Sounds of silence make the ice cream even sweeter

    Today, we launch a new blog by Erica David, called Mom&Popaholic: Beyond the Mall and Chain. 

    Several times a week, David will give her take on small, homegrown businesses. This time: Zsa’s Gourmet Ice Cream.

    Thanks to Danielle Jowdy, owner of Zsa’s Gourmet Ice Cream, I can finally tell Mister Softee to sit on it.

    Zsa’s is an ice cream truck with integrity. It would never park outside of my house for stretches of 45 minutes at a time blaring its insipid and slightly sinister merry-go-round-broke-down-melody while I’m engrossed in a cutthroat game of “Operation,” doing the delicate work of treating Cavity Sam’s water on the knee with a pair of tweezers.

    At moments like this, Mister Softee, its runny soft-serve, its freezer-burned frozen treats, drives me a special kind of mad. My all-consuming rage transforms me into Arthur Fonzarelli, better known as The Fonz. I am stalking the living room, saying “Aaayyyyy,” snapping my fingers and expecting jukeboxes to spring to life, and most of all dying to run outside and tell that insidious soft-serve pusher to sit on it.

    But I don’t. I just plain love ice cream too much to burn that bridge. Now that I’ve found Zsa’s, however, I’m ready to strike a match. Jowdy, the woman behind Zsa’s, had a similar experience. She had to learn when to say “sit on it” and turn what began as a hobby into the fulltime job of making and selling ice cream.

    Tag sale, you’re it

    A tag sale at Jowdy’s mother’s house in Connecticut five years ago led to a life-changing discovery.

    “We came across this old ice cream machine that my brother and I used to mess around with as kids,” Jowdy says. “So I brought it back to Philly thinking ‘Oh, this would be a good thing to have to play around with’ and I started making ice cream starting with recipes from books that I got at thrift stores and tag sales.”

    She began taking her homemade ice cream to parties and barbecues and got a positive response from friends who encouraged her to sell her product. Jowdy continued to experiment with flavors and by Thanksgiving of 2007 she had orders from private individuals for her Pumpkin Gingersnap ice cream.

    “Thanksgiving—not the ideal time for selling ice cream, you would think,” Jowdy says. But this off-season interest prompted her to investigate turning her hobby into a business.

    “When I started to see all those rules and regulations, everything it would take to do it seriously and legitimately, I got overwhelmed and stopped for a while,” Jowdy admits.

    She was already holding down a fulltime job and didn’t have the time to commit to making her business a reality. It wasn’t until she was temporarily laid off from her job last year that she was able to begin selling her ice cream part-time at local farmers’ markets.

    The Great Gatsby

    The beginning of 2011 brought tough choices for Jowdy. She’d been rehired at her day job, but after attending Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course, she’d been thinking seriously about devoting herself fulltime to her business. When her fiancé showed her a vintage International Harvester truck on eBay, she knew that it would be the perfect vehicle for Zsa’s.

    “I looked at what the seller wanted for it and I thought, ‘Well, I guess that’s not going to happen,'” Jowdy says. The price was steep, but she e-mailed the seller anyway hoping to work out a deal.

    “At the same time that I was doing this, Parker, my fiancé, was sitting on the couch at his computer buying the thing,” Jowdy explains.

    Her fiancé told the seller to refuse her offer so that he could secretly buy the truck for her as a surprise. He was hoping that the truck would get her to make the leap to full-time small-business owner.

    On the first warm day of spring, Jowdy’s fiancé presented her with the keys. She was thrilled.

    “I felt like one of those crazy women on Oprah who get the cars and they start crying,” she says.

    It turns out her fiancé’s instincts were good. Once she got the truck she affectionately named Gatsby – Jowdy says it has a Twenties feel to her –  Jowdy quit her day job and took her ice cream show on the road.

    Where did the name come from? Well, Jowdy and her sister used to have a thing for the old sitcom Green Acres and its star, Zsa-Zsa Gabor.   Zsa became their pet name for one another.  Jowdy’s sister doesn’t have anything to do with the business (neither does Gabor) but for Jowdy the name has that certain ring to it..

    To market, to market

    Today Zsa’s participates regularly in five local farmers’ markets (Glenside, Jenkintown, Skippack, Media, and Urban Outfitters) and special events like the High Point Sunday Market and the recent Night Market in Mount Airy.

    Anne’s Kitchen Table in Glenside is the only brick and mortar retailer to carry the brand so far, so the best way to sample Jowdy’s seasonal flavors is to follow her on Facebook (Zsa’s Gourmet Ice Cream) or Twitter (@Zsas_ice_cream) for a schedule of truck appearances.

    I caught up with Zsa’s at the Night Market in Mount Airy recently and while exotic flavors like Lavender Honey and Lemon Buttermilk were all the rage, the Arthur Fonzarelli in me opted for a classic ice cream sandwich: velvety Vanilla ice cream packed tight and round between two chocolate chip oatmeal cookies.

    It was a far cry better than anything I’ve ever had from a Mister Softee truck and it was served by Jowdy with a cheerful smile to the golden sounds of silence—well, as silent as the staggering crowds at the Night Market could be. Her iconic vintage ice cream truck Gatsby doesn’t dare play a jingle. It doesn’t say a word. It’s content to let the flavors do the talking.

    But if Gatsby were to speak I can imagine the three little words it might say to that conehead Mister Softee: Sit on it.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.