Kerkhoven, Minn., ice cream shop dishes up cool summer treats
KERKHOVEN -- Sixties-era music wafts from outdoor speakers at Sophie's Ice Cream Station, where another busy summer day is about to begin.
Within minutes, the first customer of the day shows up to buy a late-morning ice cream cone. "Great idea!" he exclaims to the owners, Ted and Kari Jo Almen, as he walks back to his truck.
The little ice cream parlor has hit a sweet spot in Kerkhoven.
When the Almens decided to renovate an old-fashioned gas station for their teenaged daughters to sell ice cream, they weren't entirely sure what to expect. Before the shop opened on Memorial Day for its first season, they ordered 12 large tubs of ice cream from their supplier, figuring it would last for several weeks.
"Four days later it was gone," Ted laughed.
Business has far surpassed their hopes, he said. "That's something that's been so gratifying. People are so supportive and happy."
For Madeline, 13, and Jordan, 19, the whole thing was "Dad's idea," Jordan explained. "He talked about it for several years. He thought it would be a good summer job."
It wasn't until this year, though, that the Almens, second-generation owners and publishers of the Kerkhoven Banner, got serious about doing something with the old brick gas station they owned on Kerkhoven's main street.
The corner property had sat empty for years. But it was still structurally sound and begging to be used, Ted and Kari Jo said.
This spring they had the interior gutted. New wiring and plumbing were installed to meet food service codes. The place received a new ceiling, a retro-style black and white floor and lots of colorful paint.
Where gasoline and motor oil were once dispensed, Jordan and Madeline now scoop ice cream, make ice cream floats and sell soft drinks.
The freezer is invitingly stocked with eight flavors of ice cream. "We make sure there's always vanilla, chocolate and maple nut. A lot of people really like maple nut," Jordan said.
Ted and Kari Jo help behind the counter sometimes, but Sophie's Ice Cream Station is mostly staffed by Jordan and Madeline, with help from friends. (The Almens also have a son, Spencer, who's doing an internship in New York this summer.)
"Mostly it's a family thing. That was the whole idea," Ted said. "We put the money into the building and they are earning their money."
The experience is giving both girls a firsthand look at what it takes to run a small business, Kari Jo said.
For their first paycheck, they each tallied more than 100 hours of work, she said. "Madeline was pretty shocked to find out it does pay to work more hours."
Among some of the other lessons they've learned: how to fill a cone with ice cream without breaking it, and how to wield a professional ice cream scoop. "For the first couple of days we had matching blisters," Madeline said.
Even with a cold, rainy start to the summer, business has consistently been strong, the Almens said. Now that the days are hot, the ice cream store is increasingly popular, especially after evening ballgames.
Outdoor tables and chairs invite customers to linger under the canopy where the gasoline pumps used to be. "It's been a gathering spot," Ted said.
The shop's highly visible location on U.S. Highway 12 also has helped. There's been drop-in traffic not only from neighboring Benson but also from travelers from South Dakota.
Many local residents have become repeat customers, Kari Jo said. "It's good to see some of the same people coming back. It's good that they're coming back and that they're smiling."
"We've got infants coming with their parents up to elderly people," Jordan said. "It's been really cool."
So who's Sophie, the shop's namesake? She's the family's 5-year-old golden retriever, who sometimes accompanies them to work and who inspired the shop's slogan, "We really give a lick."
This dog-friendly approach extends to customers, who are encouraged to bring their dogs for a dish of ice cream or a free drink of water at an outdoor drinking station exclusively for dogs.
"It's been fun," Ted said. "I said, 'If it's a complete flop, at least we've got the building fixed up.' I had no idea. I had hopes but I think it's succeeded even beyond my hopes."
Sophie's Ice Cream Station, 10th Street and Atlantic Avenue, is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. and Sundays from 1 to 9 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day.