Those were the first Italian words I ever heard. Well. I thought it was Italian. I lived in a small New Jersey town and my greatest culinary delight was walking to a corner grocery for a dessert called water ice. It was the best. Frozen like ice cream, but tastier and juicier — a derivative of Italian ice sold mainly in the Philadelphia/New Jersey area. Mine came out of an old freezer, guarded by the store owner, Frank Genova, a short immigrant with dark, wavy hair.
Frank spoke little English. When he saw me coming, he wiped his hands on his apron, lifted up the freezer door and said just one word.
Later, I realized he was asking whether I wanted lemon or cherry, the only two flavors he made, with pieces of real fruit mixed in. I would give him whatever coin I was lucky enough to have in my pocket (nickel, dime, quarter) and he’d scoop the appropriate cup of the frozen treat. I was a happy camper all the way home, licking and squeezing until the last drop was devoured.
That was a long time ago. But everything in life comes around sooner or later. This past week, my charity, S.A.Y. Detroit, opened a retail dessert shop called the Detroit Water Ice Factory on Woodward, just north of Campus Martius, where we sell up to 20 flavors of water ice, my childhood’s delicacy, with every dollar going to help needy Detroiters.
And I was behind the counter, dipping into the freezer, just like old Frank. I’d come full circle, from eating my dream dessert to serving it.
A chance to help the neediest
Now, the whole idea was to follow Paul Newman’s model. (No jokes about his looks and mine, please.) In 1982, Newman started selling salad dressing that he and a buddy had been making for friends. They directed all the profits to charity. The concept took off, salad dressing turned to pasta sauce, lemonade, popcorn and other items, and the charity has generated a fortune over the last 33 years.
We’ll settle for a fraction of that. In the nearly 10 years of operating S.A.Y. Detroit, it’s apparent that a huge part of running charities is begging. Asking for help. Pleading the cause. I don’t mind. It’s part of the journey. But if we’re asking the Detroiters we aid also to help themselves, then it’s fair that I try to raise funds on my own in addition to asking others, right?
Thus the Detroit Water Ice Factory, which opened this past week with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan taking the ceremonial first licks. The idea came to me a few years ago. I convinced the best place in the world for water ice — Primo in Westmont, N.J. — to share its recipes for a good cause. The concept was nurtured and encouraged by Nate Forbes and Linda McIntosh of the Forbes Co. in Michigan. They led us to Bedrock Real Estate Services and Dan Gilbert, who offered store space rent-free, in their building, thus giving us a prime window onto the bustling Detroit revitalization zone.
The best part? Our employees who scoop the ice (we call them “D-Icers”) come from our programs or partners’ programs, and our current staff all hails from Goodwill Industries’ training opportunities for at-risk youth. They are fun, upbeat and a joy to be around.
A chance to enjoy a treat
But then, the whole thing has been a joy. I’ve observed that when you serve a dessert product, people are in a really good mood. Maybe it’s the colorful ice. Maybe it’s the Detroit-themed names we gave the flavors (Riverfront Root Beer, Woodward Watermelon, Stafford Strawberry Lemonade, [Not Chet] Lemon, etc.).
But when you ask people if they want a “classico” or a “mondo” (regular or large) they don’t react like you’re trying to push them into a used car. It’s more like, “Ahhhh, I deserve it. Give me the big one!”
It’s funny. I’ve been blessed to have success in several areas, and I certainly don’t need to scoop ice to pay the rent, but there are certain jobs that you idolize as a kid, and when you get to do them as an adult, it’s almost like fulfilling a dream.
I’m getting a chance to do that now. Like Frank in the corner grocery, I open the freezer, make a scoop and see a big smile on a face. True, it costs more than a quarter, but we can tell customers “Thanks for helping your fellow Detroiters,” and that’s a cool thing to say. Not as cool as “Lemonacherry” maybe, but still cool.
The Detroit Water Ice Factory is at 1014 Woodward Ave., near Campus Martius. More information: www.detroitwaterice.com.