Summer Snow: Icy snow cones refresh sultry St. Louis summers

As June becomes July and July gives way to August, the heat of the day lengthens and lingers. And on expansive, breezeless evenings, people crave things cold and sweet. Ice cream and frozen custard hit the spot in their own creamy way, of course, but somehow snow cones refresh so fully they’re a near-synonym of summertime.

A reason to roam

Between Memorial Day and the end of September, the slice of the year in which the word “snow” often drops its “w,” kids and adults all over the St. Louis region can be found tasting heaven with a spoon-straw.

“[Snow cones are] really addictive,” said DuWayne Hall, who co-owns D&M’s Sno Cones in St. Louis Hills with his wife, Maria. “Most folks in the summertime, they get outta the house and that’s what they do.”

On a recent Saturday, the midday crowd outside Cup of Sno in Maplewood had spread itself out. Two grade-schoolers stood in front of the menu deciding between Rock ’n’ Roll, SpongeBob, Star Wars and the other 50 some-odd flavors on offer, including sugar-free options. Behind them, a young couple sidled up to each other at a picnic table. As new customers wandered up to the order window every few minutes, a group of teenagers watched from a car with the doors open. They ate their cups of snow leisurely – the hot day demanded it.

D&M’s gets its biggest crowds between 6:30 and 9 p.m., when neighborhood residents stop by after a softball game, while walking their dogs or just because a snow cone couldn’t sound better. Some nights the stand stays open past its official closing time. “When we’re really busy, sometimes we go until 10:30,” said Maria Hall, who opened D&M’s with her husband in 1980.

Part-time entrepreneurs

Like the Halls, Amy Sexton and her husband, Matt, opened Cup of Sno because family members already owned a stand. Karen Davis, who operates Southern Sno in Brentwood, entered her line of work in 1996 to pay for her children’s college tuition. “[A snow cone stand is] a good … small business for the people who want to take the time to do it right,” said Bill Hellwege, the general manager of General Candy, a wholesale distributor of snacks and candies that supplies many local stands with syrup.

At a snow cone stand, the overhead is low, the work light (the majority of owners arrange for the delivery of ice and syrup). And it doesn’t take much to please customers. “You really can’t mess it up,” said Brian Gober, who sells snow cones at It’s Party Time, a family entertainment center in Webster Groves that he opened at the beginning of June. “People will get more upset about a quarter in a video game than a kid’s snow cone,” he said.

Creating treats out of ice and flavored syrup may be easy, but snow cone stands can still keep owners on their toes. Maria Hall has a full-time job, and DuWayne Hall only recently retired from his. Cup of Sno likewise only generates part of the Sextons’ income. “It’s a labor of love,” Amy Sexton said with a smile.

For one, a seasonal business means no summer vacation. Plus, owners are working even when they’re not manning the stand. “You can’t leave [young kids] to run the business because it will be a mess. You have to be there. I tell [this to] anybody who wants to open one up,” said Maria Hall. She also commented on the caprice of the weather. “If it rains a lot, people don’t come out. If it’s too hot, people don’t come out.”

Another challenge for snow cone stands comes from the competition, of course. In the last five years, Hellwege has noticed an increase in the number of snow cone start-ups. But Sexton doesn’t feel even the hint of a crunch. “There are some stands around town that have been around for a long time, so it’s just a matter of getting them spaced out enough that you’re not on top of each other,” she said.

Flash factor

The “location, location, location” maxim definitely applies to the snow cone business, and there also seems to be a rule about having a see-me stand ... one with umbrellas, bright paint, awnings, flags, string lights, perhaps a neon sign spelling out O-P-E-N – the works. Given that SUV-sized stands typically pop up on the shoulder of a road, visibility is key.

The snow cone stand at the entrance of It’s Party Time, which Gober custom-ordered, has most of the pizzazzy touches listed above plus a faux snow trim. “When I designed the business, I thought that [a snow cone stand was] what would really – from the street – what could draw people in,” he said.

Davis, who marks the spot of her stand with matching rainbow awnings and umbrellas, set up shop on the edge of Memorial Park. After first working at fairs and festivals, Davis eventually wanted a permanent location for the stand built by her husband, Ray.

The leafy backdrop of Southern Sno makes it a great place to take a lunch break or a load off later in the day. Another draw is its expanded menu. Davis began selling additional items when snow cone sales slacked for a time; now they sell as well as hot dogs, she said. Sexton and Gober have also diversified their offerings a bit. The latter even has a plan for the off-season.

“We’re going to do a year-round snow cone stand. In the winter, we’ll pull the trailer inside and sell hot coffees and ciders,” said Gober.

Ice ice, baby

Stuart Brenton, owner of Hot Shots Espresso near the intersection of Watson and Laclede Station roads in Webster Groves, started selling snow cones at his drive-thru establishment just this summer. “[W]e decided to offer something a little more refreshing for summertime – have more options of hot and cold drinks,” he said.

Although some vendors offer crushed, pellet-like ice, peddlers of icy sweetness in this area typically use New Orleans-style block ice shavers. The block goes in like a glacier and comes out like powder. “The design of the machine hasn’t changed much [since the 1930s],” said Bill Tomber, director of operations at Rio Syrup Co., a local powerhouse that’s been run by his family for three generations.

Matt Ricketts, who co-owns Simplie Smoothie in Old Webster Groves with his wife, Angela, and business partners Kyle and Lisa Berdeaux-Webster, became a big fan of Hawaiian shaved ice while on a visit to the 50th state. The large ice discs used there, however, are hard to come by in these parts, so Ricketts went with the regionally preferred blocks.

To create the classic snowball shape, snow-cone makers use ladles, bowls or funnels. Stand workers say there’s a satisfaction to be gained from making a well-shaped snow cone, when the perfect dome absorbs syrup like a big sponge.

Syrup and the imagination

At Southern Sno, Davis frequently receives requests for extra syrup – that is, once a customer has decided on which kind to get. Like most other stands, Southern Sno has around 40 flavors.

Rio currently makes more than six times this many syrups, including several sugar-free ones. “We try to add new flavors as often as we can. Some of it’s customer-driven, a lot of it is just observations from travels or reading or whatever,” said Tomber.

Recent additions to Rio’s cornucopia of flavors include horchata (a beverage made from almonds or pumpkin seeds that’s common in Spain, Mexico and Central America), coco rio (a coconut syrup with an Hispanic twist), pomegranate and lychee. Tomber estimated that 90 percent of the lychee syrup his company sells goes to snow cone vendors in Hawaii. “One thing that’s kind of interesting [is that] you do find these regional tastes that exist, which I think is kind of refreshing. When you think about soft drinks, it’s so homogenous across the whole country. Cherry’s big here, but it’s not big up north. I just sold an order to Canada and they did not take one gallon of cherry,” he said.

What’s behind St. Louisans’ appetite for cherry snow cones? “It’s kind of a default flavor. It’s red, it’s bright … it’s a good-tasting flavor, but you sort of know what you’re getting,” said Tomber.

Some years ago, Rio developed a beer-flavored syrup that flopped. “It tasted like a flat beer on ice,” Tomber said. “So if it’s beer you have a taste for, we’re going to let some of the other companies in town handle that one.”

Strong flavors like cinnamon and dill (which Davis once unsuccessfully tried to sell) could understandably take some getting used to, and this is part of the reason why Hot Shots only has a handful of the basics at the moment. “We’re trying to test out the market,” said Brenton.

Grape, watermelon, blueberry, orange, strawberry and the cleverly named Tiger Blood tend to top the list in this area. It’s Party Time also sells a lot of root beer, wedding cake and bubblegum. According to employee Jayce Raber, the latter’s not just popular with kids. “Actually, adults do order it. It’s kinda weird,” she laughed. “A lot of people like [the sweet-and-sour flavored syrup] Tom Collins with grape or cherry. Other than that, a lot of people do the margarita,” added Raber.

Combination flavors can taste like a cocktail (Fuzzy Navel, Piña Colada), a dessert (cheesecake, banana split) or candy (Tutti Frutti, Blow Pop). But these are just some of the standards. At Simplie Smoothie and Southern Sno, the concoctions have become even more elaborate. Even though Ricketts can’t duplicate the ice product of Hawaiian shaved ice in the Midwest, he offers the other ingredients that are particular to it – a frozen yogurt or ice cream base and toppings like Pop Rocks, gummy bears, peanuts, whipped cream and sundae-esque syrups.

Davis draws inspiration from another part of the country that’s no stranger to the heat. Since the Fourth of July, she’s been offering Hershey’s chocolate syrup and cream.

Although the possibilities for snow cone combinations are endless, alas stands’ countertop space is not. “You run outta room. You just can’t have ’em all,” said DuWayne Hall.

Party’s at your house

On a heat-beat day, home is a great place to try out more flavors than you can shake a spoon-straw at. After all, it doesn’t take much to bring shaved or crushed ice to life – just some sauce made out of sugar, water and flavoring. Kool-Aid or another fruit-flavored soft drink mix works well as the latter ingredient. Sugar-free alternatives exist as well.

Ricketts, who sold all-natural, organic snow cones at Simplie Smoothie last summer, suggested making syrup with frozen concentrated juices that don’t contain artificial sugars or sweeteners. “If this is not sweet enough for your tastes, you can use turbinado sugar [raw sugar] to taste, or whatever sweetener that you prefer,” said Ricketts.

Creating “snow” requires a machine. Since that old Snoopy model likely crushed its last ice cube years ago, keep in mind that companies like Back to Basics and Rival offer ice shavers that cost between $20 and $40. Another option is Rio’s home shaver kit, which includes syrups. Weinhardt Party Rentals can supply a similar package that yields 120 servings for those hosting a birthday party or barbecue.

Nhat Nguyen, owner of Urban on South Grand Boulevard, recently created some spiked summer treats. One of them is a granita, a semi-frozen Sicilian dessert comparable to sorbet and Italian ice. Appropriately it features the king of summertime fruits: watermelon.

Until September

Nguyen’s summer drinks might very well interest Hellwege. “I don’t eat snow cones,” he said, “but I sure do sell a lot of syrup.”

“[Snow cones are] something of a destination product,” said Tomber in an attempt to explain their popularity.

Sexton said people sometimes stop her and ask, “‘When are you gonna open?’ And it’s like, ‘It’s December 30, are you kidding me?’ It’s hysterical. We have people who are dying for us to be open.” And until September brings a chill, hers and other stands will be.