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Irvine Robbins, 90; co-founder of the Baskin- Robbins ice cream empire

He and his brother-in-law each opened ice cream stores in the Los Angeles area after WWII, then combined them by 1948 to form what would become an empire.

By Valerie J. Nelson

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

May 7, 2008

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Irvine Robbins, co-founder of Baskin-Robbins whose penchant for creating unusual ice cream flavors helped push post-World War II America far beyond its chocolate-vanilla-strawberry tastes, has died. He was 90.

Robbins, who opened his first ice cream shop in 1945 in Glendale, died Monday of complications related to old age at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., said his daughter, Marsha Veit.

With his brother-in-law and partner, Burton Baskin, Robbins displayed a keen sense of fun and a flair for marketing that helped turn some of their frozen treats into cultural touchstones.

When the Dodgers came to Los Angeles in 1958, they were greeted with Baseball Nut, complete with raspberries for the umpires. Lunar Cheesecake was launched the day after man landed on the moon in 1969. At the height of Beatlemania in 1964, a reporter asked Robbins what flavor would salute the Fab Four; Baskin-Robbins had yet to invent one, but Robbins replied, "Uh, Beatle Nut, of course," and had it in stores in five days.

He delighted in inventing new flavors and naming them, including Plum Nuts (plums, vanilla and walnuts), ChaChaCha (cherry chocolate chip), or his personal favorite, Jamoca Almond Fudge. By the time he retired in 1978, the company was selling some 20 million gallons of ice cream a year in more than 2,000 stores around the world.

The son of a dairyman, Robbins grew up scooping cones in his family's Tacoma, Wash., ice cream store for customers who always seemed to be having a good time. He recalled that he often "finished a day's work happy" and wanted that same feeling when he started his own business.

After getting out of the Army in 1945, he soon opened the Snowbird Ice Cream store in Glendale. Cashing in an insurance policy that his father had given him for his bar mitzvah, he came up with $6,000 to start the business.

"There was really no such thing anyplace as a pure ice cream store," Robbins told The Times in 1985. "I just had the crazy idea that somebody ought to open a store that sold . . . nothing but ice cream, and could do it in an outstanding way."

Baskin, who was married to Robbins' sister Shirley, also had recently returned from serving in the military in World War II. In early 1946, he opened Burton's Ice Cream in Pasadena.

Following the advice of Robbins' father, the pair purposely avoided starting out in business together.

He had warned that partnering right away would cause them to squelch too many of their own ideas as they compromised in an effort to get along.

By 1948, the five Snowbird and three Burton's shops had been combined into a single enterprise, and they had devised their 31st flavor -- Chocolate Mint. But the new partners realized they were too busy to give the stores the attention they needed to succeed.

"That's when we hit on selling our stores to our managers," Robbins said in the 1985 Times story. "Without realizing it at the time, we were in the franchise business before the word 'franchise' was fashionable. We opened another store and another and another. . . ."

In 1953, they renamed the company Baskin-Robbins, deciding the order of their names with a coin toss. The "31 flavors" concept was introduced that same year to bring attention to a deep menu that featured a flavor for every day of the month.

At a factory in Burbank, they made hundreds of new ice creams a year but only eight or nine of those would make it to market. Among the flavors that never left the laboratory: Ketchup, Lox and Bagels, and Grape Britain. Exotic flavors were rotated into stores to change the mix each month.

Baskin-Robbins had 43 stores by the end of 1949, more than 100 by 1960 and about 500 when the ice cream empire was sold to United Fruit Co. for an estimated $12 million in 1967. Six months later, Baskin died of a heart attack at 54.

Robbins stayed involved with the company for 11 more years and marveled at how often customers pitched him ideas for new flavors.

"I've even had people stop me in my car, which has the license plate '31 BR,' on the freeway," Robbins told Investor's Business Daily in 1999. "I guess some people think it's legal to stop on a California freeway if you're doing it for ice cream."

He was born Dec. 6, 1917, in Winnipeg, Canada, to Aaron and Goldie Robbins. His father emigrated from Poland and his mother from Russia.

As a young boy, Robbins moved with his family to Tacoma. In 1939, he earned a bachelor's degree in political science at the University of Washington.

With his wife, Irma, whom he married in 1942, he raised three children. As an adult, his son John rejected the family business and wrote "Diet for a New America," a 1987 book critical of the meat and dairy industries.

His family often filled the role of ice cream taste-testers around the dinner table at their Encino home with its backyard pool shaped like an ice cream cone. He named his boat the 32nd Flavor.

The gregarious Robbins lectured on entrepreneurship at USC and UCLA.

After retiring, he moved to a Rancho Mirage home equipped with a six-flavor ice-cream counter and was known to start the day with a bowl of cereal topped with a scoop of banana ice cream.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Marsha, of Mount Kisco, N.Y., Robbins is survived by two other children, John Robbins of Soquel, Calif., and Erin Robbins of Grass Valley, Calif.; sisters Shirley Familian and Elka Weiner of Los Angeles; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Services will be private.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com