At Marble Slab Creamery, choosing one of 20 homemade ice cream flavors is the first step in an entertaining process. Customers are encouraged to create their own personal treat piled high with “mixins” served in one of several types of freshly baked waffle cones.

What are mixins? Any kind of topping you can think of, including nuts, cookies or candy and fresh fruit. “We encourage the customer to custom-design their ice cream treat,” says Ronald J. Hankamer, president and CEO of the Houston-based company.

Hankamer describes the concept as a “homemade, super-premium ice cream dipping store with entertainment value.” The ice cream is made fresh daily in each store — 20 flavors are available at all times. Some of the chocolate for the mixins and coatings are brought in from Sweden and Belgium. And the waffle cones, which range from vanilla cinnamon to dark chocolate with Butterfinger, are baked fresh in each store.

Marble Slab Creamery also offers frozen yogurt, ice cream drinks, and ice cream pies and cakes. Some have even branched out into gourmet coffees, cookies and brownies. But Hankamer is quick to point out the company's emphasis is on ice cream.

“We go to extremes to have the very best, freshest product available,” Hankamer says, pointing out Marble Slab's uniqueness in the market. “We think the quality of our product speaks for itself,” he adds.

Marble Slab Creamery opened its first store in October 1983 in Houston. It was a 12-store chain by the time Hankamer, one of the franchisees, bought the company in 1986. The first five years under his ownership were spent building a strong foundation, with plans to further roll out the concept.

“As of May 1, we expect to have 200 stores either open or under development,” Hankamer continues. While the company was concentrating on the Sunbelt states, it now has 28 states open for development.

Marble Slab Creamery looks for upscale locations near movie theaters and clusters of restaurants, as well as office complexes, medical centers and universities. Because the product is homemade and, consequently, a little pricier, the stores do best in higher-income locations with large populations.

When analyzing sites, Hankamer says visibility is “extremely important.” Other factors the company considers include condition of the center, traffic count, site accessibility, adequate parking, lease economics and competition. Currently, approximately 85% of the stores are in strip or open-air centers and 15% are in enclosed malls. They range in size from 500 sq. ft. for a mall location to 1,200- to 1,800-sq.-ft. for a free-standing center location.

The latest scoop is the growth of 40 to 50 stores this year, including those already in development. With the exception of one company-owned store, used for research and development, all the other locations are franchised.

“We have had a goal of a 500-store level by 2005,” Hankamer says. Marble Slab Creamery expects to have a nationwide presence at that time, going as far north as New York.

Contact: M. Chris Dull, vice president of franchise development, 713.780.3601

Allyson Sicard is an Atlanta-based writer.