Friday, June 15, 2018
Business

Owners hopes to bring days of old to Lutz neighborhood with Italian ice

LUTZ — Watching Kurt Halls scoop Italian ice out of a freezer in a tiny roadside stand on N Dale Mabry Highway, you wouldn't know he has clients on the Fortune 500 list.

From his stand, which opened in May, Halls sometimes operates his own consulting company as a corporate recruiter. He has a couple of freezers, a shelf of snow cone syrup flavors — and his laptop in a 100-square-foot shed.

His corporate job, which he works from home most days, pays the bills. But it's Ice Delites and the neighborhood customers that bring him joy.

"I wanted a throwback to a time when people walked up and got to know their neighborhood ice cream parlor," said Halls, 41.

Halls, his wife, Michelle, and their 11-year-old daughter live not far from the stand, tucked in front of a BP gas station just south of Lutz-Lake Fern Road in Lutz.

"I think people are yearning for simplicity. I'm trying to bring back that small-town feel," said Halls, which is why he wanted to stay close to home with his new venture.

"This is our neighborhood," he said.

Originally from St. Croix, Halls moved to Orlando as a teenager and came to Tampa in 1998. Four years ago, when the recession slowed business at the Halls Group LLC, he started looking for something to supplement his income. He invested in a pushcart, which came with all the Italian ice and everything he needed to show up to an event.

"I thought it sounded fun. I always wanted a lemonade stand as a kid and never got one," he joked.

One of his first gigs was a softball tournament at Ed Radice Park. His Italian ice, sold in little baseball helmets for $5 a cap, were a huge hit. Not only did Halls have fun, but he also discovered a high profit margin.

Eventually, he added two more pushcarts and a few employees, and after a few years of selling Italian ice at baseball games, softball games, and parties and events, he decided to open an actual shop.

"I remember the day it occurred to me. I was walking out of my garage and I hit my toe on one of my big freezers," Halls said.

He figured his freezers that stored product and ran up his electric bill during the week could be put to better use at a permanent location. His wife, who helps him run the business, thought he was crazy.

"I tend to do whatever, then figure it out," Halls said. "She's the practical one."

Rather than rent retail space, they settled on a compromise: a customized shed. They added a front porch and windows where customers can walk up and order their frozen treats.

Halls says he enjoys bringing adults back to a time when they got Italian ice from the ice cream truck and watching kids experience that joy for the first time.

His nondairy Italian ice is made of just fruit and ice, with no high-fructose corn syrup. It comes in eight flavors in sizes from $3 to $5, including the $5 baseball caps, which are refillable for $3.

"I have customers who've saved their caps for years and still come back for refills," said Halls.

For those who want the sugary counterpart, he also sells 15 flavors of snow cones (ice and flavored syrup) from $2 to $4.

The roadside business has been so successful that Halls is opening a second location in July, this time in an actual retail space at the corner of U.S. 54 and Collier Parkway, just north of the Pasco County line, in the Willow Bend shopping center. The three pushcarts also are still in operation.

The new 750-square-foot space will have indoor seating, and the menu will be expanded to include fruit smoothies and soft-serve ice cream. From its menu to its decor, Halls said, "it'll be an homage to frozen treats of the past."

Elizabeth Miller can be reached at [email protected]

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