We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
More Than Just Ice Cream is certainly more than just a parlor serving cups and cones - there's a full-service dining room - but it's also more than just a place to eat.
When Kay Helsel opened at 1141 Pine St. in 1975, her menu was focused on desserts. The shop became famous for its giant house-baked pastries - she once claimed "there's a case of apples in each pie" - and its 32 flavors of ice cream. A simple selection of inexpensive savory dishes (burgers, grilled cheese) was equally popular with area students and families window-shopping on Antique Row.
In 1990, she sold to her general manager, Brian Daly. A Temple film grad, Daly had spent a few years on the West Coast soaking up the Alice Waters-era food culture and obtaining a chef's certificate from the California Culinary Academy. Under his tenure, the restaurant side of the business expanded, and in 1998, he moved the whole operation to its current home on Locust Street.
After a decade running the much larger space, Daly was ready to for a career shift (he's now a mental health specialist) and seven years ago, decided to turn over the business to two staffers, Dalton Castano and Rachelle Capistrano-Sorg. Though both were young (29 and 36, respectively), they'd each worked at the restaurant for around a decade. Daly was confident that they'd care for its legacy.
The partners took over just as the area was undergoing a big boom, and their dining room continues to stay busy. Jefferson Hospital workers stop in for lunch, neighborhood folks frequent for dinner, and families and tourists flock to the ice cream counter on the weekends.
Castano, who even after 17 years in the restaurant business looks too young to be a veteran, took a break from his usual 70-hour workweek to tell stories about dealing with floods, serving famous politicians, and hosting wall-to-wall customers during OutFest. He also divulged some advice for anyone interested in jumping into the food business.
How did you end up working here?
It was just one of those coincidences. It was 1998, and I had just finished my first year at University of the Arts (I studied illustration). I lived at 13th and Walnut, and I had been looking for a summer job for a couple of months when I walked by this place and saw the sign that they were in need of scoopers. I came in and they hired me on the spot.
Did Brian Daly hire you personally?
It was a manager he had at the time. They asked me if I had restaurant experience and wanted to be a server in the dining room, instead of just an ice cream scooper. I didn't - I had washed dishes at my uncle's North Jersey restaurant one summer - but I kind of fudged it a bit and wedged my way in. It was good money, so I kept the job throughout school. When I graduated in 2001, I stayed on, and Brian eventually made me a manager.
How did you go from manager to co-owner?
A couple of years after I became manager, Brian started talking about wanting to sell. I was at the point in my life where I wasn't sure what was next. I was interested in the restaurant but I knew I wasn't going to be able to do it alone, financially. Rachelle was a friend of mine, and she'd worked here for a year longer than me. We decided to do it together. Brian liked the idea that he was handing it over to people he knew would take care of it like he did.
Going into business can be hard on a friendship, right?
Yes, it's a whole different ballgame once you have to deal with things like finances. And we weren't prepared for it. We were wide-eyed and young. It's like, "Yeah! I can take on the world - I can do this!" and then you go into the reality of it, and it's like, "This is not what I expected."
What was the unexpected part?
The amount of work, for one. I always worked a lot of hours; I've never been shy from working. But just the immense amount of hours. Many weeks are 70-hour weeks, and you're just like, "I want to go to sleep."
And the financial side of things. Before I took over, I only really saw the creative side - coming up with specials, menus, desserts, promotion ideas. Not the figures behind the scenes. Brian's parents were two-thirds partners in the business, and they took care of that part for him, so I never really got to see it. Until the very end, when his dad - a great guy - tried to really quickly show us how things worked. It was like months of information shoved into a half-hour. It's been a learning process, I will say that.
How long did it take you to get up to speed?
A couple of years. That first year, you don't quite realize the impact of what you're spending, because you start from zero. But when you finish that first year, you look at the books and you're like, "Something's not right here..." Then you realize what you're spending. My advice to anyone who wants to take over a restaurant would be to really learn about all the finances - the numbers and pricing and all the little things you wouldn't know if you've never done it before.
Has this neighborhood changed a lot?
This part of Locust Street had almost no traffic back then. It was very quiet. This was one of just two businesses on the block. Things started to take off when the Western Union Building remodeled and opened up [as condos]. Then Garces came in [with Garces Trading Company, in 2010], and Walgreens, and now Saxbys. It's a whole different block.
Where does your clientele come from?
It differs. Weekdays, it's people who live and work in the neighborhood, and we have a huge gay clientele. Weekends, we get the tourists and the families; suburban out-of-towners. A lot of people come in who haven't been here since we were on Pine Street. They're like, "I used to come in and get this pie when I went to Jefferson!"
Has the menu stayed the same since then?
The desserts haven't changed much. We've tweaked most of it, but we still have the apple pie we're famous for. We do chocolate peanut-butter pie, carrot cake, pumpkin pie - that sells like crazy right now. We still use Richman's Ice Cream, although it's now distributed by Philadelphia Water Ice.
The food menu has evolved more. It started off very California-inspired, when Brian ran it. Lots of greens piled on top of sandwiches so that you couldn't even close them. Eventually it evolved to something more like what people were looking for - more comfort food.
Our turkey burger, which we've had on the menu since at least 1998. It has hummus and cranberry chutney on top. Definitely the biggest seller since I've worked here.
How much of your revenue is from ice cream, versus savory food?
Depends on the time of year. This time of year it's probably 20 percent; in the summer probably 40 percent. It's never the majority of the business.
But "ice cream" is in the name; have you ever considered changing it?
Having it in the name is a detractor, sort of, because some people don't realize we have a whole restaurant here. But it's been the name for 40 years, so if we changed it, we'd lose part of the identity. It's kind of a Catch-22.
Your favorite part about running this place?
The people. My employees. And also the customers - I've met so many people over the years, that I wouldn't have gotten a chance to meet.
We had the Vice President here a couple of months ago. It was a total surprise. One of the servers saw him sitting in the dining room and was like, "Isn't that the Vice President?" We were all in the back like, "Nah, that's not the Vice President." Finally we realized it had to be. It didn't even look like he had any security with him. But they were there! As people started to realize who he was, and began crowding around him, all of a sudden the Secret Service swooped in. He was in and out pretty quick after that. But it was pretty neat - a bunch of the staff got selfies with him.
Have you ever had to close for any reason?
Nothing major. Hurricanes and things like that, when we were forced to. Then there was one year during OutFest when something happened with the plumbing below ground, and all the restaurants in the area had water coming up from their floor drains. But that is our busiest day of the year - wall-to-wall people - and we couldn't have closed even if we wanted to. So we're trying to Shop-Vac water off the floor as people are just streaming in.
Days like that, you just sigh, and then power through. That's the best thing I've gotten out of this. At this point, I can take any situation, assess it, deal with it, and get through it. The learning experience has been just amazing.
More Than Just Ice Cream
1119 Locust St., 215-574-0586