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A Brief History of Frozen Custard, Wisconsin’s Favorite Dessert

Wisconsin’s love of frozen custard — a dessert similar to ice cream, but made with eggs in addition to cream, sugar, and flavoring — is so solid that it might surprise you to know that the treat didn’t originate in Wisconsin.

The invention of frozen custard can be traced back to 1919 in Coney Island, New York. Ice cream vendors Archie and Elton Kohr realized that when they added egg yolks to ice cream, it had a smoother texture and helped the ice cream stay cold longer — perfect for hot summer afternoons on the boardwalk.

The 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago is responsible for the Midwest’s love affair with frozen custard, but the Badger State was already ahead of the curve and producing frozen custard and ice cream in the early 1930s. Prohibition had something to do with this — many Wisconsin breweries tried to produce items other than beer to stay in business, among them soda, cheese, and ice cream. With an abundance of milk, and easy access to ice, frozen custard was the ideal product.

The new treat, however, was not without a bit of controversy. In 1932, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture launched a campaign against ice cream vendors who were marketing an inferior product labeled as frozen custard. State law required that custard have 13% butterfat, but in many of the varieties it was testing, the custard had 6% butterfat. This was due to early custard machines not taking enough time to mix the product.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, many of the now-iconic frozen custards stands debuted in Milwaukee. Gilles was the first to open in 1938, followed by Leon’s in 1942 and Kopp’s in 1950. This is the reason why the city is known as the “Unofficial Frozen Custard Capital of the World” — including those three, the city has more frozen custard shops per capita than anywhere else on the planet.

For the first few decades of its existence in Wisconsin, frozen custard was one of two flavors — vanilla or chocolate. In the 1960s, the Kopp’s custard stand was successful enough that Elsa, the shop’s owner, felt comfortable experimenting by combining the two flavors together. Initially, the idea was debated in the custard community, but the public loved the new flavor, and Kopp’s became known for their “flavor of the day” in addition to the traditional chocolate and vanilla.

Today, custard continues to be a favorite Wisconsin treat. If you’ve got a custard craving, we’ve got a few suggestions:

Gilles Frozen Custard – Milwaukee

The first frozen custard stand to open in Wisconsin, this iconic restaurant is still in its original location and is celebrating 82 years of business in 2020.

Leon’s Frozen Custard – Milwaukee

More of a drive-in restaurant than a custard stand, Leon’s boldly claims to be the “Home of the World’s Finest Frozen Custard” and offers three flavors, one of which is their amazing butter pecan.

Kopp’s Frozen Custard – Milwaukee

Never afraid of experimentation, Kopp’s offers traditional custard flavors as well as two “flavors of the day” — specials often tied to specific events or celebrations.

Not Licked Yet Frozen Custard – Fish Creek

This favorite Door County spot is as well-known for excellent custard as it is for the wacky antics of the staff (100% approved by the owner). Make sure you tip them to get a special thank you!

Zesty’s Frozen Custard & Grill – Green Bay

With three locations in the Green Bay area (Allouez, DePere, and Howard/Suamico), Zesty’s custard is made using 50-year-old machines from Leon’s Frozen Custard.

Or, if you’re not close to one of these locations, any Culver’s location is a solid substitute!

Looking for more Wisconsin foodie favorites? Try these top spots for cheese curds!

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