Jersey City, NJ

How two family-run ice cream shops braved the COVID-19 meltdown

Asha Sridhar

Two small Jersey City businesses — one well-established and one launched at the start of the pandemic — open up about their experiences and struggles

JERSEY CITY, N.J. - After a challenging 2020, there was reason to celebrate this past National Ice Cream Day on July 18.

Americans, clearly, love their ice cream and didn’t give up on it during the pandemic. In fact, one study points to how ice cream has been a source of comfort and indulgence during these testing times.

Citing the ‘Ice Cream and Frozen Novelties: Incl Impact of COVID-19 US April 2020’ report brought out by market research firm Mintel, this article in Dairy Foods noted how 51% of consumers associated ice cream with comfort and 45% reported that ice cream was their favorite indulgence.

Sale of ice cream has witnessed an uptick too.

According to this article on the Michigan State University website, Unilever reported a 30% decline in “away from home” ice cream sales in the first six months of 2020 and 26% increase in ice creams sales for at home consumption in the second quarter of 2020. The article, citing a September 2020 report on the global market for ice cream, also stated that 76% of ice cream manufacturers introduced new varieties.

What did these trends mean for two family-run ice cream shops in Jersey City? Did it leave them scooped out? Those behind the scenes reflect on how they survived the lockdown and the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Torico Ice Cream

20 Erie St. (corner of First Street), Jersey City, NJ

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The storefront of Torico Ice Cream in Jersey City on July 23, 2021.(Photo/Asha Sridhar)

Started in 1968 by Puerto Rican couple Pura and Peter Berrios, this ice cream parlor has become a beloved neighborhood staple. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself waiting in line to grab a scoop or two of their famous tropical flavors, all made in-house and on-site.

“If there is one giant word for last year it is ‘comfortable adjusting’,” says Victoria Thomas, operational manager, Torico Ice Cream.

If there is one giant word for last year it is ‘comfortable adjusting'.

From having to close for a month to not suspending their monthly flavors, from having their kitchen staff hearteningly offer to serve ice cream to dealing with shortage of cups right now, it has been a roller coaster ride.

“It's had its little waves,” says Thomas on when the pandemic first hit. “You know, we've never really dealt with anything like this. We've been established since 1968.”

They first closed indoor dining, then set up a pickup window and later took a pause for a month, closing the business to reevaluate the situation. “We wanted to let the staff go home to be with their families, because that was the big part of it. We aren't just working with the staff. We are also working with their families. We had to make sure their families were comfortable too,” asserts Thomas.

When they reopened, she says, they kept it to just pints so they had little contact with the product.

Click for ice cream

This 53-year-old brick-and-mortar shop decided to safely migrate their business online.

“We switched to an online platform. We, thankfully, had an established ice cream cake ordering system on our website. So it was easy to program it for cups and cones after that. It was something new to adapt to — not having customers come in and try new flavors,” she recounts.

It was something new to adapt to — not having customers come in and try new flavors.

They decided to phase out their reopening. They closed in April, reopened in May, started selling cups online in June and opened their walk-in service in July, she says. “We did a real slow progression based on the comfortability of the staff and customers.”

Though there is a big difference in their 2019 and 2020 sales numbers, that is not something they are hyper-focussed on, attests Thomas. Their focus, she adds, has been on "comfortability".

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Staff members of Torico Ice Cream in Jersey City marking National Ice Cream Day in July 2020.(Photo/Torico Ice Cream)

“So, yes, there definitely was that dip. But it wasn't a priority for us to gain it back. We know throughout these years, we'll be able to gain it back. But the confidence of the staff and the confidence of the community is something that's hard to get back. That was primarily what we were laser focused on,” she continues.

At any given time, the ice cream parlor has over 50 flavors, with some flavors rotating seasonally. And Thomas is used to seeing long lines snaking down Erie Street. But if there is one takeaway from the pandemic, it has been to adapt to the new normal.

“Prior to COVID-19, in 2019 and 2018, we’ve had lines. Going from seeing that as the normal to not seeing anyone as normal and going back to seeing people as normal, it was definitely one of those adjustment periods,” she muses.

It made Thomas introspective. “We have to remember why we're here. We're here to serve delicious ice cream and make people happy when they come in.”

Stack Creamery

287 Westwood Ave Westwood, NJ and 465 Central Ave, Jersey City, NJ

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Stack Creamery offers custom ice cream sandwiches.(Photo/Stack Creamery)

The three siblings at Stack Creamery were thrown in the deep end right from the beginning — a shutdown was announced in March 2020 when they were scheduled to launch and they thought they would have to fold.

When asked what his designation is at Stack Creamery, Mohamed Elnakib, laughs and says, “worker”, because his brother Sohail and him, he explains, are always at one of their stores, baking cookies, serving customers and managing the business. “Perhaps you can call me co-founder,” he says reluctantly. His sister Sondos Elnakib, he says, helps with artwork and strategy.

He narrates how they were not only able to launch a new business during the pandemic, but also open their second store in Jersey City this summer.

“It’s funny,” he starts. Their first branch opened in Westwood, New Jersey. “We were under construction in that location before the pandemic. We started around November 2019. We finished construction probably in the last week of March (2020) and we started to ask for the final inspections. Unfortunately, because everything was on lockdown by then, we weren't allowed to open up. And so it held us back for a few weeks,” he recalls, adding, “It was difficult on all ends.”

All or nothing

Elnakib thought Stack Creamery wasn't actually going to go into fruition, even after all the work that they put in. His brother and him quit their jobs in retail and accounts to pursue their passion and importantly, settle a crucial argument — whose recipe made delectable cookies?

They have been baking cookies since they were kids, and when the time came to open a shop, they argued for over two years on which recipe was better. Much like the trajectory of their opening, they went hybrid and evolved a recipe that was entirely different but in Elnakib’s words “phenomenal”.

“My brother and I, we looked at each other, and said ‘Look, this is our dream, we either stick this through and put all our efforts into getting this thing open, or we just watch our dream die.”

The odds were stacked against them

That’s when they decided to launch their website to take orders for their specialty ice cream sandwiches while their physical store awaited its final inspections.

“It was a very good move on our end because by the time the inspections were done and we were able to open, it was already May. By then people were looking for an excuse to get out of the house and we were the perfect excuse,” he says.

Without a physical location or a loyal customer base to fall back on, they got the word out about their desserts entirely through social media.

“I cannot stress the importance of social media when it comes to small businesses. It has been our saving grace,” he notes. While their store was under construction, he says they were working to build a customer base, telling them about their custom ice cream sandwiches.

Once their store was ready to open, they had one final stumbling block — hiring employees. “Yeah, that was a tough one,” he recalls. “We opened up and it was hard to find people. It wasn't really about the pay because we pride ourselves in paying our employees a little more than average. But because everyone else was also hiring, it was kind of a tight market.”

Small businesses like theirs, he observes, rely entirely on support from local communities. And response from the communities iced down the blow dealt by the pandemic.

“The local community in Westwood helped us big time. They supported us aggressively. I use the word ‘aggressive’ because they honestly did go out of their way to support a small business,” says Elnakib.

The local community in Westwood helped us big time. They supported us aggressively. I use the word ‘aggressive’ because they honestly did go out of their way to support a small business.

Now open in Jersey City

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Stack Creamery on Central Avenue, Jersey City on July 28, 2021.(Photo/ Asha Sridhar)

Buoyed by the response they received, they decided to open their second store in a place where they have previously lived — Jersey City. “We were familiar with the area, specifically the Heights, where we saw that people are extremely supportive of a small business and we wanted to be a part of that as well,” he says.

The challenges, however, haven’t stopped coming their way. Like Torico Ice Cream, they are also currently reporting shortages in branded packaging. “The nightmare for us right now is branded packaging. We might have to temporarily go back to unbranded packaging. But we are working diligently to get that resolved,” he says.

Can you do the ice cream sandwich math?

Though they also do scoops and cones like a regular ice cream parlor, it’s the ice cream sandwiches that get Elnakib most excited. And how many ice cream sandwich combinations can you choose from at Stack Creamery? He says, you have to do the math. They have over eight types of cookies, 20 ice cream flavors and 15 toppings to choose from.

Customers, he points out, sometimes surprise them with incredible combinations and also with their choice of ice cream. “I never knew, for some odd reason, that vanilla was such an important flavor. I thought people would be a lot more experimental when it comes to flavors of ice cream. Maybe they would want to try the sea salt caramel pretzel or the matcha green tea or something. But we find that we sell vanilla, maybe, four times more than the next selling flavor. It's such a crazy, important flavor in the ice cream world.”

But we find that we sell vanilla, maybe, four times more than the next selling flavor. It's such a crazy, important flavor in the ice cream world.

If you missed out on their baklava ice cream with baklava chunks, you can try their latest — Jersey sweet corn ice cream made with corns sourced from New Jersey farms.

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I am a Jersey City-based writer and editor interested in books, culture, lifestyle and stories that are off the beaten path.

Jersey City, NJ
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