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Soft Serve Machine Buying Guide

Few things are able to draw a crowd quite like delicious soft serve ice cream, but choosing the right machine for your business can be a daunting task. Whether you run an ice cream parlor, local diner, or concession stand, our vast selection of soft serve machines ensures there’s a perfect fit for your unique business.

What is Soft Serve?

Creating delicious soft serve is a simpler process than most might believe! Soft serve is essentially just aerated ice cream, or ice cream mixed with air. Traditional soft serve starts with just two ingredients: cold water and soft serve ice cream mix. Once combined, air is either mixed with the liquid soft serve through constant stirring in a machine just before it’s frozen, or is controllably forced into the liquid with a pressurized air pump. Once the liquid mix freezes, the result is a lighter, smoother-textured form of ice cream that has been a favorite treat for decades.

The "overrun," or amount of air added to the ice cream, is typically kept within 35% - 45% to maintain the taste and consistency while also creating a light and creamy texture. Any less and the soft serve will be firm like regular ice cream, while any more may cause a lack in taste and a consistency that won’t hold its shape.

Soft Serve Machine Output

Arguably the most essential factor to consider in the soft serve ice cream machine shopping process, the application of your machine and the appropriate volume capacity dictates what options are available for the size, style, number of hoppers, and special features. Typically, volume capacities of machines will be measured in either gallons per hour, servings per hour, or servings per minute (for a more precise assessment). Based on the scale of your operation and how many customers you expect to serve, certain machines may be more suitable for your output needs than others.
12 oz. Servings Per Hour
Qt. Per Hour
Gallons Per Hour
Operation Type
Up to 50 Up to 18 qt. Up to 4.5 gal. Small business
Between 50-100 18 qt. – 38 qt. 4.5 gal. – 9.5 gal. Restaurants
More than 100 Over 38 qt. Over 9.5 gal. Ice cream shops

Soft Serve Machine Installation Type

Soft serve machines are often classified into one of two variations: countertop and floor units. As their names indicate, countertop machines are meant to sit neatly on a countertop, while floor models are larger and designed to stand on floors.
Spaceman countertop soft serve ice cream machine
✔ Compact, smaller profile

✔ Good for front-of-house operation

✔ Generally simpler to operate and maintain

✔ Easy to implement into a pre-existing business
  • Requires solid, sturdy countertop
  • Only low- to medium-volume
Spaceman floor model soft serve ice cream machine
✔ Only needs open floor space

✔ Good for back-of-house operation

✔ Medium- to high-volume

✔ More options/features
  • Large, bulky profile
  • Generally more complex to install and operate
  • More costly

Soft Serve Machine Production Style

Another method of classifying soft serve machines, the production style is essentially how your machine freezes and dispenses the ice cream. The production style is a determining factor in the total volume capacity of the machine, so your choice here should be synonymous with how much soft serve you expect to produce.

  • Batch Production (Low Volume) - Machines with this style need to be refilled between each batch, and require approximately 45-60 minutes of freezing time. Because of this extra time needed to produce a new batch, these machines have a limited production capacity and are less popular in commercial applications. However, they are typically simpler to operate and are a great option for smaller operations with a tight budget.

  • Continuous Production (Any Volume) - The preferred option for most establishments, these machines continuously produce frozen product and feed it into hoppers, eliminating wait time and allowing you to dispense large amounts of soft serve with periodic mix refills. Machines with this function are top performers and can be used in any size shop or restaurant.

Number of Hoppers on Your Soft Serve Machine

Are you looking to provide your guests with a variety of soft serve flavor options? If so, consider selecting a machine with multiple hoppers. Many machines only include one hopper, which limits your offerings to just one flavor. Choosing a machine with multiple hoppers allows you to dispense multiple flavors from a single machine. Additionally, some machines include a flavor twist feature that combines two flavors by twisting them together as they are dispensed, opening up opportunities for unique and delicious flavor combinations.

Machines with multiple hoppers also provide increased output capabilities and a larger production capacity since you’re able to store more ice cream mix and dispense more total product without refilling. Since the number of hoppers directly correlates with your overall production capacity, any large operation would benefit from opting for a machine with 2-3 hoppers, even if multiple flavors aren’t being offered.

Soft Serve Machine Special Features

Many machines come equipped with a variety of additional features to improve the quality of your soft serve ice cream and make the production process even easier. Understanding the function of each feature will help you decide which ones are best to include in your ideal machine.

HP170501097 hopper agitator part

Hopper Agitator

Available as an option on some high-end models, a hopper agitator slowly stirs the product in the hopper to improve product consistency and prevent product separation. The product must still be mixed prior to pouring into the hopper, but the agitator eliminates the need to manually stir the product over the course of the day.

Gravity vs. Pressure Fed

These functions denote how the liquid soft serve mix is fed from the hopper into the freezing cylinder of your machine. As their names indicate, gravity fed machines simply rely on the natural pull of gravity to transfer mix to the cylinder, while pressure fed machines utilize a pump to resupply the cylinder with more mix. While gravity-fed machines are easier on the wallet and simpler to clean and maintain, pressure-fed machines allow you to add a higher, controlled percentage of air for a higher-quality product, and also help maintain constant pressure in the freezing cylinder for consistency.

Air Pump

Soft serve ice cream machine air pump part

An air pump is essential to producing light, creamy soft serve treats. The air pump adds air to the ice cream mix prior to freezing, resulting in the smoother, lighter soft serve product that we all know and love. These pumps are typically adjustable, allowing you to alter the amount of overrun in the end product and resultantly, how light or dense you want it to be. This feature also carries the benefit of requiring less mix per serving, effectively reducing the cost per serving. These pumps aren’t necessary, of course, if you’re serving frozen yogurt or if you’d simply prefer offering a richer, denser product. Keep in mind machines with pumps will also require a little extra time to properly assemble, clean, and maintain.

Water Cooled vs. Air Cooled

Your machine will produce plenty of heat under heavy operation, so make sure you understand how your machine keeps itself cool. Air-cooled machines are the cheaper, simpler option, requiring just a power connection and ample wall clearance (approximately 6”) around the machine for exhaust ventilation. While this opens up the flexibility to place the machine just about anywhere you want, air-cooled units perform best in cool, air conditioned environments and tend to be less effective than their water-cooled counterparts.

As the name implies, water-cooled machines cool the refrigeration components with water instead of air. Water-cooled machines operate quietly, are more effective in removing heat, operate efficiently in both warm and cool environments, and do not require clearance space around the exterior. However, they do require a water line connection in order to operate, limiting placement options to wherever this is available. Additionally, these machines and their installation requirements will impose higher upfront costs, but may save you a bit of money if your water utility costs are less than your electricity costs.

Cleaning and Maintaining Your Soft Serve Machine

As with any piece of equipment in the foodservice industry, it is imperative that your soft serve machine receives regular maintenance and thorough cleaning to prevent contamination. Customer safety is a priority, and the best way to ensure your customers can enjoy delicious and safe frozen treats is by completely sanitizing your machine on a daily basis.

Your unit will come complete with a specific cleaning procedure, including how to fully drain existing soft serve mix, disassemble key components of your machine, properly wash and reassemble the parts, and finally perform a sanitizing flush of the machine. Most manufacturers recommend using dissolvable cleaning solutions that are specially formulated for sanitizing soft serve machines. These packets offer an easy cleaning process, as they can be quickly mixed with a bucket of water to produce all the solution you'll need. Simply follow the instructions provided to maintain a clean, safe machine and to produce the highest quality soft serve ice cream product possible!

Estimating Soft Serve Costs

Soft serve machines can be a huge factor in driving sales and generating large amounts of profit. Not only are they a great way to draw crowds on hot days, these machines are capable of producing fantastic profit margins thanks to their relatively low cost of operation. The easiest way to keep your costs low and margins high is by using Carnival King soft serve mixes and Choice brand cups, spoons, and napkins – these brands provide the lowest price point for nearly indistinguishable quality differences from name brands! Calculating your upfront soft serve costs is fairly simple, as each cup or cone contains just a few components. Check out the following examples for an idea of what some typical servings would cost to produce!

For a large 12 oz. serving in a cup:

For a regular 4 oz. serving in a cone:

What Types of Soft Serve Mixes are Available?

Soft serve mix is generally sold in powder form, and only needs to be dissolved in water. Flavors options are typically limited to the classic vanilla and chocolate flavors, but other unique tastes can be achieved with flavoring syrups and neutral-flavored mixes.

Thankfully, you can also provide delicious soft serve to your health-conscious and vegan customers with non-dairy and sugar free mixes. These mixes sacrifice little flavor while also catering to specific dietary restrictions, ensuring you can please all your guests! For delicious yet economical flavor options, check out our selection of soft serve ice cream mix.

Many soft serve machines can also double as frozen yogurt, sorbet, gelato, or custard machines! These delicious treats follow a similar freezing and dispensing process as soft serve, so you can use your soft serve machine to expand your dessert offerings and provide your guests an even wider variety of frozen snacks!

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