HERMITAGE, Pa. — The ice cream cone is never the star of the show.
Its role is clear: Keep the scoop upright, don't leak and don't upstage the main player, the ice cream.
But being that supportive takes work. Which is why David George believes that the cone deserves more respect.
"When you have a car, you know a whole lot of engineering is going into it," he said, standing beside bright-red boxes of cones. "A simple cone sounds like a simple thing, but it is not so simple."
George is the third-generation president of Joy Baking Group, the largest manufacturer of ice cream cones in North America. You may not know Joy by name, but you've probably tasted its cones. Mister Softee? A Joy customer. Dairy Queen? Also Joy. Your local ice cream shop? Probably.
As the realm of ice cream has expanded — with more flavors, toppings and faddish treats introduced each year — the cone world has only grown smaller. Joy has cornered the cone market by betting on a basic premise: When it comes to the cone, people don't want creativity. They want familiarity.
Inside Joy's 530,000-square-foot flagship factory in western Pennsylvania — one of four Joy cone facilities in North America — jumbo spinning ovens that look like a joint partnership between NASA and Dr. Seuss operate around the clock, producing 15 million to 20 million cones a day during its busiest season, from February through July. They include crisp, squeaky cake cones; sturdier, cookie-like sugar cones; and wide-mouthed, caramel-scented waffle cones.
These are cones designed to taste like childhood summers. They're as comforting as a slice of pie, as delightful as cotton candy.
Joy now makes 41.3% of the cones sold in American stores, according to an April 2022 report from IRI, a data analytics company — and likely more, since it also manufactures private-label cones. Malcolm Stogo, a consultant for ice cream shops, estimated that 60-70% of the cones sold in food service are Joy's. Its closest competitor, Keebler, controls 14.5% of store sales.
"I think for most of us, the cone is an afterthought," said Brian Smith, who once co-owned Brooklyn ice cream shop Ample Hills Creamery.
Not at Joy's Pennsylvania factory, where cone-making is a highly technical, obsessed-over process.
Huge, keg-like vats hold the pale batter for the cones — mainly flour, water and sugar, along with tapioca flour for the cake cones. Joy uses brown sugar in its waffle and sugar cones, as George said this makes them sturdier and sweeter.
A maze of pipes carry the batter into another room, where it is squirted onto cast-iron molds that rotate inside ovens at 350-400 degrees for anywhere from 90 to 110 seconds, depending on the cone size and type. For sugar and waffle cones, another machine plucks the cones off the molds and slides them into spinners to be rolled. A floor worker inspects each cone for imperfections: cracks, bumps, uneven coloring.
Joy focuses on its three basic cone styles. Specialty varieties, like cookie cones, account for just 4% of revenue.
"It's already a niche business," George said. "So it is not like we come out with new flavors all the time, because then you are talking about a niche of a niche."
Where Joy has innovated is in its technology: a robotic arm that gently moves cones from the oven to a conveyor belt to be packaged or a machine that snugly wraps and seals the cones. Engineers have tweaked the cone design, too, moving up the grid pattern at the bottom of the cake cone to strengthen it. Most of the cones are extremely delicate, and piles of broken ones lie beside some machines.
Joy wasn't always a juggernaut. Two Lebanese immigrants — Albert George, George's grandfather, and a brother-in-law, Thomas J. Thomas — founded the company in 1918 in Brookfield, Ohio. It nearly went bankrupt in 1964 after a fire broke out in the factory. George's father, Joe George, took over that year, and focused on building proprietary ovens and selling cones in stores. Within five years, the company was profitable.
Over time, smaller cone makers have struggled to keep up with the rising costs of operating. In the past few decades, many have closed or been acquired by Joy.
"The last thing I wanted to do was shut my company down or sell it to Joy," said Ron Marinucci, who sold his company, Novelty Cone, to Joy in March. But he was in his late 60s and no one else was willing to take over.
"They make an extremely good product," he said of Joy. But the problem with one or two companies' dominating the business, he added, is that they can control prices.
George said Joy's prices have risen by only a few cents per cone over the past 10 years, roughly tracking inflation. Cones are an inexpensive luxury, he said. "We want to make sure that is always the case."
Ice cream shops are banking on that. Several owners said they favored Joy primarily for their reliability and cost.
"Joy cones are refreshing in their normalness and not-flashiness," said Victoria Lai, the founder of Ice Cream Jubilee, a string of shops in the Washington, D.C., area that serve the company's sugar cones. As supply-chain challenges make it harder to find ingredients, she said, Joy cones are consistently available.
But Kristine Tonkonow, the founder of the Konery, a cone maker in Brooklyn, thinks ice cream lovers deserve more options. "Imagine if Coca-Cola was the only company that made soda," she said. "It really is the way that the waffle cone industry is."
When she started the business in 2014, she looked at a Joy cone. "I thought it could be better. It could be more delicious, it could be prettier," she said.
The cone should be as exciting as the ice cream, she believes. Hers come in bright colors and flavors like orange Creamsicle and salted blue corn. They cost three to four times more than Joy's, Tonkonow said. But she has a wide array of customers, including Whole Foods Market, theme parks and independent shops.
"The thing about ice cream is that for virtually everyone, it is so tied to nostalgia," said Susan Soorenko, owner of Moorenko's, an ice cream shop in the Washington area. "It is what you remember about your grandma taking you out."