ONE STEAMY FRIDAY night in 1971, the ice-making machine at Clyde's broke down.
Clyde's was a modest place in those days, down on booming M Street. But it was a good customer of the Beverley Ice Co., so when Ted Beverley came out to fix the machine he brought along a big bagful of ice cubes to tide the bartender over.
The guy from Pall Mall across the street saw all this happening.
"Hey, can I get a bagful, too?" he called.
No, he was told, this was just a favor for a customer.
"Well I'll pay," he shouted. "I'll pay $2 for a bagful!"
Ted Beverley looked at his mechanic. The mechanic looked at Ted Beverley.
"You will?" they said.
And so a business was born.
When Beverley started putting ice into plastic bags he had two of those little ice machines you find at motels, with the slanty steel door you push aside and the plastic scoop. Pretty soon he was selling 7,000 pounds a week. Before he knew it he had 25 machines plus six bigger ones, and six college students bagging ice with scoops. On hot days his refrigeration mechanics had to scoop, too.
Today he is producing 1.5 million pounds of ice a week. He's going to double that soon, he says, and brings out graphs to show you.
"We're recession-proof," he says, with a bright-eyed hubris that makes you wince just a bit. You would think nobody else was making ice, where in fact Washington and Baltimore have nearly a dozen ice companies, including the venerable Uline's and Baltimore American, which go back to the days of blocks sawn from lakes.
As yet, opportunists haven't saturated this expanding market, so the old hands are all riding high. Beverley's warehouse is piled to the ceiling with pallets each holding a ton of bagged and boxed ice. The foreman figures it's about a third of a million pounds. That's two days' worth. Except on the Fourth of July, when the whole place would be cleaned out. Cubing the Sphere
Conservatively, you get about 20 cubes to the pound. In a year Beverley turns out 1,560 million cubes. Placed end to end, they would reach around the Equator, with a few miles of slush left over.
True, they are not literally cubes. They are little cylinders with a hole through the middle. The hole is the secret of their success. 'All You Taste Is the Cold'
What is all this? An ice company doing radio spots? "If you can't taste it, then it's Beverley ice!" What? "Your ice smells like broccoli . . ."
Bill Bentley, manager at the overcrowded plant on outer 14th Street, always makes the office coffee. He melts a bagful of Beverley ice in the urn. One day he was away and someone else filled the urn with tap water.
You could hear the screams for two blocks. "Who made this lousy coffee?" "What is this stuff?" The company patriarch, Charles M. Beverley, Ted's father, an eight-cup-a-day man, quit the habit on the spot.
"It's different. It's better. There's no question. This is pure," says Ted Beverley. "You look at our cubes, they're clear as glass. The cubes in your home refrigerator are all cloudy."
This is because your homemade ice contains all the normal impurities of tap water: lime, iron, sulfates, organic molecules of chlorine and fluorine that have combined with stuff from the fields around Washington, fertilizers, insecticides and worse. There are also dissolved gases which make your ice porous, so that it positively seeks out food smells and lovingly soaks them up.
Didn't you ever wonder why your drink in a bar tastes better than the same brand at home?
Didn't you ever wonder why your own ice cubes melt in the middle first, leaving a tiny swamp of cloudy water on the surface of your drink, and a little rectangular skeleton of ice? Well, here's the answer: The Answer
"Our ice is made in 16-foot-tall cylinders," Beverley says. "Inside each one are 144 hollow stainless steel tubes filled with water. Freon gas around the tubes starts freezing the water.
"Now, the water freezes in layers, starting at the outside. Each layer is one molecule thick. As they crystallize, the molecules form a hexagon pattern like snowflakes, right? and line up in nifty little rows, but the impurities have different-sized molecules and can't get into the lineup. So they remain liquid.
"The ice layers crowd the liquid impurities into the center of the tube. Then we stop the freezing, open the bottom, and all the liquid impurities simply pour out. What you have left is the purest ice you can get." Lovely, Lovely
But why Beverley? asks the interlocutor. Why is it eight times bigger than its nearest rival? A bag of ice is a bag of ice.
"Oh no no. Not everyone has mastered the technique yet. Some bags are all stuck together, one big clunk of ice. Some are little bits and pieces, a bag of snow. Our cubes are dry and separate. I'll show you."
It is one of those August afternoons. Interlocutor's collar has melted and his glasses are sweating. He is handed a heavy-duty down jacket and told to zip it up good.
A moment later he is in the ice-cube factory. It must be about zero. It is lovely, lovely.
Suddenly a big cylinder releases the ice from its 144 tubes, and a fanlike cutter at the bottom clips it into inch-long lengths. They fly onto a conveyor belt.
Rattling along on a big rack, the cubes shake free of the odd bits and slivers and get a blast of cold, dry air before being dumped into a huge storage bin. The bin holds 200,000 pounds of cubes at a time and is kept around 10 below. Beautiful. Wonderful. An automatic rake levels them off and pushes them toward the bagging machines.
Interlocutor spends a lot of time watching the box-closing machine Beverley devised. He invented all the machinery here except the standard ice-making cylinder. We dawdle in the delightful warehouse. It is zero.
Once some Pribilof Islanders were visiting a friend here in August, and they were so miserable Beverley offered to let them sleep in his warehouse. Beverley, a reformed government geophysicist, spent three years in Alaska before coming home to the greater challenge of commerce red in tooth and claw. Sometimes he thinks about sleeping in the warehouse, too.
So does interlocutor. The Romance of Ice
The Egyptians had it. The Greeks had it. Alexander the Great loved fruit sherbets. Nero shipped it in from the Alps by runner. If it was melted when you got to Rome, you'd rather not know what would happen to you. Louis XIV treasured recipes for ices. At Williamsburg, the ice house resided behind the governor's palace. It is still there, a brick-lined hole in the ground.
(Anyone who was a kid in the '30s remembers the musty cold smell of sawdust and ice, the men with their work gloves brushing over a patch in the icehouse to reveal that big, square, glistening surface under the wet sawdust, the picks carried in leather scabbards at the belt, the great sharp-fingered tongs and the way the guy would heft the ice block to his shoulder by one tong handle, the tinkling chink of pick jabbing into ice, the chips on the linoleum kitchen floor.)
In the early 19th century, mad Yankee entrepreneurs built double-hulled ships, in effect vast thermos bottles, and took ice blocks to Washington, New Orleans, the West Indies and other unbearable places. Lord Timothy Dexter, that charming eccentric from Newburyport (the Lord was his own idea), shipped ice to Jamaica. In Singapore there is a statue to a Bostonian named Frederick Tudor, the Ice King of the World, who sold ice from Rio to Calcutta and showed them that, in New England in winter, any fool could walk on water.
"Pretty soon there were icehouses all over the country," Beverley recalls. "But then you had the ice famine of 1890, when New England had an open winter and there just was no ice. That same year a couple of guys in St. Louis came up with a practical commercial refrigeration invention. It had been done before, but at this point everyone paid attention."
It was like a steam engine in reverse. Instead of having steam make motion, they started with kinetic energy and had it compress ammonia gas (which made it very hot) and then release it (which made it very cold).
People worried about artificial ice. Was it healthy? But people will worry about anything. By 1905 every town in the country had its own ice plant and the American Ice Co. was the fifth largest corporation in the United States. It got that way by, for example, buying up all six ice plants in New York City and then tripling the price overnight. This was in the days before the trust busters, you understand.
Anyway, home refrigerators virtually killed the business by the '40s. Refrigerator rail cars came in: another blow. By the '60s the small automatic ice machine had taken hotels and restaurants out of the market. It was so bad that Charles Beverley, who had started in the ice business in 1955, had to switch to ice machine sales and service as early as '62.
Three years later, something amazing happened. Leisure was big. People went camping and boating and took their coolers with them. The coolers needed ice. Packaged ice was in. Today, one of the 10 fastest growing industries in the country, packaged ice expects $1 billion in sales this year. Beyond Perrier
"Packaged ice is about the same price as bottled water. It's a form of frozen bottled water. My next project is to turn it from a refrigerant into a high-grade food product."
This is Ted Beverley talking. He talks about six words a second, and it's not fast enough for him.
He is the Edison of ice.
"I'm trying to find a way to emboss a 'B' on each cube," he says. "Designer ice. That's the next thing."
Designer ice. He says the first step is learning how much better storebought ice is than homemade. Then you're supposed to discover how much better Beverley is than its rivals.
"We're creating a market," he says, eyes shining. "We're selling four times as much ice as we were four years ago, and with the same number of people. That's more in a day than in the whole year of '71, more in a week than we sold in '74, more in a month than we sold in '76."
Business is so frantically good that not only are both his parents still working (when not tending their 600-acre farm out on River Road), but his sister, Christine Shanholtzer, works in the office and a brother-in-law may come in soon, too. Ice cubes are still only 60 percent of the refrigeration business at Beverley, though the company estimates it is among the top 10 in the country for ice.
"I'm thinking of having a money-back guarantee," says Ted Beverley. "If you can't tell the difference between our ice and yours, mail us the rest of the package . . ."