooting

Everything You Need To Know About Soft Serve Ice Cream - blue soft serve cone

A. What Is Soft Serve And How Is It Different From Other Frozen Desserts

What Can Be Served as Soft Serve?

Soft Serve is any kind of frozen dessert that is served from a soft-serve machine. What differentiates it is its freezing process. The Soft Serve machine continuously draws, churns, and freezes frozen dessert mix as it is needed. The result is a softer mixture that is forced out of a machine as a swirl.

As it is served from a soft-serve machine it has that swirled look.

Soft Serve can be made of:

  • ice cream
  • frozen yogurt
  • dairy-free “fro yo” (e.g. made of soy, almond, oat, etc)
  • custard
  • fruit (water and or fruit-based sorbet soft serve).

If you want to understand these different types of desserts you can learn more in my post: What Are The Different Types Of Frozen Desserts?.

Soft Serve tends to have a lower fat content than scooped ice cream and has more air whipped into it than scooped ice cream. The result is a softer and lighter texture. Soft Serve is also served at a higher temperature than scooped frozen desserts.

Is Soft Serve Ice Cream the Same as Frozen Yogurt?

Soft serve ice cream is not the same as frozen yogurt. Soft Serve ice cream is an ice cream (made from cream and or milk) served from a soft-serve machine. Frozen yogurt, in comparison, is a frozen dessert made from a yogurt base. Although frozen yogurt is often served in soft serve format it can also be served in scooped format.

What is the Difference Between Soft Serve and Ice Cream?

As a general rule, soft serve is any frozen dessert served from a soft-serve machine. Ice cream is, in comparison, a frozen dessert made from 10% minimum buttermilk (dairy) fat. Ice cream, however, can be served in soft serve format from a soft-serve machine. For example, frozen custard is a type of ice cream which is extremely popular as a soft-serve format.

Even though ice cream can be served in soft serve format, as a general rule soft serve has a lower fat content than scooped ice cream.

If you would like to read more about the different types of frozen desserts, you can here – What Are The Different Types Of Frozen Desserts?.

Is Soft Serve Healthier than Ice Cream?

Soft Serve can be healthier than ice cream if the soft serve mix is say made from a dairy-free base, or low in sugar. Conversely, soft serve can be less healthy than ice cream if it contains chemicals, artificial preservatives, or lots of sugar – this is the case with a lot of mixes. To keep the soft serve mixture from separating and from going grainy while being frozen a lot of soft-serve mixes will use a lot of additional ingredients.

What is the Temperature of Soft Serve Ice Cream?

Soft Serve is served at a higher temperature than scooped ice cream. Soft Serve tends to be served at 20-25 degrees Fahrenheit.

Scooped ice cream in comparison is best severed at 6-10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Why Does Soft Serve Melt So Fast?

Soft Serve melts fast because it is served at a much higher temperature than ice cream. Soft serve is served at 20-25 degrees Fahrenheit and so melts quickly if not eaten straight away. It will also tend to have slightly more air in the mixture from churning. More air means more volume and less ice cream which equals quicker melting.

B. Soft Serve Machines

How Do Commercial Soft Serve Machines Work?

As a general rule, soft serve machines freeze and pump air into soft serve mixture at the same time. When the server then pulls down the soft serve handle the soft serve is extracted in a swirl format.

There are a few distinguishing features of soft serve machines you need to take note of.

Everything You Need To Know About Soft Serve Ice Cream - cooling

Air Cooled vs Water Cooled

First, how the machines are cooled. Soft serve machines generate a lot of heat from their continuous freezing of ice cream. To stop overheating of the compressor the machines will either be air-cooled or water-cooled.

As a general rule, air-cooled soft serve machines are cheaper and less complicated, but they are much louder when operating. Water-cooled soft serve machines are more expensive as they require dedicated pumping, however, they are much quieter to operate. If you are going to have lots of soft serve machines it may be worth considering a water-cooled system. Trust me air-cooled are loud.

Air Pump vs Gravity Feeder

The second feature you need to distinguish is how your frozen dessert mix is delivered from the hopper (where it is kept chilled) into the freezing cylinder where it is churned and frozen. There is two ways this can be done.

The first is a gravity feeder. This is basically a metal straw with some breathing holes. It lets the product naturally flow down into the freezing cylinder by gravity. It is simple and works best for thin liquid base mixtures.

The second is an air pump system. This will involve a couple of gears that are sealed in a metal case. They create a suction mechanism which is then used to force the frozen dessert mix into the freezing cylinder. If you have thicker frozen dessert mix you will need an air pump system. These take more maintenance and training to use. They also cause the soft serve machine to be more expensive.

Powering Soft Serve Machines

The third consideration is how to power the soft serve machine. When it comes to power, soft serve machines are not the most efficient piece of equipment. This is due to the motor constantly turning on and off throughout the day. To combat this a lot of soft serve machines come wired in three-phase. A normal plug socket is single-phase.

All you need to understand here is that if you want to keep your electricity bills down as much as possible you will want three-phase soft serve machines. However, this will require an electrician to wire specific three-phase plugs into your location.

How Much Does a Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine Cost?

How much a soft serve machine costs tend to depend on:

  • the brand of the soft-serve machine (USA-made tend to be more expensive than Chinese soft serve machines).
  • how many flavors it can hold (single flavor machines are cheaper than double flavor machines)
  • the capacity of the soft-serve machine (machines that can hold more product and produce more soft serve in a given time frame will be more expensive), and
  • if you are buying the machine new or used (new soft serve machines are obviously more expensive than used ones).

Looking at new machines only I have seen single flavor, counter-top soft serve machines as cheap as $4.5k. At the other end of the scale multiple flavors, high-capacity pressurized soft serve machines can run as high as $35k.

What Are The Main Soft Serve Machine Brands?

The main players in the soft serve machine market include:

How Long Does It Take for A Soft Serve Machine To Work?

The time it takes for a soft-serve machine to work depends on the brand and model of the machine as well as the type of soft serve mixture. As a general rule, it usually takes 15-30 minutes from pouring the soft serve mixture into the machine to being able to extract soft serve from the machine.

Can You Re-Use Soft Serve Mix?

Soft serve mix cannot be re-used (i.e. poured back into the machine). When soft serve mix is extracted from the machine for cleaning purposes it cannot be re-used and should be thrown out for food safety purposes.

How Do You Store Soft Serve?

Soft Serve Mix can be stored in multiple ways depending on the type of mix:


Some soft serve mixes are powdered and just need to be mixed with water or another liquid before it can be poured into a soft-serve machine. For example, the popular Dole Pineapple Whip comes in powder format (you can see it on Amazon here).


Some soft serve mixes come in UHT cartons and so are stored ambient.


Some soft serve mixes need to be kept refrigerated and have a shelf life in accordance with the packaging. Once opened they will have to be used up in a short period of time (i.e., 5 to 7 days or possibly less).


Some soft serve mixes need to be stored frozen and then thawed before they are poured into a soft-serve machine.

Everything You Need To Know About Soft Serve Ice Cream - cleaning

How Often Should a Soft Serve Machine Be Cleaned?

Soft Serve Machines need to be cleaned regularly – as a general rule soft serve machines need to be cleaned at least 2-3 times a week. It depends on the local food safety rules where your business is based, but in some areas, soft serve machines need to be cleaned out every single day.

If you are using dairy in your machine, you may also have to submit swap samples from your machine to local inspectors to ensure there is no build up of harmful bacteria in your machines.

Are Soft Serve Machines Hard to Clean?

Soft Serve Machines are extremely hard and time-consuming to clean. It takes at least an hour to just clean out one machine (and that is with experience). For example, cleaning out a soft serve machine takes the following steps:

  1. Extract all remaining soft serve from the machine.
  2. Flush the machine out with water until all the frozen dessert mix is out.
  3. Remove all the parts of the soft serve machine (there are many small fiddly parts).
  4. Wash all parts.
  5. Sanitize all parts.
  6. Leave all parts to dry.
  7. Put the machine back together; and
  8. Refill the soft serve machine.

Bear in mind, that it will take a new staff member a lot longer than an hour to clean out a soft-serve machine. There are also many small parts involved – a part can go missing so easily during the process, which can then cause havoc.

If you have several machines and live somewhere where daily cleaning is required and where minimum wages are high, this cost can seriously impact the profitability and therefore viability of your business.

C. Soft Serve Finances

How Much Does It Cost to Make a Soft Serve?

It can cost as little as 14 cents to make a kid’s serving of soft serve that is made from a powdered soft serve base. An artisan soft serve made from quality ingredients can cost over $1 to make a kid’s serving.

On average, the cheapest soft serves to make are the ones that come in powdered format and just need to be mixed into tap water. For example, take this popular dairy-free Dole Pineapple Whip which you can get on Amazon here. It is currently on sale but it only costs 34 cents to make a 3.2-ounce swirl (so basically a kid’s cup).

This best-seller chocolate powdered soft serve mix on Amazon costs just 14.3 cents to make a kid serving (3.2 ounces).

Artisan Soft Serve

On the other end of the spectrum, it will cost a lot more to make an artisan soft serve. 3.2-ounce kids serving of an artisan soft serve where the mix is made in the house will cost at least $1.

My ice cream shop offered an artisan soft serve which we made on site. We made all of our soft serve mix in-house – we used no water, no preservatives or chemicals and we used an expensive form of sweetener (not just regular white sugar). It used to cost at least $1 (depending on the flavor) for the ingredients to make a kid’s 3.2-ounce serving of our soft serve. Bear in mind this cost didn’t include labor to make it – just the cost of the ingredients.

How Profitable Is Soft Serve Ice Cream?

The gross profit margins on soft serve can be very high – especially since soft serve mix can be very cheap and up to 60% air can be whipped into it.

However, the staff costs for operating, cleaning, waste, and maintaining soft serve machines can be very high. Further, repair costs and electricity costs for soft serve machines can be high. Finally, the numbers and types of flavors of soft serve that can be offered are limited by soft serve machines – which can limit sales.

Can You Make Money Selling Soft Serve Ice Cream?

Money can be made selling soft serve as the gross profit margins are so high. This is if you focus on keeping your remaining expenses as low as possible.

Although making money selling soft serve is possible, I would still recommend selling scooped ice cream over soft serve.

I sold soft serve in my ice cream shop for over two years before changing to scoops. Yes, my gross profit margin went down by around 5% when we transitioned from soft serve to scoops. BUT sales OVER DOUBLED. The ability to offer more flavors and more exciting flavors with add-ins results in much higher sales.

If you look at all the most successful ice cream franchises, they are all almost solely focusing on scoops (Ben & Jerry’s, Baskin Robbins, Haagen Däaz, Cold Stone, etc.). Yes, soft-serve frozen yogurt had a moment, but soft serve seems on the decline currently.

Everything You Need To Know About Soft Serve Ice Cream - pink soft serve cone

D. Soft Serve Problem Shooting

Why Is My Soft Serve Ice Cream Icy/Grainy?

Unfortunately, icy soft serve ice cream is a common problem.

Icy and grainy soft-serve tends to occur during slower periods when the soft serve isn’t being extracted from the machine as much. The soft serve gets over-churned and starts to separate, causing ice crystals and an ice texture.

I used to notice this happening a lot during quieter mid-week periods and especially in the winter.  Icy soft serve on a hot Saturday night will be less of a problem as the machine will be in constant use.

How can you reduce this? During slow periods every 20 mins or so extract a small amount of soft-serve out of the machine. This helps the mixture from being over-churned.

Can You Get Sick from Soft Serve Ice Cream?

If a soft serve machine is not cleaned properly, thoroughly, and regularly according to local food safety laws, bacteria can harbor in the soft serve machine and result in customers getting sick from soft serve.

The risks of getting sick from soft serve are higher when the soft serve is dairy-based rather than non-dairy.

Portion Control

There are two ways of setting up a soft-serve frozen dessert store. The first is a self-serve concept. This is where customers use the machines themselves to swirl the soft serve. The second is a served soft-serve store – this is where your team swirls and serves the customer.

Both have their own advantages and disadvantages. The main issue however is portion control in served soft-serve concepts. You see on a self-serve concept the customer swirls the ice cream themselves. It is then usually weighed, and the customer is charged by the ounce. If they pour too much they must pay more (though you would be surprised how many people see the final price and then ask for some to be scooped out).

In a served concept your team will serve the customer and charge a set price. Getting portions right on soft serve machine is extremely difficult. The result is either portions are too large (which you then lose money on), or they are too small (which customers complain about).

One way to deal with this is to have a set of small scales next to the machine which servers must check serving sizes.

Making Pretty Swirls

Learning how to make a decent swirl can take a lot of practice. It would sometimes take weeks for a new member to learn how to make a decent swirl. Often their swirls for a couple of weeks would just be embarrassing. On top of this, the only way to practice is to use the soft-serve machine. You can end up wasting a lot of soft serves just to get a team member to the right swirling standard.

To overcome this, I suggest training a new server on a day the soft serve machine is due to be washed out. They can then practice as much as possible on the product which is due to be thrown out anyway.

Everything You Need To Know About Soft Serve Ice Cream - the final lick

Everything You Need to Know About Soft Serve Ice Cream – The Final Lick.

Everything you need to know about soft-serve ice cream. When it comes to frozen desserts there is always a place for soft serve. A cone with a swirl of vanilla soft serve is often what we all think about on a hot summer’s day. It is a traditional treat. However, unless you plan on offering a soft serve that you can make extremely cheaply it is not a business model I recommend. Soft serve machines are expensive and hard to maintain. They are also limited on what you can use them for. Soft serve mixtures must be as smooth as possible without any chunks or else your machine will stop working. Plus, the cleaning time and reliability of machines were just two reasons why I switch my ice cream business from a soft serve to a scooping concept.

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Time To Learn Some More

Want to learn more on your path to ice cream entrepreneur success. Then check out some of my other articles.

Chilled Startup Team

Since 2012, the Chilled Startup team has been in the ice cream business. From creating retail store ice cream concepts from scratch to ice cream trucks to selling ice cream pints wholesale to grocery store outlets to private and public events. We have even set up vegan and plant-based ice cream concepts. The ice cream business is one we understand inside and out.

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