Photos by Linda Mitchell
Many things have changed about the legendary Mitchell’s Ice Cream in its years at 688 San Jose Avenue, but never the quality.
In 1860 Edward and Margaret Mitchell ran a dairy on 29th and grazed their cows on Red Rock Hill just above what’s now Glen Canyon Park.
In 1953 their grandchildren started an ice cream store.
And now in the midst of a global pandemic, the almost unthinkable is happening: no ice cream cones from Mitchell’s.
But that doesn’t mean no ice cream, as the crowds that have been lining up since the day they reopened on June 2 can attest.
“We’re scooping lots of Mocha Fudge again,” Linda Mitchell emailed the Glen Park News on June 22.
After a San Francisco health directive shuttered the City ice cream icon on March 16 due to COVID-19, Mitchell’s, a neighborhood fixture for 67 years, reopened its confectionary doors on June 2.
“The new normal has made for several changes,” Linda Mitchell offered in a telephone call. “In order to maintain social distancing, we now have two lines, one that stretches to the left on San Jose Ave and angles onto 29th Street, the other that directs customers to the right along San Jose and then into the parking lot.”
When customers face the familiar doors the line to the right is for purchasing pre-packed half gallons or picking up pre-ordered ice cream cakes. The line to the left is for everything else.
“That line to the left,” said Mitchell, “is for single and double scoops in cups, pints and quarts.”
In perhaps the biggest change imaginable, the new normal means everyone gets their ice cream in a cup, no single scoop or double decker cones. Only take-home containers are being sold.
“Cones make people want to stay, and we don’t want to endanger customers,” said Mitchell, eying the two popular benches that front her store. “We want customers to eat their ice cream in their cars or at home.”
Mitchell’s commitment to social distancing means, much to her clientele’s chagrin, no milk shakes and no ice cream sundaes.
“Both shakes and sundaes make people linger,” said Mitchell, putting customers’ health before their longing for Mitchell’s wonderful thick, rich shakes.
Nearly two years ago, the winter 2018 Glen Park News issue reported “Mitchell’s is more than an ice cream parlor. It’s a third place, like a coffee shop or corner tavern. It’s not home; it’s not work. It’s a place where strangers mingle, a place where people go to hang out.”
For the duration, mingling is no longer in Linda Mitchell’s lexicon.
“It’s all take out now,” she emphasized. “We feel responsible for what goes on here.”
She practices what she preaches.
What her customers see while queueing up are scoopers wearing masks and disposable gloves behind Plexiglas barriers that are repeatedly changed throughout a shift, an emphasis upon washing hands for 20 seconds by scrubbing palms, back of hands, between fingers, finger tips and thumbs, and sanitizing and disinfecting around the shop throughout the day and after each customer uses the credit card terminals.
“Marlon, our assistant manager who has been with us for 32 years,” volunteered Mitchell,” just installed five touchless hand sanitizing dispensers last week.”
Linda Mitchell’s father Larry, a City firefighter, and his brother, Jack, started the shop in 1953, and four years after Larry Mitchell’s passing, his gift to San Francisco continued producing 550 gallons of ice cream a day, 75% sold on site and 25% sold to markets such as Mollie Stone’s atop Portola Drive and Canyon Market in the village.
The coronavirus interrupted the business model and within minutes of Mayor London Breed’s mid-March edict, Mitchell’s was locked up tight.
“By 11:30 that day we were closed,” said Mitchell. “I furloughed all 38 employees.”
But Linda Mitchell has been working around sweets much of her professional life and she didn’t savor the sour taste such a wholesale dismissal left.
“My brother Brian and I paid each our workers for two months until the Payment Protection Program began,” she said, “and we were happy to continue paying each their full salaries. It took a lot of stress off us knowing that they were receiving their paychecks.”
The Mitchell siblings generosity paid off in more ways than one.
“Thirty-five employees are back on the payroll again,” she said. “We lost several people, two to Oregon and one who had ill parents. And we’re hiring now.”
And the Mitchell siblings aren’t without a plethora of unsurprising expressions of gratitude.
“Brian and I received a card from Juan, our head cake decorator for 19 years,” said Mitchell, “that indicated how thoughtful we were and how our support meant so much to him and his family.”
In the “old days” before the scourge, Mitchell’s was staffed with six to seven behind-the-counter scoopers who dipped into the 40 ice cream flavors sold. Customers herded up to take a number then threaded outside and with good humor waited their turns.
Now customers wait next to a cashier who communicates orders to scoopers, sometimes yelling over the customer hum. Linda Mitchell is thinking about arming employees with walkie talkies since masked-up workers find it difficult to hear one another.
“Stanchions are in short supply, too,” Mitchell said of the scarce, crowd control barriers she could use more of.
Mitchell’s Ice Cream is truly local. All the ice cream is manufactured in the back, in a space barely 11x 11 feet. The customer serving area is only a bit larger. Because of close confinement, Mitchell has now limited customer service to just two or three scoopers, each of whom sports a protective mask.
Linda Mitchell is a woman of outsized energy and acute organizational abilities who — like many San Francisco business owners — is still working out the details.
“We’re still too slow, and we’re trying to think outside the box. In the long run we need to become more efficient. I’m thinking about online ordering and other technological innovations,” she continued. “Bottom line, though, I’m happy and appreciative to be able to return to work, not just sit at home.”
In fact, while her nearly forty employees did exactly that before and after their stimulus checks arrived, Mitchell and her brother continued to work and supervise a small crew of ice cream makers.
San Francisco recognizes an “essential” businesses when it encounters one.
“Grocery stores hounded us for supply,” Mitchell said, about Pacific Supermarket in Daly City, Manila Oriental in South San Francisco, and Minto’s Jamaican Market in Oakland that couldn’t stock enough of her tropical perfections to sate Latino and Asian palates during self-imposed quarantine.
A graduate of Lowell High School, Linda Mitchell has roots San Francisco. Her business sits in a building that is lodged at the crossroads of Glen Park and Noe Valley, with Bernal/Mission only a few blocks away. Her comfort food bridges neighborhoods, transcending socio-economic divides. She serves hand-packed ice cream that truly reflects San Francisco’s diversity: ube (purple yam) from the Philippines, lucuma from Peru, Mexican horchata and Café Serré from Vietnam.
“People have been wonderful and it has been touching,” Said Linda.
Cars drive by and honk when they see the line and one scooper reported hearing a cry of welcome from one of them.
“Yay! Mitchell’s is open.’”