Today, Baskin-Robbins is nearly ubiquitous, with ice cream shops found everywhere from Canada to Colombia, the United Kingdom to Korea. Yet, the roots of this globally dominant brand run deep in suburban Los Angeles, where it was founded by two brothers-in-law in the years following World War II. Together, they did more than popularize quirky flavors like Jamoca Almond Fudge (coffee ice cream with roasted almonds and a chocolate ribbon); they created a brand that became synonymous with ice cream.
Irvine Robbins was born in Canada to parents who emigrated from Poland and Russia. They later moved to Tacoma, Washington, where Robbins' father was a partner at a local dairy. It was at that dairy that Robbins caught the ice cream bug. He started selling the cold treats on site, giving them fun names to help boost sales. After World War II, Robbins ended up in Southern California, where he opened the first of his own ice cream shops, called Snowbird, in Glendale.
Meanwhile, Robbins had convinced his sister's husband, Burton Baskin, to sell ice cream as well. Baskin was from Illinois and his background was actually in apparel retail, but he proved to be good at the ice cream game. Baskin opened his own shop in Pasadena. Soon, the brothers-in-law each had multiple ice cream stores, which they merged by the end of the 1940s. When their bounty of shops proved to be too much for two people, they sold them to the managers, essentially starting what would become the Baskin-Robbins business model of franchising shops.
There were two big advantages of that franchise model. The most obvious is that it allowed the Baskin-Robbins brand to spread far and wide. In 1959, an Arizona shop became the first Baskin-Robbins to exist outside of California. By the latter half of the 1960s, there were more than 600 shops across the country. A 1974 Los Angeles Times article notes that, in the previous year, there was one new Baskin-Robbins shop opening every other day, ultimately creating jobs in more than 600 towns. When the company celebrated its 31st anniversary — a momentous event that generated its fair share of newspaper ink — Baskin-Robbins had expanded through Europe and in Japan as well.
So world-renowned was the brand that its eventual presence in Moscow came to mark the end of the Cold War. In the summer of 1988, a Baskin-Robbins shop opened at a Moscow hotel, where ice cream was brought in from London and sold scoops for hard currency that many locals did not have. By 1990, though, Baskin-Robbins was ready to build a plant in the Soviet Union. The then-newsworthy expansion coincided with a zeitgeist-hitting flavor — Gorbachocolate.
Over the decades, Baskin-Robbins ever-changing assortment of flavors have frequently tapped into historical moments and pop culture phenomena. That was the other advantage of franchising shops; the owners were able to concentrate on perfecting the product.
Baskin-Robbins touts 31 flavors, but, that's really only a fraction of what tastes reside in their vaults.
In Robbins' New York Times obituary, his daughter, Marsha Veit, recalled the brothers-in-law working on new flavors in a kitchen. Over time, though, the team involved in creating new flavors expanded. In a 1973 New York Times article, Robbins noted that people he had just met would have ideas for new kinds of ice cream. At that point, there were 330 flavors and the company was releasing on average 15 new ones annually.
By the time of the 31st anniversary, Baskin-Robbins had already accumulated more than 500 flavors. The previous year, they had come out with several flavors made for the U.S. bicentennial celebration, including Yankee Doodle Strudel, Valley Forge Fudge, Concorde Grape and Minuteman Mint. Over the years, their commemorative flavors have ranged from Beatle Nut in 1964 to Lunar Cheesecake in 1969 to Saxy Candidate in 1996. Today, Baskin-Robbins has 1300 flavors.
Burton Baskin, who was an original board member for KCET, died in December of 1967 of a heart attack. He was 54. That same year, the company was sold to United Fruit. Today, it's part of the Dunkin' Brands family.
Robbins remained a part of the company until the late 1970s and was an avowed ice cream fan whose favorite flavor was said to be Jamoca Almond Fudge. For years, he and his family lived in an Encino home with an ice cream cone-shaped pool. After his retirement, Robbins moved to Rancho Mirage, where he died in 2008 at the age of 90.