Irvine Robbins – American innovator who changed the way ice-cream was sold

Irvine Robbins started with a single ice-cream parlour in Glendale, Calfornia, and with his brother-in-law, Burton Baskin, turned it into Baskin-Robbins, the world’s biggest ice-cream chain. Robbins, who has died aged 90, was an innovator in both business and ice-cream – part of Baskins-Robbins’ success was due to their being among the first franchised retailers. Robbins claimed his franchising model inspired Ray Kroc, to whom he passed it on while supplying milkshake blenders to Kroc’s hamburger stands, called McDonald’s.

But Robbins’ real genius lay in the marketing of ice-cream itself. More than just a food, ice-cream is the great comforter of American life, and Robbins helped turn it into a great indulgence. The explosion of Baskin-Robbins’ 31 exotic flavours killed postwar America’s traditional preoccupation with vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry once and for all. Robbins’ idea was to surprise customers with new flavours, and the idea grew into commemorative tastes

He graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Washington in 1939, returned to the family business and married Irma Gevurtz. He served in the army during the second world war and, after his discharge, cashed in an insurance policy he had received for his bar mitzvah, moved to Glendale and opened the Snowbird ice-cream store. Baskin, who had married Robbins’ sister, had run a clothing store in Chicago before the war, but after his discharge from the navy, followed Robbins, and opened his Burton’s Ice Cream in nearby Pasadena. Robbins’ father had advised against the brothers-in-law going into business together, lest they inhibit each other’s ideas.

But by 1948 there were five Snowbird stores, and three Burton’s, and the brothers-in-law decided to merge. With the merger came their 31st flavour, chocolate mint, which gave them one for every day of the month (vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry were never counted among the 31). It would also be three more than Howard Johnson’s, who famously offered 28. Within a year they were up to 43 stores, growing quickly after deciding to sell each store to its manager, what would come to be known as “franchising“. They renamed the company, with a coin-toss deciding that Baskin’s name would come first.

Soon they were out of the managing business, producing ice-cream at a factory in Burbank, concentrating on the standardised look of the stores and a constant churning of the flavours they sold. Overall, more than 1,000 flavours have filled the scoops of Baskin-Robbins stores, and employees have always been allowed to eat as much as they like, because, as Robbins said, “I don’t want my employees stealing.”

In 1967, the partners sold their business, by then some 500 stores, to United Fruit for $12m. The premium ice-cream business took off as baby-boomers reached adulthood. Within six months, Baskin had died, aged 54, of a heart attack. Robbins worked for the company until retiring in 1978. It is now owned by Dunkin’ Donuts, and boasts some 5,500 stores worldwide. Robbins was an ardent anglophile, and an unlikely supporter of Newcastle United, but his Grape Britain ice cream, perhaps fortunately, never left the laboratory.

Robbins retired to Rancho Mirage, his house equipped with a six-seat soda fountain, where he ate three or four scoops daily, frequently adding banana ice cream to his breakfast cereal.

He is survived by Irma, daughters Marsha and Erin, and son John, who rejected the family business, became a vegan, and is the author of Diet for a New America.

Irvine Robbins, businessman, born December 6 1917; died May 5 2008

Ack :-