The 20 Best Soft Serve Places in the U.S.


Here’s the scoop: All frozen treats are not created equal. While the creamy vanilla-and-chocolate swirls of your youth may seem the same as that serving of rocky road, they go by different names. To be considered ice cream, the dessert has to have at least 10 percent milkfat. Soft serve, on the other hand, contains anywhere from 3 to 6 percent milkfat and the treat is generally churned, then infused with more air during the freezing process to give it that fluffy and, well, softer texture. Toast the classic American dessert by giving one of these spots a swirl.


Small batches of soft serve are hand-crafted daily in the Sweet Rose Creamery kitchen location in Santa Monica, using organic milk, cream, and eggs from local farms as well as produce scooped up at a nearby farmers market. The menu features classics like vanilla bean and dark chocolate, in addition to rotating seasonal flavors like brown sugar, lime, and gingerbread.


Founded in 1975 by ice cream salesman and high school teacher Cliff Freund, this neighborhood institution has remained mainly unchanged over its four-plus decades. Sweets lovers walk up to the stand, choose from 11 soft serve flavors (including the award-winning vanilla and strawberry) or 60 hand-dipped varieties, then enjoy their treats at the picnic table.


big gay ice cream
Guian Bolisay, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The perennial favorite started as “a lark” admits co-owner Doug Quint when he decided to drive an ice cream truck around NYC in 2009. Now, the brand has three locations (in New York and Philadelphia) offering creatively named menu items such as the Bea Arthur (vanilla ice cream infused with dulce de leche and dunked in crushed Nilla wafers). Jokes Quint of their famed vanilla, sea salt, dulce de leche, and chocolate creation, “I’m still sort of shocked when I eat a Salty Pimp.”


Dessert lovers order “stackers” at this southern spot (located in Dallas and Austin)—sundaes that alternate layers of creamy soft serve with toppings (anything from Nutter Butter crumbs to caramelized bananas) and baked goods. One to try: the Southern Charm, with "rummy caramel sauce, honey-dusted pecans, and southern cracker candy."


When chocolatier Autumn Martin first invested in a soft serve machine for her second shop—in the city’s Capitol Hill area—the aim was to make it easier on staff to blend the signature milkshakes. But it also gave Martin an excuse to create her own hardened chocolate “magic shell” for the vanilla-only dessert. Her iteration, a smoky chocolate, is “reminiscent of childhood summers,” raves Seattle Magazine, “but with a grown-up, campfire-y twist.”


magpies ice cream soft serve
Maricel S., Yelp

A visit to a Palm Desert ice cream chain inspired husband-and-wife duo Rose and Warren Schwartz to create what they called a “chef-y Dairy Queen.” Together at Magpies Soft Serve, they blend inventive flavors in-house such as vegan Horchata and peanuts & Cracker Jack.


Punny names (Think: Baby Got Baklava, a blend of honey cinnamon custard, toasted walnuts and phyllo crust, and the gin and juice sorbet Snoop Dizzle Sorbizzle) are on offer at this homey shop in East Nashville. Their cereal-infused delicacies are also a standout. The four “Cereal Killer” blends include mixes with Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Fruity Pebbles, Froot Loops, and Cap’n Crunch.


This Logan Square pizza joint’s take on the childhood treat is decidedly adult. Booze-laced options on the menu include a flavor spiked with Jameson whiskey. Others are laced with cream liqueur.


chocolate vanilla swirl at twirl and dip
Kimberly T., Yelp

This Northern California food truck is named for its signature vanilla-chocolate twirl. But their take on the classic is anything but basic: organic vanilla bean and dark chocolate is swirled into a hand-rolled sugar cone, then dunked in dark cocoa from local chocolatier Tcho. (The sprinkle of sea salt? Optional.) For those looking for less traditional treats, there are seasonal flavors such as mango, fresh ginger, and nutmeg offered from the food truck as well as the recently opened brick-and-mortar shop.


Marketed as “the perfect marriage” of American Chinese food and Louisiana Po’boys, this Texas sandwich shop carries its East-meets-West style to dessert. Their rotating menu is comprised of offerings like granola yogurt, milk black tea, and toasted bread, topped with crumbled and caramelized toast pieces.


Since its 2016 opening, this spot became an Instagram darling, thanks to its jet-black chocolate and red cinnamon cones filled with brightly hued soft serve available in ube purple yam, matcha green tea, macapuno coconut and black sesame. Another hit: their menu of specials named for local city spots, including the matcha, crushed Oreos, and chocolate drizzle Mott and Mulberry, a tribute to the Chinatown neighborhood where owners Michael Tsang and Jason Liu were both raised. “Coming up with the menu, we started thinking about how we came up with the inspiration for the ice cream and our roots in the neighborhood,” Tsang explained to DNA New York in 2016.


dairy joy ice cream
Dairy Joy

Open every season from May through November, the family-run roadside attraction has been serving up made-from-scratch soft serve (and fried seafood!) for 57 years. Fresh fruit purees are the key ingredients in the homemade blends, including the beloved JavaBerry, a raspberry-and-coffee mix that was originally blended by accident, according to Eater.


In honor of its basketball town roots (the three locations are located within miles of Syracuse University), this family-run operation holds a March Madness-style Midsummer Classic each August. The top 32 selling flavors from the previous year (options include an orange sherbet and black raspberry twist and a vanilla and chocolate Dole Whip) are put in a bracket to see which variation will be crowned “Chillin’ Champion.”


soft serve at Wiz Bang Bar
Randy F., Yelp

After getting your fill of Choco Tacolates (taco-shaped waffle cones stuffed with Mexican vanilla ice cream and ancho chile and coated in chocolate) at this Portland eatery, choose from five soft serve flavors. Sweet pea and fresh mint or cucumber fro-yo are some of the more inventive options on offer, but traditionalists can stick to the vanilla custard or chocolate fudge.


At Detroit Water Ice Factory, the chocolate and vanilla soft serve sandwiches include your choice of fat- and cholesterol-free water ice (load up on flavors like Swedish Fish, root beer, and salted margarita) and come with a side of largesse. All profits from the downtown Detroit location—founded by newspaper columnist and author Mitch Albom—go to the city’s neediest citizens.


Come to this barbecue joint for the ribs and chicken, but be sure to stay for dessert. Sugar seekers can finish up their dish with the paw cone (six layers of vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, caramel or butterscotch ice cream) or, for the more adventurous, the Dang Revenoor. At nearly 12 inches, the spiral clocks in as the state’s tallest soft serve tower.


soft serve at Cheese & Crack Snack Shop
Leah K., Yelp

While the signature fromage-and-cured meat boxes are the stars at this tiny café that started as a neighborhood cheese stand on wheels, the $3 vanilla soft serve (topped with chocolate ganache and espresso dust) has customers raving.


The maple creemee—Vermont’s take on ice cream—is a mix of soft serve and maple syrup. And Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, the state’s oldest maple farm and sugaring plant, is said to dish it out best, thanks to their additive-, preservative-, and artificial sweetener-free 100 percent pure syrup.


Taking a cue from Vermont, Ohio has their own name for soft serve: the creamy whip. And Ohioans rank the blend at this walk-up stand, which serves up flavors like Peanut Butter and Fizzy Cotton Candy, among the top. In business since 1938, when Anna and Constantine Putz sold cones out of a pair of trolley cars, the shop has a storied history. When a planned expressway construction threatened to close the location, owner Lil Ehrhardt penned a letter to then-President Richard Nixon asking him to alter plans. Her plea worked. Six weeks after she sent the note, she received word from the U.S. Department of Transportation that the roadway could be shifted back nine feet.


Bi-Rite Creamery
Justin W., Yelp

The flavors change daily at this eatery in San Francisco’s historic Mission District — salted caramel, balsamic strawberry, and coconut feature regularly — but the formula stays the same. The creamery crafts their blend with buffalo milk from nearby Double 8 Dairy, a technique that gives the treat a creamier consistency and smoother texture.

14 Secrets of McDonald's Employees

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While there’s virtually no end to the number of fast food options for people seeking a quick meal, none have entered the public consciousness quite like McDonald’s. Originally a barbecue shop with a limited menu when it was founded by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s, the Golden Arches have grown into a franchised behemoth with more than 36,000 locations worldwide.

Staffing those busy kitchens and registers are nearly 2 million McDonald's employees. To get a better idea of what many consider to be the most popular entry-level job in the nation—staff members on the floor make an average of $9 an hour—we asked several workers to share details of their experiences with errant ice cream machines, drive-through protocols, and special requests. Here’s what they had to say about life behind the counter.

1. McDonald's employees can't always deliver fast food all that fast.

While McDonald’s and other fast-service restaurants pride themselves on getting customers on their way, some menu items just don’t lend themselves to record service times. According to Bob, an assistant store manager at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, pies take an average of 10 to 12 minutes to prepare; grilled chicken, 10 minutes; and biscuits for Egg McMuffins, eight to 10 minutes. In the mood for something light, like a grilled chicken and salad? That will take a few minutes, too. Bob says salads are pre-made with lettuce but still need to have chicken and other ingredients added.

The labor-intensive nature of assembling ingredients is part of why the chain has more recently shied away from menu items with too many ingredients. “We are trained to go as fast down the line as we can, and if we have to stop to make something that has 10 ingredients, it tends to slow things down,” Bob tells Mental Floss. “Corporate has realized this and has taken many of these items off in recent years, [like] McWraps, Clubhouse, more recently the Smokehouse and mushroom and Swiss and moved to items that can go a lot quicker.”

2. McDonald's workers wish you’d stop asking for fries without salt.

A serving of McDonald's French fries is pictured
Joerg Koch, AFP/Getty Images

A common “trick” for customers seeking fresh fries is to ask for them without salt. The idea is that fries that have been under a heating lamp will already be salted and that the employee in the kitchen will need to put down a new batch in the fryer. This does work, but customers can also just ask for fresh fries. It’s less of a hassle and may even save employees some discomfort.

“People can ask for fresh fries and it's actually way easier to do fresh fries rather than no-salt fries,” Andy, an employee who’s worked at three different McDonald’s locations in the Midwest, tells Mental Floss. “For those, we have to pour the fries onto a tray from the fryer so they don't come in contact with salt. It can get awkward sometimes getting everything into position, especially if you have a lot of people working in close proximity and it's busy, so I've had some scalded hands a couple of times trying to get fries out in a timely way.”

3. McDonald's workers have to pay careful attention to the order of ingredients.

McDonald’s is pretty specific about how their burgers and other items are supposed to be assembled, with layers—meat, cheese, sauce—arranged in a specific order. If they mess it up, customers can notice. “In some cases it has a big impact,” Sam, a department manager and nine-year veteran of the restaurant in Canada, tells Mental Floss. “Like placing the cheese between the patties with a McDouble. If they don’t put the cheese between the patties, the cheese won’t melt.”

4. There’s a reason McDonald’s employees ask you to park at the drive-through.

A McDonald's customer pulls up to the drive-thru window
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

After ordering at the drive-through window, you may be slightly puzzled when a cashier asks you to pull into one of the designated parking spots. That’s because employees are measured on how quickly they process cars at the drive-through. If your order is taking a long time to prepare, they’ll take you out of the queue to keep the line moving. “My store has sensors in the drive-through that actually tell us exactly how long you are at each spot in the drive-through,” Bob says. “We get measured based on something we call OEPE. Order end, present end. [That measures] from the second that your tires move from the speaker until your back tires pass over the sensor on the present window. My store is expected to be under two minutes.” If an order will take longer than that, you'll be asked to park.

5. The McDonald's drive-through employees can hear everything going on in your car.

While the quality of the speakers at a drive-through window can vary, it’s best to assume employees inside the restaurant can hear everything happening in your car even before you place an order. “The speaker is activated by the metal in the car, so as soon as you drive up, the speaker turns on in our headset,” Andy says. “We can hear everything, and I do mean everything. Loud music, yelling at your kids to shut up, etc.”

6. The employees at McDonald’s like their regulars.

Customers eat inside of a McDonald's with an order of French fries in the foreground
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

With hot coffee, plenty of tables, Wi-Fi, and newspapers, McDonald’s can wind up being a popular hang-out for repeat customers. “[We have] a ton of regulars who come into my store,” Bob says. “I'd say at least 75 percent of my daily customers know us all by name and we know them all, too. It makes it nice and makes the service feel a lot more personal when a customer can walk into my location, and we can look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey Mark! Getting the usual today?’ and we've already started making his coffee exactly how he takes it.”

7. McDonald’s staff get prank calls.

Unless they’re trying to cater an event, customers usually don’t have any reason to phone a McDonald’s. When the phone rings, employees brace themselves. In addition to sometimes being asked a legitimate question like when the store closes, Sam says his store gets a lot of prank calls. “Sometimes it’s people asking about directions to Wendy’s,” he says. “A lot of inappropriate ones. Most are pretty lame.”

8. For a McDonald’s worker, the ice cream machine is like automated stress.

A McDonald's customer is handed an ice cream cone at the drive-thru window

The internet is full of stories of frustrated McDonald’s customers who believe the chain’s ice cream machines are always inoperable. That’s not entirely true, but the machine does experience a lot of downtime. According to Bob, that’s because it’s always in need of maintenance. “The thing is, it is a very sensitive machine,” he says. “It's not made to be making 50 cones in a row, or 10 shakes at a time. It takes time for the mix to freeze to a proper consistency. It also requires a daily heat mode, [where] the whole machine heats up to about 130 degrees or so. The heat mode typically takes about four hours to complete, so you try to schedule it during the slowest time.” Stores also need to take the machine entirely apart every one to two weeks to clean it thoroughly.

Bob adds that the machine’s O-rings can crack or tear, rendering the unit inoperable. Seasoned workers can tell if a unit is faulty by the consistency of the shakes or ice cream coming out, and sometimes by the noises it makes.

9. McDonald's employees don't mind if you order a grilled cheese.

Contrary to rumor, there’s no “secret menu” at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes snag something not listed on the board. Andy says a lot of people order a grilled cheese sandwich. “I've made many a grilled cheese before,” he says. But it’s not without consequences. “Sometimes it can get a bit risky doing it because the bun toaster wasn't designed to make grilled cheeses so sometimes you get some burnt buns or cheese or the cheese sticks inside and it slows down the other buns from getting out on time so that causes more burnt buns.”

Another common request is for customers to ask for a McDouble dressed as a Big Mac, with added Big Mac sauce and shredded lettuce. “I think [it’s] a way more practical way to eat a Big Mac since there's less bun in the way, and it's also way cheaper even if you do get charged for Mac sauce.”

10. McDonald’s workers recommend always checking your order.

A McDonald's employee serves an order
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nothing stings worse than the revelation that an employee has forgotten part of your food order. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the employees are being lazy or inattentive. According to Bob, it’s simply due to the volume of customers a typical location has to process in a given day. “We are human,” he says. “Mistakes do happen. We always feel terrible when they do but when we serve 1000-plus people a day, it's bound to happen.”

Bob recommends checking your bag before leaving the restaurant and not taking it personally if there’s an issue. “Be nice to us if you have a problem,” he says. “It's a huge difference between coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I seem to be missing a fry from my bag,’ and ‘You bastards didn't give me my fries!’” If you want to check your bag at the drive-through, though, he recommends trying to pull ahead so cars behind you can move forward.

11. McDonald's employees don't recommend the grilled chicken.

If a menu item isn’t all that popular, it can wind up experiencing a low rate of turnover. Of all the food at McDonald’s, the most neglected might be the grilled chicken. Because it doesn't move quickly, workers find that it can turn unappetizing in a hurry. “That stuff has a supposed shelf life of 60 minutes in the heated cabinet, but it dries out so quickly that even if it's within an acceptable time frame, it looks like burnt rubber, and probably tastes like it, too,” Andy says.

12. Golden Arches employees aren’t crazy about Happy Meal collectors.

A McDonald's Happy Meal is pictured
David Morris, Getty Images

Happy Meals are boxed combos that come with a toy inside. Usually, it’s tied into some kind of movie promotion. That means both Happy Meal collectors and fans of a given entertainment property can swarm stores looking for the product. “The biggest pain involving the Happy Meals is the people who collect them,” Bob says. “I personally hate trying to dig through the toys looking for one specific one. We usually only have one to three toys on hand. It's especially a pain in the butt during big toys events such as the Avengers one we just had. There was like 26 different toys, and some customers get really mad when you don't have the one that they want.”

And no, employees don’t usually take home leftover toys. They’ve saved for future use as a substitute in case a location runs out of toys for their current promotion.

13. McDonald's employees can’t mess with Monopoly.

The McDonald’s Monopoly promotion has been a perennial success for the chain, with game pieces affixed to drink cups and fry containers. But if you think employees spend their spare time peeling the pieces off cups looking for prizes, think again. Following a widely-publicized scandal in 2000 that saw an employee of the company that printed the pieces intercepting them for his own gain, the chain has pretty strict rules about the promotion. “Monopoly pieces and things like them get sent back to corporate,” Bob says. “We aren't allowed to touch them, open them, or redeem them as employees.”

14. One McDonald's worker admits there have been sign mishaps.

A McDonald's sign is pictured
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Many McDonald’s locations sport signs under the arches advertising specials or promotions. Some are analog, with letters that need to be mounted and replaced. Others have LED screens. Either way, there can be mistakes. “I've never seen anyone mess around with the letters,” Andy says. “But I do remember one time we were serving the Angus Burgers and the ‘G’ fell off of the word ‘Angus.’ Good times.”

The Reason Why It's Technically Against State Rules to Sell LaCroix in Massachusetts

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

No one is quite certain what goes into LaCroix (“La-croy”), the carbonated water that’s become a popular alternative to soft drinks. The zero-calorie beverage comes in several distinctive fruit flavors that the drink’s parent company, National Beverage, has described as being derived from “natural essence oils.” That highly secretive process is believed to be the result of heating fruits and vegetables, then making a concentrate out of the vapor.

To try and crack the mystery, Consumer Reports recently approached officials in Massachusetts with a public records request for documentation relating to LaCroix. Massachusetts is one of the few states requiring manufacturers of carbonated water to obtain a permit and submit water quality tests to sell their product.

The verdict? Consumer Reports still isn’t quite sure what goes into LaCroix. But it might be technically against state regulations to sell it in Massachusetts. That’s because the state has no records on file for the mystery refreshment.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health could not find a permit for LaCroix, and there were no water quality test results on hand, either. Without those documents, the drink should technically not be for sale in the state. After noticing the oversight, Massachusetts sent a request to National Beverage for the necessary information. If the company fails to comply, the state could end up fining them or banning the sale of the drink. A spokesperson for National Beverage told Consumer Reports the company intended to comply with the request.

Why does the state need any information at all? Thanks to some bureaucratic quibbling, carbonated water products are treated differently than bottled water by regulatory agencies. The Food and Drug Administration considers carbonated beverages like seltzer and flavored sparkling water to fall under the heading of soft drinks. While the FDA mandates certain manufacturing standards for those drinks, it doesn’t apply the same rules as it does for bottled water, which is expected to adhere to strict rules about contaminants and quality testing. That leaves certain states like Massachusetts to conduct their own quality assessments.

There’s no guarantee that such testing will divulge LaCroix’s secret to their flavoring process, which is likely to remain a mystery.

[h/t Food & Wine]