Linda Mitchell has a scoop for her legions of customers who flock each day to her San Jose Avenue ice cream store.
In a month of Sundays, they’d never have guessed.
Actually, in Linda Mitchell’s case, they’d never have guessed in a month of sundaes.
“When my father began the shop in June 1953 he’d sit at the window and look outside at the widened street and the automobiles rushing by,” she told me, “and he’d say, ‘If only they’d stop!’”
It was the early 1950s, Elmer Robinson was mayor, the City had decided to widen San Jose Avenue and San Francisco native, Larry Mitchell, a City firefighter, decided to go into business with his older brother, Jack.
This year is the 65th anniversary of the iconic creamery, and not only do caravans of motorists stop, they continue giving the Mitchell family a gift that keeps coming.
“My dad liked going to Garrett’s, an ice cream shop on Alemany and Onondaga Avenues,” said Mitchell, about the Excelsior District ice cream parlor.
It was a time when many City neighborhoods each boasted their own ice cream shops, such as Hoo’s on Judah Street at 28th Avenue, where I sampled my first child’s cone five years before Larry and Jack Mitchell opened their store’s doors.
Larry Mitchell didn’t have to wait long. Customers began trickling in, like sparkles sprinkled over one of his frozen confections.
Mitchells quickly became a Mecca where a kid by the end of 1953 could come from a Day and Sanchez Streets playground and order a strawberry double decker topped with chocolate for 15¢; it became a destination where a wife in 1953 could ask her husband to make an after dinner sundae run and he’d return with a double scoop in a cup, topped with whipped cream, nuts and crowned with a maraschino cherry, all for a quarter.
“As a fireman, my dad worked 24 hours on and had 48 hours off,” Mitchell said, “so he had the time. My mom was happy just as long as he was assigned a safe fire house.”
The Mitchell family traces its roots in the neighborhood back to 1860s when Linda Mitchell’s Irish great-grandfather and mother settled in San Francisco and raised dairy cows on the slopes above 30th and Noe Streets. Edwin Mitchell and Margaret Mitchell ran the farm until his death in 1913. Then Margaret leased it and built the apartment house that now houses the ice cream parlor.
Larry Mitchell, who passed away in 2016, attended St. Paul’s School on Church Street, eventually graduated Sacred Heart High School in 1946, then joined the U.S. Army for a three-year hitch. Mustered out, he entered the San Francisco Fire Department in 1950 and retired 30 years later in 1980.
In her turn, Linda Mitchell, who with her younger brother, Brian, was raised in the Sunset District, graduated from Lowell High School, took a turn as a banker, first in Texas, then in Florida before returning to San Francisco in 1991 and entering the family business.
At 688 San Jose Avenue, Mitchell’s Ice Cream is a storied institution. It’s never had to advertise in a traditional manner; generations of word-of-mouth have sufficed.
“We still take out a blurb in the St Paul’s newsletter and hand it out on Bingo Day,” she said. “Dad attended and there’s still a connection.”
On a warm October afternoon, Mitchell and I sat in her office. Adjacent to it, employees serve the public, and only a few feet from there two freezers stock daily inventory.
Mitchell’s handcrafted ice cream and sorbet is produced each day on the premises. All 550 gallons of it.
Brian Mitchell, who is responsible for production, oversees 38 employees, twelve of whom are ice cream makers. Shouldering their way into the tiny store, customers take obligatory numbers and queue up without complaint. Seventy-five percent of what Mitchell’s produces is sold retail; the other twenty-five percent is wholesaled to markets such as Mollie Stone’s on Portola Drive and coffee shops such as Progressive Grounds on Cortland Avenue.
“We have two shifts,” said Linda Mitchell, whose establishment remains open every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. “The 12-ice cream makers work in teams of two. We hire the right people and they’re a good group of employees.”
Three times a week, at 3 a.m., Mitchell’s receives an ice cream mix from the Central Valley, specially formulated in 40-pound bags.
“There’s a lot of heavy lifting,” said Mitchell.
Working in a miniscule 11-by-11-foot manufacturing room, bending over an Emery Thompson 10-gallon batch freezer ice cream maker, the teams make a gamut of traditional flavors such as rocky road and vanilla.
“Grass Hopper Pie is catching on,” Mitchell volunteered, about a creamy concoction composed of mint chocolate chip fudge marbled with Oreo cookies, which would never make the cut at tony artisan ice cream boutiques that dot the City’s hipster landscape.
“We’ve always tried to engage in careful pricing,” said Mitchell, “and my dad was well aware of the changing Mission District demographic.”
As Mitchell’s picked up steam in the 1960s, Larry Mitchell realized Latinos and Filipinos were making their presence felt in what had once been a blue collar Irish Catholic neighborhood.
“My dad worked with a fruit broker named Emerson Clark, who convinced him to import mango. He did, and the tropical flavor has become our most popular ice cream,” said Mitchell. “We’re told that travelers from the Philippines head straight here from the airport.”
In quick suit, Larry Mitchell added Macapuno, a coconut delicacy and six years ago the Mitchell siblings complemented it with Lucuma, a Peruvian fruit ice cream.
“It’s become another favorite, and we sometimes can’t keep it in stock,” said Mitchell, who confesses her guilty pleasure remains the less exotic Mocha Fudge.
Ube, another exotica has also become a rock star.
“It comes from a Philippine root, a purple yam,” explained Mitchell. “It’s a favorite with little kids.”
Smiling, she continued, “We’re doing our part to make sure children eat their vegetables.”
Mitchell’s is more than an ice cream parlor, though. It’s a third place, like a coffee shop or the corner saloon. It’s not home, it’s not work, it’s a place where strangers can mingle, a place where people can go and hang out.
“Before we installed the iron gate to our second office, customers could sit on our building’s steps,” said Mitchell. “Now the two benches on either side of the store door make do.”
“I walked in one day and overheard a customer say to her child, ‘Enjoy your cone. We’ve been coming here before you were born,’” said Mitchell. “It means lots to us when San Franciscans can make these sorts of connections.”
While Mitchell spoke, on one bench, two customers enjoyed one another’s company. One was a stylish and young woman; the other a fit and older man. It wasn’t clear if they were fast friends or if they’d just struck up a conversation.
“I hear people waiting, I hear them laughing and talking to one another,” Mitchell continued. “Maybe that’s our contribution.”
Mitchell’s contribution is as simple as one of its ice cream cones. Like railroad depots that crisscrossed the nation when Edwin and Margaret Mitchell traveled a continent to San Francisco a century before their grandsons Larry and Jack began to sell ice cream, Mitchell’s today remains both a civic and commercial crossroads in the City’s center, a place where we can chill, partake of a confection, enjoy a conversation.
It’s a place earlier in 2018 where I watched Linda Mitchell thread her way through throngs of customers, then weave her way among several behind-the-counter employees.
I’ve stopped at Mitchell’s for 45 years now. I stop whenever I drive by and can find a parking space either in the lot or along San Jose Avenue. If there aren’t any spots I make another pass.
If I’m thwarted a third time, I give up and head home, taking the Bernal Cut.
It’s a cliché by now, but Larry Mitchell built it and people came — in droves.
As she maneuvered past her employees last June, Linda Mitchell was the only woman, certainly the oldest person on the far side of the counter. I didn’t know her then, but I supposed she must have something to do with the neighborhood touchstone.
“Thanks for being here,” I said, peering over my single scoop.
She turned and looked. Then she entered her office to work on payroll or confer with long-time assistant managers, Wanda and Marlin Payumo.
I didn’t see her again until we sat together in her office four months later.
I told her about our millisecond exchange the day I sat on her bench, eating her ice cream, listening to her customers palaver while cars idled at 29th Street waiting for the traffic light to change.
It took a moment for it all to register. When it did her eyes welled.
“That means a lot,” Linda Mitchell said. “It reminds me of my dad.”
In her store, customers continued streaming in.
Practiced, they pulled numbers, made a beeline for the counter.
Then they waited happily for their turn at the front and that wonderful moment of choice.