The Scoop on Steve's Ice Cream

On the bulletin board in the back of Steve's Ice Cream there is a copy of a letter that owner Steve Herrell sent recently to a customer who complained of bad service and demanded two free sundaes. It notes that copies have been sent to the To-Whom-It-May-Concern Manager, the Easter-Egg-Hunt Manager, the Hot-Fudge Manager, among others.

"Of course you can have two new sundaes," the letter reads, "at twice the usual price"; and it signs off with "Long live the chocolate chip!"

The point being that, unlike other businesses, Steve's is not run on the philosophy that "The customer is always right." It isn't a mammoth bureaucratic operation that bends over backwards to seek out business, keep it and rake in money.

This self-conscious uniqueness is evident everywhere at Steve's: in the hand-lettered menu; in the rows of framed newspaper clippings about the place that line the wall where endless hordes of people wait for sundaes and mix-ins; in the way Steve leans on the ends of the counter, talking to customers or putting message-bearing candy hearts on top of their ice cream (if it happens to be Valentine's Day).

But it is even more evident behind the counter and the home-made whipped cream, where the huge bulletin board is covered not only with letters such as the one to the disgruntled customer, open invitations to parties, notices about counterfeit money and Board of Health Inspections, but with the agenda for the next workers' meeting and the minutes from the last one.

That agenda now includes rather minor policy matters, such as the maximum number of hours a worker should work per week, or how often to wash the aprons. But it has included items such as wages, prices and store-hours changes and whether to invest in a new air-conditioner.

Workers' meetings arose partly from a crisis that broke last spring, just about the time I started working at Steve's. Some of the workers felt the store was becoming too much of a business, too much of a success--it was becoming less a homey, comfortable place to work, and Steve was becoming less a fellow-worker and more and more a manager and owner. Their suggestion was to turn it into a workers' cooperative.

I remember sitting bewildered through a meeting less like a business discussion than a consciousness-raising session. The details of the cooperative plan were discussed. Then Steve began to read from a journal he had kept in the days when he was a taxi driver dreaming about opening an ice cream store.

He told the story, now Steve's lore, of how no one would give him credit or rent him space, how he did everything on a shoestring and by himself, and how the place had grown unexpectedly from a tiny operation into an instant success--a business with 25 workers. And how, with so much of himself invested in it, he refused huge sums of money everyday from people who wanted to buy the store or the name and start franchises of the business for him.

It was a stirring story, one that brought out one's deeply-ingrained but long-forgotten faith in the American ethic of individual enterprise. Even if surplus value and capitalist exploitation were a reality at Steve's, as some of our fellow-workers were telling us, how could we take Steve's hard-won success and identity away from him?

"I can feel you pulling the wool over our eyes," one worker accused Steve. Yet in the end, with bad feelings all around the room, we voted to try a middle course whereby we would hold regular workers' meetings and at the same time leave Steve in ultimate control, all the while retaining the option of taking up again at some later point the issue of a workers' cooperative and profit-sharing.

We haven't done so yet, and although we did set up an official grievance committee, the main role of the workers' meetings is to advise Steve and foster a sense of cooperation and teamwork. And, of togetherness: that has always been a big theme.

Above and beyond the consideration that happy servers working well together create a pleasant atmosphere, it's important to Steve that the place mean as much to the people who work there as it does to him. He wants working there to be an emotional commitment, and not just another job.

Emotional commitments have their disadvantages, however, for everybody involved. It was the people who had beer devoting their life to the store, working well over 40 hours a week, who precipitated the crisis last spring. And it was that intensity of involvement that caused another upset this past fall, more bitter and painful than the last.

In a moment of panic when cuts rose and profits fell, Steve--not being very experienced in business-decided to cut our unusually high wages.

There was an immediate uproar, and talk of a strike. But what became clear in that somber, three-hour-long meeting we had--the first one ever without Steve--was that the real hurt was not the wage cut but the fact that Steve had just decided to do it, without consulting anyone. We felt betrayed. We had always been one big happy family; all of a sudden Steve was asserting his authority over us as our employer.

If we felt betrayed, Steve must have as well when we reacted not as supporters--members of the family--but as employees threatening to close the place down.

Still, however happy and together our family might be, however many pot luck suppers and in-jokes we all had together, nobody could get around the reality that he was signing our checks every week. When that became the issue, as it was bound to, eventually (and probably will again), everybody got hurt.

In the end, we did work it out together, avoiding a wage cut by raising prices. Things settled back down to normal, with Steve apologizing to this day for precipitating the crisis. He was right when he wrote the complaining customer that Steve's Ice Cream was not your everyday enterprise, despite the all-too American success story behind it. The priorities of the place are off: Steve apologizer to the workers and lets the obnoxious customers have it. Which makes it a special place to work. Long live the chocolate chip!

Crimson editor Jenny Netzer has worked at Steve's Ice Cream since last summer.