Summer Treat

The Enduring Charm of Snowman in the Summer

By Kathleen Willcox / Photography By Stan Horaczek | August 26, 2016
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The Snowman in Troy scoops out more than just ice cream and sprinkles.

The unadulterated joy of eating ice cream on a hot summer day never gets old, whether you’re eight or 80 years old.

And the eating’s never been better, even for folks who thought they’d never be able to dig in. Thanks to carefully calibrated recipes and advancements in food tech, even those with the most arduous dietary restrictions (no lactose, sugar, fat) can have their ice cream and eat it, too. Still, there are certain neighborhood joints that just seem to have more swagger—even if they’re dispensing essentially the same treat, they’ll always have the coolest cone on the block.

“I see three generations of people coming here together, with grandparents bring- ing their grandchildren to eat the same treat at the same place they ate at when they were kids,” says John Murphy, owner, head ice cream chef and bottle washer at the Snowman Ice Cream in Troy. “We have an amazingly loyal customer base. Sometimes even I can’t believe it, but people will wait an hour or more in line just for a cone of their favorite strawberry ice cream with sprinkles.” 

The Snowman is clearly scooping some- thing more ephemeral than flavored cream, and satisfying less tangible desires than a bottomless hunger for frozen confections. Anyone clamoring for a scoop or two of chocolate mint chip could hit any number of local shops or national chains in the area. But the Snowman, which has won several Best of and Readers’ Choice awards from Capital District publications, cranks out the kind of genuine interest in and care for their customer base that can’t be faked or broken down and explained in hospitality training courses. John, of course, takes the lead, holding himself responsible for—in addition to his other duties—serving as many customers personally as he can on any given day.

“The Snowman has been around since 1953, and I’m only the third owner,” John notes. “I bought the business from Don Baker when I was 23, and he spent 20 days with me, teaching me every single recipe. We make all of our own ice cream, sherbets, yogurts and syrups, just like Don and the first owner, Tom Tully, did. All of the recipes have been passed down. And while 

A double-scoop at Troy's Snowman.

I have added flavors, like Cotton Candy and Peanut Butter Cookie Dough for the kids, I keep all of the old-fashioned favorites like maple walnut and pistachio nut for people who’ve been coming here since the ’50s.”

In addition to the same flavors, the Snowman looks like it was frozen in a 1950s time capsule—which, like all things Snowman, is intentional.

“We could certainly use some more space,” John admits. “But I would never consider moving our location or changing up the outside look, because even though we’re off the beaten path and look pretty much the same as we did 63 years ago, it is part of what defines us.”

Standing in line under the red-and-white-striped awning, the logo of a plump, grinning snowman with a red scarf flapping in the wind presenting a gigantic sugar cone brimming with soft serve is as deli- ciously nostalgic as digging into a banana split with your sweetheart at one of the Snowman’s picnic tables out back.

What really makes the Snowman hum, like ice cream, is impervi- ous to trends, even if it can’t be explained. Early on a recent Saturday morning, in the rigorously organized, pin-neat, jam-packed, gleaming space behind the walk-up order window, John tried to put his finger on it (between batching up ice cream and syrups for the day).

“I think it comes down to the fact that this is a labor of life,” John says. “My life is this. Don didn’t have to sell it to me. He had other people he could have sold it to. I was 23! I’m 41 now. I met my wife, Christine, when she was a customer here. We fell in love here. She does my books now, along with my mom. My 12-year-old daughter has been working with me back here making ice cream for three years. Hers are as good as mine, and she has most of our recipes memorized. My eight-year-old daughter also wants to help this year.”

The entire Murphy family has a hand or two in the ice cream pie, but for John, it’s his whole body, mind and soul.

“I get here at 5:30 most mornings and don’t leave ’til 10 pm. Most people would think that’s nuts to work those hours, seven days a week, seven months of the year—and I don’t have to. My manager is phenomenal and she could—and does—do a lot of it. But you know what? Nothing makes me happier than presenting a cone of ice cream I made myself to an old-timer who has been waiting patiently in line for his favorite flavor. The pleasure of being a part of that moment of joy on their face gets me up and over here every morning.”

All in, the Snowman offers about 30 flavors, with seasonal additions, a menu of classic and newfangled sundaes (think the Grass- hopper vs. PB&J), pies, cakes, cones, shakes, floats and slushies. And for the waist-watching, lactose-intolerant and/or diabetic crew, the Snowman churns out eight rotating flavors of calcium-fortified, low-carb, fat-free frozen yogurt. It’s even Kosher!

For truly personal treatment, Snowman offers a mobile catering division with a custom-made trailer, which John created several years ago. Recently, he decided to limit the number of events he’ll sign on to. This year, he’s planning to focus on about 10 corporate and pri- vate clients. “I love doing events and they’re certainly lucrative, but the corner shop is the heart of our business. I won’t sacrifice quality here—our customers count on it.” 

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