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The Vendor Climbs To a Slippery Peak

After the collapse of his network of snowball stands, Jim Nicholson is moving into the smoothie business. He now has seven smoothie stands in Hampton Roads and in North Carolina.
After the collapse of his network of snowball stands, Jim Nicholson is moving into the smoothie business. He now has seven smoothie stands in Hampton Roads and in North Carolina. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

They labor in obscurity, the icemen of summer with their kiosks of cool relief. Some are revolving faces; some have been neighborhood fixtures for decades. "Who are they?" we may wonder fleetingly as we lay down our coins. We quickly move on, but there are stories hidden in the ice. Metro's summer series continues.

When life gave Jim Nicholson lemons, he made snowballs.

It all began as an act of desperation. At 24, he was bankrupt with three failed sandwich shops, two babies to feed and $50 to his name. So, hammering together a few pieces of lumber, he built his first cart that summer in 1988 and sold flavored ice on the streets of Fayetteville, N.C.

For a while, it put food on the table. But soon summer ended, and things fell apart.

His wife filed for divorce, and Nicholson gave her all he had left, persuading her to leave their two sons with him. He drove up to his grandmother's house in Greensboro, N.C., to figure out some way to survive.

Through bluster and persistence, he persuaded the owner of a mall to lease him space for a year-round indoor snowball stand. He left out the fact that he was broke. Instead, he wrote the owner a $1,000 check for the space and delivered it at 5 p.m. Friday, just after the banks closed.

That weekend, Nicholson sold $1,200 in snowballs and rushed all of it to the bank before his check could bounce.

Thus began a two-decade career that would catapult Nicholson into the highest echelons of the snowball world. He made a small fortune, moved to the Washington area and became the region's snowball king with a stand in nearly every major mall.

But, as Nicholson would discover, wealth and success -- like ice in the summer heat -- can disappear in an instant.

A few months after moving his growing snowball business to the Washington area, he had met a woman selling watches in the kiosk next to his at White Marsh Mall, just outside Baltimore. She became his second wife, his business partner and mother of his third child, a girl.

Together they built a company called Deep South Snowshakes, with stands in 14 malls by 1996. They sold nine as franchises and kept five.


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