Meet Joy Baking Group, maker of American ice cream cones

HERMITAGE, Pa. — The ice cream cone is never the star of the show.

Its role is clear: to keep the spoon straight, not to run away and not to eclipse the main actor, the ice cream.

But being so supportive takes work. This is why David George believes that the cone deserves more respect.

“When you have a car, you know a lot of engineering goes into it,” he said, standing next to boxes of bright red cones. “A simple cone looks like a simple thing, but it’s not that simple.”

George is the third generation president of Joy Baking Group, North America’s largest ice cream cone manufacturer. You may not know Joy by name, but you’ve probably tasted her cones. Mr Sweet? A Joy customer. Dairy queen? Joy too. Your local ice cream shop? Most likely.

As the realm of ice cream has expanded – with more flavors, toppings and trendy treats being introduced every year – the world of cones has only gotten smaller. Joy cornered the cone market betting on one basic premise: when it comes to cones, people don’t want creativity. They want familiarity.

Inside Joy’s flagship 530,000 square foot factory in western Pennsylvania – one of four Joy cone facilities in North America – giant spinning ovens that look like a partnership between the NASA and Dr. Seuss operate around the clock, producing 15 to 20 million cones a day during its busiest season, February through July. They include crispy, squeaky cake cones; sturdier cookie-like sugar cones; and caramel-flavored wide-mouth waffle cones.

These are cones designed to taste the summers of childhood. They’re as comforting as a slice of pie, as delicious as cotton candy.

Ice cream cones are shaped at Joy Baking Group’s factory in Hermitage, Pennsylvania on May 20, 2022. Joy Baking Group has cornered much of the market with one guiding principle: when it comes to cones, people want what they know. (Nancy Andrews/The New York Times)

Joy now makes 41.3% of cones sold in U.S. stores, according to an April 2022 report from IRI, a data analytics firm — and likely more, since it also makes private label cones. Malcolm Stogo, a consultant for ice cream parlors, estimated that 60-70% of cones sold in restaurants are Joy’s. Its nearest competitor, Keebler, controls 14.5% of store sales.

Joy’s ancestry came through attracting customers from former cone companies or acquiring competitors. In March, Joy purchased Novelty Cone, the supplier of Mister Softee trucks for over 50 years.

“They have the ability to control the business. They have the equipment to control the business,” Stogo said. “They are not tied to any particular location, as they have factories all over the United States. So, frankly, I think they’ll be more dominant in three or four years.

In 2010, when Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna opened their Brooklyn ice cream shop, Ample Hills Creamery, they only served homemade cones. “It lasted about five days,” Smith said.

They couldn’t make cones fast enough, and customers were thirsty for what they knew. So they added Joy cones. (Smith and Cuscuna, who no longer own Ample Hills, serve both homemade cones and Joy at Social, their new store in Prospect Heights.)

“If they weren’t making a decent product, I’d be kicking and screaming a little more,” Smith said. Also, he added, “I think for most of us the taper is an afterthought.”

Not at Joy’s factory in Pennsylvania, where making cones is a highly technical and obsessed process.

Huge barrel-shaped vats hold the pale batter for the cones – mostly flour, water and sugar, plus tapioca flour for the cake cones. Joy uses brown sugar in her waffles and sugar cones, as George said, it makes them sturdier and sweeter.

A maze of pipes carries the paste to another room, where it is injected into cast iron molds which rotate inside ovens at 350-400 degrees for 90-110 seconds, depending on the size and type of cone. For sugar and waffle cones, another machine tears the cones from the molds and slips them into spinners to be rolled. A ground worker inspects each cone for imperfections: cracks, dents, uneven coloring.

Joy focuses on her three basic cone styles. Specialty varieties, such as cookie cones, account for only 4% of revenue.

“It’s already a niche business,” George said. “So it’s not like we’re releasing new flavors all the time, because then you’re talking about a niche of a niche.”

Where Joy broke new ground was in its technology: a robotic arm that gently moves the cones from the oven to a conveyor belt to wrap them, or a machine that perfectly wraps and seals the cones. Engineers also tweaked the cone design, moving the grid pattern up the bottom of the cake cone to make it stronger. Most cones are extremely delicate and piles of broken cones can be found next to 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 business was profitable.

Over time, smaller cone manufacturers have struggled to keep up with rising operating costs. In recent decades, many have closed or been acquired by Joy.

“The last thing I wanted to do was close my business or sell it to Joy,” said Ron Marinucci, who sold his business, Novelty Cone, to Joy in March. But he was in his late 60s and no one else was ready to take over.

“They make a really good product,” he said of Joy. But the problem with one or two companies dominating the market, he added, is that they can control prices.

George said Joy’s prices have risen by just pennies per cone over the past 10 years, roughly keeping pace with inflation. Cones are an inexpensive luxury, he says. “We want to make sure that will always be the case.”

The glaciers are betting on it. Several owners said they preferred Joy primarily for its reliability and cost.

“Cones of joy are refreshing in their normality and non-shine,” said Victoria Lai, founder of Ice Cream Jubilee, a series of stores in the Washington, D.C. area that serve the sugar cones from the company. As supply chain challenges make it harder to find ingredients, she said, Joy cones are still available.

But Kristine Tonkonow, the founder of Konery, a Brooklyn-based cone maker, thinks ice cream lovers deserve more options. “Imagine if Coca-Cola was the only company making sodas,” she said. “That’s really what the waffle cone industry is all about.”

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 ice cream, she believes. Hers come in bright colors and flavors like Creamsicle Orange and Salty Blue Corn. They cost three to four times as much as Joy’s, Tonkonow said. But she has a wide range of customers, including Whole Foods Market, theme parks and independent stores like Malai Ice Cream in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

“I don’t think we could top Joy,” Tonkonow said. “But we would like to give them a hard time.”

Tiffany Parris, a customer at The Social on a recent Sunday, said she was interested in choosing a flavored cone, but only if she could taste it first. Otherwise, “it’s too risky,” she said, calling the Joy sugar cone she ate a “classic.”

Susan Soorenko, the owner of Moorenko’s, a Washington-area ice cream parlor, said Konery’s products were expensive and would complicate the ordering process. “There’s no way I’m offering that array of choice,” she said. “It’s a recipe for chaos.”

She uses Joy Cones, but does not feel loyal to them. She finds the flavor of the sugar cones too intense. “If a local business came to me, or even a non-local business, and said, ‘We can go with Joy,'” she said, “I would absolutely give it a try.”

But she doubts that will happen.

“The thing about ice cream is that for pretty much everyone, it’s so tied to nostalgia,” she said. “That’s what you remember about your grandmother taking you outside.” For many Americans, these moments are tied to joy cones.

Even if another worthy contender shows up, “it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because it competes with a memory.”