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Ones to Watch | By By Lynne Miller

Discovery Ice Cream
Discovery Ice Cream is an ice cream shop for the 21st century kid.

Company officials bill Discovery as the most unique ice cream store in the world. While the eatery in downtown Kingsport, Tennessee, serves up quality ice cream, entertainment and technology are just as important to the customer’s experience. The main attraction is Cid, a robot programmed to assemble soft-serve ice cream treats.

“Kids are absolutely spellbound [by Cid],” says Alan Guinn, president of Puffin Innovations, Discovery Ice Cream’s parent company. “They stand there and watch the robot.

“You can’t call it an ice cream store per se,” he says. “When you walk in, you’ll recognize immediately you’re going to have an experience.”

Inside the 2,200-square-foot store, customers can place their orders with the robot or an associate at the counter. Customers who want to watch Cid in action use a touch screen to place their orders. The Robot’s memory is programmed to assemble treats following a step-by-step process. In 40 seconds, it builds a six-layer dessert that features soft-serve ice cream and candy toppings layered in an 8-ounce cup.

When the dessert is ready, an inner window rises and the robot places the treat on a ledge for the customer to pick up. Cid is a silent server for now but, down the road, the company plans to add verbal recognition software, which will give Cid the ability to interact with customers.

Consumers can also order traditional hard ice cream in cups and cones at the counter, where interactivity also reigns. Associates make ice cream fresh every day at the store, and customers can watch the process. Step stools make it possible for children to see employees dip the freshly made product. And customers are encouraged to sample the ice cream.

About 24 flavors are offered daily. Sherbet, frozen yogurt, and sorbet, in a handful of flavors, are also on the menu. The coffee and tea menu offers espresso, café au lait, mocha cappuccino, and other specialty drinks as well as a variety of teas and hot chocolate for kids. Coffee and ice cream blends are found on the Cool Beans and Cream menu. The Global Warming, for example, features vanilla ice cream drizzled with freshly pulled espresso. The average guest check is $5.92.

The store’s contemporary look is punched up by shades of light purple, deep red, yellow-orange, and light blue-green on the walls, while contrasting white panels and colorful banners are designed to focus attention on the menuboards. The dining area seats 35 people. Outdoor seating is also available. Future stores will require a minimum of 1,500 square feet, Guinn says.

He and other company officials are seeing growing interest in the Discovery concept. They believe consumer-controlled robotic machines have a bright future in foodservice. In many ways, robots are more reliable, more predictable, and more agreeable than employees, Guinn says. They also generate interest and enthusiasm among customers, not to mention revenue from a space no larger than a restaurant booth.

“The robot is replacing two to four people you might have over the length of the day who’d be serving a soft-serve product,” Guinn says. “A robot never argues with you. A robot never abuses a customer. It markets itself. People will be drawn to a robot. It truly is the ‘wow’ factor.”

President: Alan Guinn

HQ: Kingsport, Tennessee
Year Started: 2007
Annual Sales: N/A
Total Units: 1
Franchise Units: 0

Officials at Puffin believe they might have five to 10 new retail stores and robot applications up and running through franchising and licensing agreements by the end of 2008, Guinn says.

“We’ll see a mix of retail stores and robotic applications,” he says.

Potential franchisees and licensees have been in touch with the company, including interested parties from South Korea, Japan, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Because Cid doesn’t require traditional retail space, Guinn believes the concept can work in train stations, sports arenas, theme parks—“anywhere you have people congregating.”

Potential franchisees can expect to spend $378,400 to $522,500 to operate a flagship store, while a smaller express store requires $293,100 to $424,400.

Lynne Miller covers emerging and newly relevant brands.