In 2011, when Justin Woolverton began experimenting with a dessert of frozen Greek yogurt blended with fruit, he wasn't trying to start a business--much less one that would draw in revenue of $49 million in 2016, up almost 21,000 percent over a three-year period.

"It was just something that I was making in my kitchen because I didn't like sugar," says Woolverton, whose company, Halo Top Creamery, has landed at No. 5 on Inc.'s 2017 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. "It wasn't until later, when I got an actual $20 ice cream maker, that I was like, 'Oh, wow, there's something here.'"

Woolverton's sweet sensation is known as a lower-calorie substitute for traditional ice cream. Each Halo Top pint has between 240 and 360 calories, and each touts at least 20 grams of protein. Compared with major brands, whose most basic pints contain a whopping 1,000 calories, Halo Top seems too good to be true. So what's the catch?

Some suggest that Halo Top doesn't taste the same as classic ice cream; instead of sugar, the Los Angeles-based startup uses a sugar substitute. Also, at $6.99 a pint, the price is on the high end.

That's hardly dissuaded people from clambering for the sweet treat. With 500,000 followers on Instagram, 27,000 on Twitter, and 600,000 on Facebook, Halo Top inspires fervent discussions on fitness and body-building forums. It's so popular that it can be hard to find in stores, which, says Woolverton, often don't have the warehouse space to meet demand.

Sweet spot.

Before all the acclaim, Woolverton spent a year perfecting his recipe. A lot of the process was trial and error, he says. After realizing his own low-sugar treat had merit, the former lawyer decided to switch from his frozen Greek yogurt hybrid to something he noticed didn't currently exist in the market: an all-natural, low-calorie, low-sugar ice cream. "I didn't go with frozen Greek yogurt because, to me, that was such a no-brainer," Woolverton says. "If I came out with a frozen Greek yogurt, any of the yogurt guys would stomp me immediately."

Halo Top founder Justin Woolverton.
CREDIT: Courtesy Company

The challenge was replacing the sugar, which acts not only as a sweetening agent but helps the ice cream maintain a softer consistency. Woolverton chose to use zero-calorie natural sweetener stevia for the taste and fiber and a sugar alcohol called erythritol for consistency.

Eventually, Woolverton found his sweet spot with flavors like Vanilla Bean and Lemon Cake. The first store that put Halo Top in the freezer, in 2012, was Los Angeles's Canyon Country Store, a small shop once frequented by rock stars. Since then, Halo Top has found its way into every major grocery chain in the U.S., more than 19,000 stores nationwide. Since the start of this year, the company has sold 50 million pints, making it the best-selling pint of ice cream in the U.S., surpassing long-time industry leaders like Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's.

No sugar-coating.

Halo Top's growth didn't really tick up until 2016. That's when GQ contributor Shane Snow decided to eat only Halo Top for 10 days straight and detail his experience for readers. The resulting article went viral and Woolverton's sweet little concoction took off. In each of the three months following the appearance of article, Halo Top averaged a 77 percent growth rate. While Woolverton doesn't recommend that anyone emulate the journalist's diet, he credits that experiment with catapulting Halo Top from steady to explosive growth.

Rebranding in 2013 might also have helped. The company opted for a name change, after a year of selling under the name Eden Creamery, to "preemptively avoid a lawsuit from another Eden," says Woolverton. He ended up choosing the name Halo Top to stay in line with the angelic theme. He adds that the change allowed the company to conceptualize the lid as a golden halo.

Today, Halo Top has many faithful customers. They also happen to be its best market research tool: Woolverton and his team listen to complaints and take customer opinion into account when making new flavors. A favorite? Woolverton says fans are loving Peanut Butter Cup, and he personally advocates for Birthday Cake or Oatmeal Cookie.