If summer had an official dessert, soft serve ice cream would be a top contender.

Just about every town in Maine has its roadside version of beloved Red’s Dairy Freeze in South Portland, whose seasonal opening each year marks, if not high summer, then dreams of its delightful approach. Many of these iconic stands are family-owned and can be traced back generations – Red’s to 1952, Lib’s Dairy Treats in Portland to 1969.

Now, a new era in soft serve has arrived in Maine. A growing number of chef-created, scratch-made soft serve options in worldly flavors with leveled-up toppings are as likely to put a period on your restaurant meal (make that an exclamation point!) as to be seasonal beachside or after-the-game treats.

“You have this opportunity to present something that someone is not expecting to have, but it’s so familiar to everybody,” said Arlin Smith, a partner in Big Tree Hospitality, whose pan-Asian Honey Paw noodle restaurant opened in 2015, pioneering in Maine a (shockingly delicious) grown-up take on the twist. It quickly developed a cult following.

“It’s a very specific experience,” Smith continued, “and it’s always wrapped around joy.”

Restaurateurs say soft serve appeals to diners because – do we have to explain this? – it’s fun, nostalgic, and photogenic and did we mention IT’S SOFT SERVE ICE CREAM?! Also, you can’t just pick up a pint at the corner store and eat it at home on the couch while you binge-watch “Ted Lasso.” Soft ice cream, which can’t be stored, is an immediate occasion.


The dessert appeals to chefs because it’s crowd-pleasing, infinitely variable, at once modern and nostalgic, and less labor- and space-intensive than hard ice cream. Also, it’s trending.

“It’s one of those things where it has been Instagrammed. That’s the truth of it,” said chef Krista Kern, who is sought out for her imaginative, delectable hard ice cream at Bresca & The Honeybee on Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester. She briefly experimented with soft serve herself but said her lakeside shack lacked the refrigerator space to store the ice cream base.

“And then it’s like a virus,” she said. “A good virus. It travels from one brain to the next, and then everyone is saying, ‘I need to have soft serve at my fancy restaurant.'”

Soft serve ice cream options are listed on a board at Fish & Whistle on a late May day. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


The trend in Maine follows a national one attributed to influential Momofuku restaurateur David Chang in New York and his equally influential (then) pastry chef Christina Tosi. It’s also part and parcel of our current preference for informality when we eat out. Local menus are chockablock with upgraded (read: not ultra-processed) versions of the food of our childhood and dorm room days. Think yummy, cheffy versions of burgers, fried chicken, grilled cheese, tater tots, and the like.

Many soft ice cream bases are commercially purchased and often contain depressing, undelicious-sounding ingredients like corn syrup, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, dipotassium phosphate, maltodextrin, mono- and diglycerides, and artificial flavors and colors. An upgrade was definitely in order.


The flavors and toppings of Maine’s newfangled, house-made soft serve are head-spinning. The rotating menu at Honey Paw has included charred corn soft ice cream topped with blueberry corn muffin crumb and smoked caramel sauce, and matcha soft serve with toasted rice powder and puff snacks. The restaurant’s signature soft serve – caramelized honey with a chocolate shell and honeycomb – is always on the menu and was created to “speak to the space,” Smith said. (Honey flavor, Honey Paw – get it?)

At Fish & Whistle in Biddeford, James Beard-nominated pastry chef and co-owner Kate Hamm has made chocolate with sugar kelp soft serve (she credits the nearby fine-dining Elda for the idea) and beach rose and buttermilk, among many other out-of-the-box flavors. She picked the beach roses that she used to infuse the ice cream base herself.

“That one was so good!” Hamm remembered. “We only ran it for four days because we ran out, and I didn’t have time to get more petals.” Customers told her it tasted like “summer on the beach.”

At Lazzari in Portland, where soft serve has only recently returned to the post-pandemic menu, the ice cream comes with a variety of toppings, from a “magic” bittersweet Ghirardelli chocolate shell and amaretti cookies to house-made fruit preserves like fire-roasted peach-bourbon. Restaurants that serve soft serve pore over toppings in part because the machine that makes and dispenses the ice cream doesn’t allow for mix-ins; Chunky Monkey could never be soft serve-sized.

At Nomad in Brunswick, you can order your soft serve with a brown butter chocolate chip cookie and a drizzle of fruity olive oil or you can get a Philadelphia-style gelati, essentially sorbet with a dollop of soft serve in its center.

And fans of Chase’s Daily in Belfast are no doubt eagerly awaiting its interpretation. The much-loved restaurant, which closed at the start of the year, has long been known for its expertly executed farm-to-table meals and tantalizing sweets. It recently announced plans to reopen in June with an abbreviated menu of pizza, salad, coffee, and soft serve.


Kate Hamm, who owns Fish & Whistle with her husband, pours magic shell topping over sea salt vanilla soft serve ice cream. Nostalgia is part of what’s fueling a trend in creative renditions of soft serve. “It’s that truck that drove around your neighborhood or that stands by the side of the road. You’re connected to that, no matter what your age is (and) even if it’s dressed up. You can’t look at that cone of ice cream and not think about being a kid,” said chef Krista Kern of Bresca & the Honey Bee and the Purple House. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Soft serve base has less milk fat and more air – technically known as “overrun” – than hard serve. By law, ice cream must contain 20% total milk solids (at least we think so; the abstruse, highly technical USDA standard for ice cream is a killjoy, for sure). Soft serve is typically just 3-6% milk fat. If you poured a standard high-fat, hard ice cream base into a soft serve machine, it would quickly churn into butter. Very cold butter.

Soft serve is not technically ice cream at all, according to Melissa Lombardi, who ran the Twist ice cream truck and soon plans to open Twirl in Portland’s Public Market. She’ll be making an unusual hybrid that puts Gifford’s hard-serve ice cream, with her additions, through two machines to emerge in what she describes as a New Zealand-style velvety, intensely flavored twist.

For classic soft serve, the ratio of ingredients is critical to getting the correct texture, and it’s not easy to nail. That’s one reason even avid home cooks don’t make soft serve at home. Another is the machine, or rather the price tag on the machine, that produces that distinctive twist and texture, “perfectly not frozen and frozen at the same time,” as Kern put it. Soft serve machines – Taylor is the gold standard – are constantly churning, freezing, and unfreezing the mixture in their hoppers.

Fish & Whistle paid $8,000 for its machine – and it was secondhand. “It’s the most expensive machine in our kitchen,” Hamm said. “I became kind of deranged. I was like, ‘I just want this machine.’ Looking back, it was insane. But I’m glad we have it. A certain level of insanity has to take over at some point to make (opening a restaurant) seem like a good idea.”

Despite their high price, soft serve machines have a reputation for being finicky.


“They are kind of a pain,” Matt Shankle, chef/partner in Nomad said (with affection). To keep them functioning, “you have to clean them very often and not just run some sanitizer through them. You have to clean all the parts – at least once a week. Twice a week is better. There are a thousand parts to it.”

Each cleaning, he said, takes him about 1½ hours.

A customer gets a soft serve at Fish & Whistle. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

On the plus side from the restaurant perspective, soft serve ice cream takes just five minutes to freeze; a restaurant needn’t devote valuable kitchen space to storing the ice cream at the proper serving temperature; and during busy dinner service, the dessert makes few demands on the staff. A single person can dispense it, no small consideration given Maine’s serious labor shortage.

“Having scooped a lot of (hard-serve) ice cream at fancy restaurants, keeping the temperature right is a full-time job,” Hamm said. But the soft serve machine holds the ice cream at a perfectly calibrated temperature, and an employee simply presses a lever to dispense it. Presto!

“Any time you can provide something that is delicious and fun but is minimal labor is a huge win,” Hamm said.

The sweet cream soft serve with a dark chocolate shell and Oreo crumble (left), and the brown butter soft serve with bourbon caramel and candied pecans at Higgins Beach Market in Scarborough. The brown butter flavor was designed for Eventide Fenway in Boston, a play on the oyster bar’s acclaimed brown butter lobster roll. Peggy Grodinsky/Staff Writer



Three years ago, Big Tree Hospitality began selling its elevated soft serve at Higgins Beach Market in Scarborough, where friendly teenagers working summer jobs dispense it just blocks from the beach – an old-school setting for the new-style soft serve.

There are still a few kinks to work out, Smith said. The company hasn’t yet landed on a signature flavor for the market, having tried – and rejected – both raspberry lime rickey and Moxie. Good, he said, “but we felt we could have done better.”

Then there is the question of encouraging the usual flip-flops-clad, sand-dusted, bathing-suit-wearing customers to focus. Many don’t even notice the unusual flavors, he said, instead reflexively asking for a classic vanilla and chocolate twist.

The price is also a bit of a question mark. Roadside soft serve in Greater Portland will set you back about $3 to $5, depending on the size; special cones and toppings are extra. The nouveau soft serve is in the $5 to $8 range, more like a premium hard serve. Soft serve, toppings included, at both Honey Paw and Higgins Beach Market costs $8. Customers expect to pay more at a full-service restaurant, Smith said but may balk at a casual beach market.

Certainly, no one was balking at Honey Paw on a sunny afternoon at the start of the Memorial Day holiday, where you could have thrown a stone and hit a happy soft serve eater. Diners described it variously as “fantastic,” “awesome,” “a delicacy” and “the best ice cream I’ve ever had.” That last was from Jim Tracey, a visitor from Philadelphia who said he doesn’t even like ice cream but was digging in with evident pleasure.

Portland resident Martina Papi was out with her toddler daughter and two girlfriends. Papi said Honey Paw is her favorite lunch spot, and that she always orders the honey soft serve for dessert. A dish of it was planted in front of her daughter, who was making excellent headway, not to mention using her spoon with impressive finesse.

“My little daughter, she’s 1½ yrs old, she absolutely loves it,” Papi said. “I’m willing to share with her. I don’t know if she’s willing to share with me, though.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: