From his snowball stand in North Lawndale, Kentheney Moore is selling the very essence of summer.
Moore is scooping ice from his cooler into four sizes of Styrofoam cups — the cheapest is a quarter, the most expensive is $2.
“I want birthday cake,” hollers one little kid, ordering up this year’s newest snow cone flavor. “Birthday cake and coconut!” yells another. Moore pumps pink syrup onto the ice, adds a straw, and the slurps begin.
“Just about every block got a candy store,” says Moore, 39, who says he’s out here hawking snow cones whenever he’s not at his other work. “They all got different stuff. …My little brother got one down the street, it’s one on my block. It’s one down there.”
Moore’s stand consists of one table and a tent set out on the vacant lot next to his childhood home.
Along with the snowballs, he peddles pickles (hot, sour, dill). Candy draws kids clutching sweaty nickels or dimes. Moore sounds like he’s reciting poetry as he rattles off their sticky, sour, gummy choices: “Chews, Frooties, fish, Frunas, hamburgers and Jingle Jellies!” he says.
And for those who come hungry, Moore can fix up nachos, tacos or loaded baked potatoes. He makes change out of a designer fanny pack he slings across his chest. His ultimate business goal: a food truck.
Moore is one of hundreds of Chicago snow cone vendors who hustle through the heat to make little kids smile big — and to make that money, a quarter at a time.
Snow cone stands and summer “candy stores” go back decades on Chicago’s West Side. Microentrepreneurs’ stands sprout up to form an entire summertime economy across communities where jobs are hard to come by. The 24th Ward, where Moore’s stand is located, is 47th out of 50 in terms of the number of active business licenses.
“This is a whole economy”
Moore’s stand started some 15 years ago — in the house. There’s a long tradition here, and in the African American community more broadly — of selling a little something from a front window or a back door.
Moore’s mother took over the entire front part of the living room for her candy store. That was back in the early 2000s. “The whole wall from the door all the way to the bathroom was full of candy and chips,” says Moore. Later, his dad moved the stand outside and added snowballs. Since then, just about everyone in the family has run the stand at one point or another, Moore says.
Stands in the neighborhood get elaborate, and people get creative. A few years ago, a neighbor set up a well-stocked candy stand with a specialty offering: Kool-Aid pickles — cold, sour pickles marinated in blue or red Kool-Aid. The candy stand attracted so much business, Moore says the nearby corner store extended hours to midnight to make up for their losses.
“In underserved communities, you have a lot of entrepreneurial activities that’s more informal, that’s more microenterprise, that’s often for survival,” says Jason Johnson, director of entrepreneurship at the Chicago Urban League.
Johnson typically helps more formal businesses launch and grow, but he definitely knows about snowball stands and candy stores. Johnson says his aunt ran a candy store out of her Altgeld Gardens apartment decades ago. “I remember always asking for some of her supply,” he says, laughing. “It was a way to supplement income.”
Snowball stands are popular because startup costs are so low, Johnson says. If you can get your hands on a cooler, you can be in business for $30.
Johnson describes community vendors as part of the landscape of his childhood. There was the candy lady, the pop lady, the Icee lady, the cake lady (who “literally just bought Little Debbie’s and then, you know, sold ‘em,” he says). “Now that I’m thinking about it from an entrepreneurship director, economic development, community leader mindset — this is a whole economy,” Johnson says.
These types of businesses add to the vibrancy of communities, Johnson says. “Altgeld Gardens is a housing project — but I have such fond memories. And this ecosystem of snowball stands, candy ladies — all these different things were a huge part of this experience.”
Kentheney Moore is not a beginner at this business. He’s got some serious strategies: Mondays are buy one, get one free days for the little kids (but since they don’t always know their days of the week, they end up coming by often to see if it’s Monday yet). His other strategy: sell lots of items that cost more than a dollar. “The snowballs, the nachos — that’s where you make it at with the candy store,” Moore says,
Moore buys his ice where nearly every West Side snow cone vendor buys ice — at Harris Ice on Fifth Avenue, one of just four ice houses left in the city.
“We call ourselves the ‘Snow Cone King of the West Side,’” says Walker Harris, who’s owned the ice house for 50 years. “Everybody comes here — you pick up your ice, you pick up your snow cone syrup, you pick up your cups — you pick up everything you need for the snow cones.”
Harris estimates 35% of his summer business is snow cone-related. Gallon jugs of colorful snowball syrup are lined up along his loading dock. And West Side snow cone vendors show up seven days a week to get their main ingredient: snow ice. “That’s the fine stuff,” says Harris. “It’s just like snow.”
Harris built a machine that pulverizes ice cubes into feathery particles. Snow ice looks white in the bag, not transparent. And folks who line up for the ice are very particular about it.
“I ain’t got no ice pick, so I don’t have time to be trying to chop nothing up,” one customer scolds on a recent Saturday morning. “Give me my soft bags like y’all know I like ‘em!” She did not want a bag of snow ice that had been sitting underneath another bag. “It’s too packed,” she says, punching the bag.
An employee disappears into the freezers and emerges with a fresh, 40-pound bag of white, fluffy snow.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” says the customer. “See the difference? Very much a difference. That’s how I like it!”
She’s buying 120 pounds of snow ice; she doesn’t want to give her name or say where her stand is. Technically, in the city of Chicago, snowball stands are not legal. There’s no way to license them, but nobody seems to bother the stands much, either.
A story behind every stand
It feels like there’s a story behind every snow cone stand.
On Congress Parkway and St. Louis, the first thing Tandy Edwards does when setting up her stand is hang two signs. One says, “Love our town! Stop the violence!” The other, “Respect each other!”
“Respect each other, love one another — that’s a big part of our stand and our family culture, is respect,” Edwards says.
Her connection to the issue is personal.
“I lost my son due to violence, he was 19. He was shot in the head. And this is [Jan. 23, 2017]. So it’s still fresh to me.”
Her handmade signs, and the stand itself, is Edwards’ statement to her neighbors, to her city. It’s her small part. She’s giving kids a place to go in the community (the only nearby store is across the expressway and sells liquor). And she’s giving her youngest son, who’s 11, something to do this summer, in a community with too few jobs, too few businesses.
“I want my son to be able to know there’s ways to get money other than the ways that they see on a regular basis,” Edwards says. “Anything to support our neighborhood. … I have a lot of support. People on this block, that block. They come. The bus driver, the police actually stopped in. They didn’t even want anything. They just wanted to support the kids, so I believe that ‘kids’ is a big idea for our stand.”
“I really don’t want to work for anybody else”
Taken together, these microentrepreneurs represent a huge local, black-owned effort. Snowball stands and candy stores are part of an economy that’s based on ingenuity and hustle, but is largely invisible to the broader society.
Jaheim Johnson has a snowball stand worthy of notice. He sells nearly every snow cone flavor they make. He has red raspberry and blue raspberry, for instance. Orange, peach and fuzzy navel. He’s lined them all up for effect, across not one but two tables.
“If I don’t have something that the people want, they’ll go somewhere else and get it. And I kinda want all the business,” Jaheim says, laughing. “Not to sound greedy or nothing!”
This is Jaheim’s third summer running the stand. He started out further west, then moved here, to his great-grandmother’s house on Central Park near Douglas Boulevard, thinking it was a better location. He was right.
“I have never made less than $50 a day,” Jaheim says.
And while he sounds like he’s ready to enroll in business school, Jaheim is just 14. He just graduated from grammar school.
“Most of my friends have summer jobs, and they were kind of asking me why I didn’t sign up for the After School Matters program, the One Summer Chicago. I really don’t want to work for anybody else — right now, and when I grow up,” he says.
His grandma, who sits with him sometimes to keep him company (and to offer free business advice) is clearly proud. “He’s very polite,” Geri Taylor says. “He’s a nice young man. They come back because they like him.”
And the money is not just spending money, Taylor says. “He has to pay his own phone bill while he’s working. And last year he bought his own school clothes.”
“The money is for a reason,” she adds. “You gotta help your parents out.”
Jaheim is really just a handful of years older than his customers, a few of them practically live at the snowball stand.
“We come here like 10 times a day, mostly every day,” says a neighbor boy. “It’s like a happy place where everybody likes it and it’s fun.” His favorite snow cone: blue raspberry and green apple.
Like the other snow cone vendors, Jaheim is helping define what summer feels like in his Chicago neighborhood — all while making his money.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.