NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
When European megalopoly Unilever swallowed up Ben & Jerry's a few years back, fans of the quirky Vermont company feared the worst.
Protests were organized and Web sites sprang up, put together by people who worried that the takeover would mean the end of American ice cream as we know it.
Turns out, they needn't have bothered.
It is true that a handful of giant companies -- including Unilever and arch-rival Nestlé -- dominate the $20 billion U.S. ice cream industry. But it's also true that the nation is awash in little guys churning out some of the best frozen treats in the land.
And Americans are eating it up. We annually consume about 6 gallons of ice cream per person -- roughly 19,200 calories, for those who are counting.
In every part of the country, regional dairies compete with the multinationals for shelf space and customers.
In fact, about 500 companies make and distribute ice cream in the United States, according to Shannon Arnold's "Everybody Loves Ice Cream" (Emmis Books, 2004). And that doesn't include mom-and-pop cone shops where they make their own for on-premise licking.
Among the best-known (and biggest) of the regional manufacturers is Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell, which sells more than $300 million of ice cream in 14 states. It's a favorite of the First Family, along with everyone else who's tried it.
Starting small, but staying big
Like microbrewers and small-scale chocolate makers, entrepreneurs are drawn to ice cream as a labor of love.
"Nearly everyone in the ice cream business started out small," writes Arnold. "Founders started making a few gallons in the back of the store, the kitchen or wherever, and over time, their great ice cream gained a following."
Although it's a challenge for small manufacturers to get their product into mass retailers like Sam's Club or Costco, there's plenty of room for little guys to carve out niches.
Take Sue Sebion-Huber, whose 100-acre farm -- it's the sort of place where all the cows have names -- has been in her family since 1856.
She runs Sibby's Premium Organic, a tiny Wisconsin-based purveyor of a lauded, all-natural ice cream. Sibby's fan base is devoted but small, since the stuff is distributed in just a few states in the upper Midwest.
Unlike many other product categories, consumers have time and again shown themselves willing to try new or unfamiliar ice cream brands, just because they taste great. In this business, startup dreams can sometimes come true.
And here's the sweetest news for high-quality ice cream makers: For all the low-carb-no-carb-soy-based delights that spring from food factory laboratories, most people still prefer the good stuff -- precisely what the smaller players are best at making.
Sales of premium and superpremium styles account for some 42 percent of total industry revenues, versus barely 15 percent for all the "light" formulations combined. While periodic diet fads may trigger sales blips, growth in the full-flavored categories has been continuous since the 1980s.
Of course, the national waistline has continued to grow, too. But so what? If you're going to eat ice cream, go for the gusto, I say.
You can always substitute broccoli for french fries beforehand.
For a look at seven of our favorite regional ice cream producers, click here.
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.