CHARLES CHIGAS, a 23-year-old Bostonian, is a field marshal sent from command central to do battle in Washington's latest turf war. He labors 120 hours a week, he says, mixing and mashing and training his troops to do the same. He's the advance guard from Steve's, living a life consumed by mounds and mounds of ice cream.
Two doors down at Haagen-Dazs, manager Jeff Pfoutz nervously watches Steve's incursion on the Dupont Circle area. He sorties over to sample Steve's Oreo. He checks his own sales. Down 25 percent -- not as bad as he expected.
Across town, at 3rd and Massachusetts Avenue NE, Bob Weiss of Bob's Famous Ice Cream is wary. Steve's hasn't hurt him yet; Bob's is having a record summer. But Steve's in Georgetown presses heavily on Bob's preeminent Wisconsin Avenue shop. Moreover, it was Steve's Boston ice-cream cult that had inspired Bob's own offbeat concoctions: Butterfinger, Oreo, Cantaloupe. He frankly wishes Steve's had stayed put in Boston and never ventured south to the capital.
Thus we have today's grown-up version of the rival ice cream trucks that roamed summertime neighborhoods in search of kids with nickels and dimes, or of the Norman Rockwell ice cream parlors of yesteryear.
Leaping across class lines, as perhaps only ice cream can, today's high-priced competition searches for the "educated" palate, with neighborhoods carefully staked out and newcomers eyed with suspicion. Across America, soldiers are sweating it out in the trenches of an upscale ice cream war.
In Washington, it's essentially a three-turf war: Dupont Circle, where Steve's and Haagen-Dazs chiefs peep outside to compare lines; Capitol Hill, where Haagen-Dazs perches on the House flank while Bob's dominates the Senate side; and Georgetown, where all three battle it out amid Swensens, Cone E Island, Hilary's and a slew of others.
Meanwhile, Steve's has letters of intent for two more sites and is looking at a third. Bob's plans an equally fast expansion. "Would I consider head-to-head competition?" Weiss asks. "The answer is yes."
Steve's, Bob's and Haagen Dazs are high- octane ice creams, called "super premiums" in the trade, sharing higher prices, higher quality, higher status and sales that have skyrocketed in the past few years.
Haagen-Dazs was first, in 1962, to reconnoiter the connoisseurs. Russian-born Reuben Mattus launched the brand with that weird Danish name because it was trendy. (The stuff is really made in Woodbridge, N.J.) He stuck on the umlaut for spice, not knowing that Danes don't use them.
No matter. Mattus sells about 13 million gallons a year. Likewise, Alpen Zauber, manufactured in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, and Frusen Gladje, which hails from Lindhurst, N.Y., do quite nicely. (Before Frusen Gladje appeared, Haagen-Dazs expressed its pique by suing it for using an umlaut. But you can't patent punctuation and, besides, Frusen Gladje, launched by a German, was at least using it correctly.)
The next advance came with Steve Herrell, a Washington native and University of Maryland graduate, who opened Steve's in 1975 in unfashionable Somerville outside Boston. He turned a dry cleaning store into an ice cream shop, mixed cookies and candy into ice cream he made himself, dragged in a player piano that ran on a vacuum cleaner motor, left boxes lying around, painted the place in bright colors, stood around cracking jokes and started a revolution.
"Steve Herrell did a great service to us all," says Weiss. He created dress-down radical ice cream chic.
In 1977, Steve sold out and moved to Northampton, leaving the shop to two enterprising working-class grunts -- Joey and Nino Crugnale. Joey and Nino franchised the place to C&K Management Trust, for which Charles Chigas is leading the charge.
Chigas is Duddy Kravitz doing Johnny Appleseed's work: cultivating the new Steve's in Atlantc City, Philadelphia, College Park, Washington. Next stop: Kentucky. He eats about a half gallon of ice cream a day. "That's all I eat," he says. And drinks Tab.
Steve's is made in an old machine at a leisurely pace, which cuts the portion of air in the ice cream from some 40 percent to 25 percent, says Chigas. Chigas is a pro. When he makes a mix-in, described as "kneading" selected toppings into the "flesh" of the ice cream, he wields a metal spatula with the skill of a Japanese chef at a grill.
Each Steve's orders everything -- from paper clips to ice cream mix -- from a central warehouse. Each Steve's has a piano. Each Steve's is exactly the same. Chigas says he "really believes in the concept of Steve's." Nino Crugnale contends that everything is better than when Herrell ran the place.
But Weiss, not surprisingly, disagrees. He was scared at first when Steve's came to town. "I thought it was the end of an era." But it wasn't the same ice cream or the same place that he remembered, he says. The ambience had changed. "Steve was a character in his own right, you know. But he's not there anymore."
Weiss, a Boston-schooled antipoverty lawyer, turned to ice cream after six months of trying to help the poor in the District. "It was a classic case of burn-out," he says. He went back to Boston for a brief apprenticeship with Emack & Bolio's Ice Cream, and returned armed with recipes and a mission.
In August 1978, he opened Bob's Famous Ice Cream and introduced flavors hitherto unseen below the Mason-Dixon Line. Mazambique. Super Chocolate. Oreo. Especially Oreo. A Steve's original, Oreo caught on so big when Bob brought it to Washington that every self-respecting shop now makes a version. Even the august Haagen-Dazs broke down in May and introduced Cookies & Cream, which is rapidly rising to the top of the charts, according to Pfoutz.
Pfoutz, who runs the Dupont Circle Haagen-Dazs, wears a red Haagen-Dazs T-shirt and carries a wad of keys on his belt. Previously he managed a Burger King in Florida. He doesn't claim particular ice cream expertise. The company makes it. He concentrates on keeping a tight ship. And the New Yorky, spotless Haagen-Dazs, sans piano, sans seats, continues to draw, if not quite as vigorously as before.
As for whimsical old Steve Herrell, he had the idea of taking a cabin in the Berkshires, says Joyce Thompson, an old friend. But he got bored with piano tuning, his new career. "He couldn't live without a crowd around to laugh at his jokes," she says.
He's back in ice cream, now called Herrell's. (Used to be called Steve Herrell's, but the Crugnales sued him for using his own first name, which tells you just how tough these upscale ice cream wars can get.) Steve has a shop in Harvard Square, not far from Steve's. He's slowly franchising. "I would be happy to entertain inquiries from Washington," he says.
Herrell's creed: "Ice cream is a simple joyous pleasure than can take you back to your childhood without your knowing it. It's the only food that changes while you eat it. You can play with it. That's very important."
So far, Washington's warring constituencies have kept their heads about them. There's still enough business for everyone. And they all share a common enemy: winter.
"Business drops off some 80 percent in the winter," says Pfoutz. Weiss confirms that: "Winter sales fall to one-half or one-third summer's. In Washington, people think of winter as a tremendous inconvenience. In New England, it's a big part of the year. People here don't know how to dress for the winter. They're chronically underdressed. They are freezing. That puts them in a miserable mood, and they don't buy ice cream."
For now, though, Washington's ice cream warriors are thriving in the sweltering heat.