The King Of Cream Returns

REUBEN MATTUS, THE 80-YEAR-OLD founder of Haagen-Dazs, sat before two unmarked and equally inviting bowls of vanilla ice cream-one Haagen-Dazs. the other a new low-fat variety from his family's test kitchen. His challenge: to identify the bowl of his ultrarich original. When he pointed to the low-fat vanilla instead, he knew he'd found his latest frozen asset. Now, a year later, the man who sold Haagen-Dazs to Pillsbury for $70 million is shaking up the industry again. This time he may actually have conjured up an ice cream that impresses diehard butterfat addicts but won't send them into coronary arrest.

Can Mattus get America's mouths watering for a low-fat ice cream? With projected sales of $15 million this year, his upstart company is still a mere scooplet in the $10 billion domestic ice-cream industry. Yet in only 11 months, Mattus' Lowfat Ice Cream has come to market in 18 states in such major chains as A&P and 7-Eleven. At the Gristede's and Sloan's chains in the New York metropolitan area, where the new brand has achieved its widest distribution, sales of Mattus' are now approaching 30 percent of Haagen-Dazs's. And by the end of the decade, the company's founder believes, he can rival Ben & Jerry's, which last year dished up sales of $132 million, thanks to such exotic flavors as Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey. "If there's one guy who can do it, it's Reuben Mattus," says Christopher Hoyt of the Ryan Management Group consultants. "But Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs aren't going to sit there and watch him take their market away."

Of course, at only 3 percent fat--versus 16 percent or more for Haagen-Dazs ice cream and 4 percent for Haagen-Dazs frozen yogurt Mattus' Lowfat cannot match such outrageous flavors as its rival's Triple Brownie Overload or Peanut Butter Burst. But Mattus--who started working on the new dessert when heart disease curtailed his own Haagen-Dazs consumption--insisted that his less extravagant Vanilla Meringue and Caramel Crunch had to taste as good as or better than his old brand. "There was a lot of Reuben shaking his head and saying, 'No, that's not it yet'," says son-in-law Kevin Hurley. Mattus will not reveal his ice-cream-making techniques, saying only that the secret lies in the process, not the ingredients; but his vanilla ice cream contains only milk, skim milk, cane sugar, corn sugar and natural vanilla, with none of the traditional bulking agents and stabilizers in other low-fat frozen desserts. "It will be a challenge to the rest of the industry, to put their R&D departments to work to come up with something that good," says Howard Waxman, editor of FIND/SVP's monthly Ice Cream Reporter. The irony is that Mattus felt obliged to offer the formula to his former company before taking it to market. Haagen-Dazs, he says, turned him down.

But all is not sweetness and "lite" in the ice-cream world. The competition has grown much fiercer since Mattus delivered his first lemon ices by pushcart in the Bronx in the 1920s. There are now dozens of low-fat desserts on the market. Rivals like Haagen-Dazs discourage their distributors from dealing with competitors. And grocery stores prefer to reduce their paper-work and maximize profits by ordering from fewer, larger companies, like Unilever (which last month agreed to buy Breyers and Sealtest, adding to its Klondike and Good Humor lines) or M&M/Mars and Nestle (which have expanded into ice cream). "Would Ben & Jerry's make it today?" asks Jeffrey Hill of the Meridian Consulting Group. "Maybe, but it would be a hell of a lot harder." Nonetheless, the man who once shocked the ice-cream industry by upping his product's butterfat content and brazenly out charging his competitors is confident that he can lick the competition again. "I broke all the rules, and the result was the best goddam product around," he says of Haagen-Dazs. Who knows? If he can repeat his success, the sultan of super-premium may one day become the lord of low fat.