By Ruth Eckles
All photos by Kim Gray
Durhamites have probably noticed there’s a new kid in town, nestled in front of a field of North Carolina kudzu, amidst the growl of Roxboro Road traffic. Pelican’s SnoBalls, with it’s bright blue and pink storefront and scattering of rainbow colored picnic tables, is hard to miss. Originally a gas station, the tiny 800 square-foot building has had several different incarnations: a donut shop, a hot dog joint and, most recently, a “Checks Cashed” business. In its current form, the business seems a particularly promising one.
Since its inception in mid-May, the bright retro bungalow has been buzzing with customers most times of the day. They line up in the North Carolina heat, waiting for relief in the shape of a New Orleans style snoball, known for it’s fine textured ice. The line serves a useful purpose; with a 100 different flavors to choose from, customers need time to make a decision. Will it be Cherry Cola? Coconut Mango? Tutti Frutti? Or a mix of several?
Customers discuss their choices amongst each other as they wait in line. When I ask the five year-old boy in front of me what kind he’s eating, he replies, mushy-mouthed and red-lipped, “Spider Man”. His seven year-old sister is sampling the more girly choice; a flavor called “Princess”. Mom, who is diabetic, is enjoying sugar-free Pink Lemonade. “It’s fun to enjoy a treat with them rather than to have to just watch them enjoy theirs,” she says.
Pelican’s is owned and operated by husband and wife team Miles and Elizabeth Kirst. A relatively young couple (Miles is 27 and Elizabeth is 26), Pelican’s is their first entrepreneurial venture, though they have been in the cold treat business for years. Before the Kirsts moved to the Triangle area less than a year ago, Miles managed several different Cold Stone Creamery’s in California. When they said goodbye to California last September, they had no idea where they were heading.
“We put everything in our truck and drove east”, says Elizabeth.
“How we ended up here,” begins Miles, “is totally random,” laughs Elizabeth, finishing his sentence.
Originally planning on opening a self-serve yogurt shop (“They are huge in California”, says Elizabeth) somewhere on the East coast–either New York, Florida or North Carolina–they settled in Cary, only to discover the Triangle was already full of them.
“I’d walk into these yogurt stores and they all looked the same. They all had this sort of contemporary chick feel when you walked in. We had a much different idea of what we wanted to do; something more vintage and grungy, like 50′s style war posters combined with old-school comic books,” muses Miles.
“Durham had just the right feel. It seems more culturally diverse than some of the surrounding areas. It had more of the community feel that we were looking for,” says Miles.
Elizabeth chimes in: “We like Cary a lot–it’s a very pretty place to live. But coming from California and New York, we were used to areas that are more culturally diverse. It makes things much more interesting, I think.”
Inevitably, the Kirst’s heard the typical low murmurs of the dangers of setting up shop in Durham. “People were like ‘You’re going to Durham?‘ and we were like ‘Well, yeah…why not?’,” laughs Miles.
Miles, not knowing the area very well, admitted to some initial apprehension. ”Roxboro Road looked okay to me, but we’d drive up and down the street and see that many of the businesses have bars on the windows,” he says.
A blue collar street, bustling with traffic most times of the day, Roxboro Road is the former home of Wal-mart, Church’s Chicken, used car dealerships, pawn shops, a half dozen Mexican taquerias, African Braids shops and various other ramshackle “mom and pop” storefronts. It might not the first place that comes to mind when you think of a nice, relaxing family hang out. Yet the miniature structure called to the couple. It had been sitting empty for three or four years and had never been vandalized. It looked odd as a Checks Cashed place, but perfect as a snoball stand.
”We were afraid that some people might be scared off somehow, or they’d be like ‘Oh, it’s in Durham so we’re not going to go.’ But the very first day we were open and I saw the diversity of all the customers, I knew that it would be alright,” says Miles.
So far, it’s been more than alright, it’s been hugely successful. “Our main goal was simply not to lose money this summer. We thought we’d be really slow as we first started the business, but from day one, we’ve been slammed,” says Miles, who intially planned on running the business by himself until it got up to speed, but instead, ended up having to hire several employees just to keep up with the pace.
Elizabeth adds, “We didn’t decide to do this until the end of March. We signed a lease on April 13th, and we opened on May 13th. Miles totally took apart the inside of the building and rebuilt it, painted it and set it up pretty much by himself in one month.”
Pelican’s franchise owner Adrian Johnson, whose wife is originally from New Orleans, taught the Kirsts the art of making snoballs, the flavored sugar water and creams.
According to Miles, there are many different styles of snoballs, and Pelican’s will customize them to suit everyone’s tastes.
“There’s the Maryland snoball. It’s more like a crunchy snoball. New Orleans style is the finest you can get it–powdery and fluffy. A New Orleans style snoball won’t be saturated with syrup; the white ice will just be patchy with syrup. Some people will ask for extra juice because they want to drink it when they get to the bottom. Some people want extra light syrup. Some people want their ice to be really packed. We’ll make it however they want,” says Miles.
The ice shaving machine is set up to make a nice soft ice, but getting it right is an art form.
“You can feel when the grains of ice hit your hand if they’re shaved correctly or not. I’ll try and shave it most of the time because it makes me nervous to have employees shave it until they’re really good at it,” says Miles.
Elizabeth laughs, “It was a long time before he’d even let me do it. He’d fuss at me if it wasn’t done right. Now I finally feel like I can do it, but it does take some time to learn how to get the ice right.”
The first few weeks upon opening, there were some steep learning curves.
“We didn’t know what we were doing at first,” admits Elizabeth.
Miles recalls the sting of getting an angry email from a customer who had to wait in line in the summer heat for 50 minutes.
“I totally agreed with him. That’s way too long a wait. Thankfully, we’ve worked out all those kinks and people get served very quickly now,” he says.
“We’re grateful that they stuck it through with us,” says Elizabeth.
Pelicans provided the Kirsts not only with a successful business venture, but a sorely missed sense of commmunity. Elizabeth says, “We just moved here. We don’t really know a single person. As people come more, we learn their names. If no one else is in line, we’ll chat with them, and learn a little bit about their lives.”
One thing seems sure, this humble, happy little snoball stand has been a bright spot, literally and figuratively, on Roxboro Road. Blacks, whites, elderly, teens, toddlers, middle-aged, middle class, rich and poor all line up for their favorite treat. Perhaps they’ll strike up a conversation, laugh about a flavor, wrinkle their noses at the thought of a Dill Pickle flavored snoball, and discover we aren’t as different as we might sometimes believe we are.