“There are 80 people in front of us,” says Neil, my boyfriend. “I just counted.”
I’m too busy snapping a photo of the winding line to take a census, so I’m glad that he’s on top of it. We’ve just pulled into Memphis’s Berclair neighborhood, a 15-minute drive from downtown, to get a snack off the beaten path at a spot recommended by a Tennessee-born friend. It turns out, we’d walked into a Norman Rockwell painting: a line of mostly kids and teens snaking back from a bubble-gum-pink building — a former gas station — topped by a swirling sculpture of soft serve. Welcome to Jerry’s Sno Cones.
It’s a sweet serving of Americana, indeed: Chatting and laughing on a warm spring afternoon, parents discuss the soccer game they’ve just come from and who scored what goal. A girl shrieks at an enormous, shiny bumblebee and then breaks into a chorus of “I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee.” Her friends join in. A foursome of teens breaks into some kind of hand-clapping game as pimply guys cruise by in their cars, scoping out the lot.
Picture the Alamo Freeze from “Friday Night Lights,” the Max from “Saved by the Bell,” the Peach Pit from “Beverly Hills 90210,” add shaved ice, radioactively bright syrup and a line that borders on the next Zip code, and you’ve got Jerry’s.
Neil quickly does some research on his phone, looking at Yelp and Facebook for tips on which of the 70-plus flavors to order (Jerry’s doesn’t have a Web site). Oddly enough, he’s the only one in the entire line who’s using his cell. Everyone else is, gasp, talking to one another.
“If we order it ‘supreme,’ it comes with soft serve in the bottom, middle and top,” Neil whispers. “Wedding cake is their signature flavor.”
After about 35 minutes, we’re up. I ask the girl at the counter what a Hurricane Elvis is. “It’s a fruity and sweet flavor,” she says.
I’m not sure how that distinguishes it from anything else, but I figure, when in Memphis, go with Elvis. Supreme. Neil gets Tigers’ Blood supreme, and after another wait, we’re handed white plastic foam cups filled with shockingly bright red snow cones, punctuated with ice cream. They are, true to form, both fruity and sweet, as is our brain freeze while we devour the creamy confection, rivulets of red mixing with melting dairy, making a kind of pinkish snow cream. We leave after finishing the treat, but many of the others keep milling around, waving to newcomers and whiling away the lazy afternoon.
When I get home, I contact owner David Acklin to get a sense of how Jerry’s got to where it is today. Over the phone, he tells me that the line I saw will double and even nearly triple in the summertime: The longest he’s seen it, he says, is 225 people. “It’s kind of crazy,” he says in his Southern drawl. “The weird thing is, they’re not from the neighborhood. They come from 30, 40, 50 minutes away. We have people drive in from Mississippi. We have church buses, school buses that pull up. Fire engines pull up — they do their sirens and the lights for the kids.”
Acklin tells me that the building originally opened as a Sinclair gas and service station back in the 1920s or ’30s. In the early ’70s, a couple named L.B. and Cordia Clifton bought it and turned it into a carwash and a snow cone stand named Jerry’s, after their son. Acklin used to get snow cones there when he was in high school, and he just kept coming back. As he got to know L.B. and Cordia, he says, he started to feel like they were the grandparents he’d never really had. He’d stop by after work, and they’d invite him back behind the counter to help out.
He says that the place brought back cherished childhood memories of a place called the Freezeway burger joint. “Mom and Dad would scream, ‘Hey, let’s try to go get some ice cream!’ And we’d race in the old Rambler station wagon to get there before they closed and make it in time to order banana splits and greasy burgers, and I just remember my family being at their happiest at that time,” he says.
When Cordia fell ill and passed away, around 2004, L.B. asked Acklin whether he’d be interested in buying the business. He jumped at the opportunity, and over the past 10 years, he has added a food menu and dozens of snow cone flavors — he makes the syrups himself — making Jerry’s the snow cone place to see and be seen. This summer, he plans to add a second ordering window, and he aims to put in a third next year.
Acklin says that his customers, who span four generations of Jerry’s fans, make the peak summer days of working 16 hours at a stretch worthwhile. They take him back to simpler times, when a burger and a snow cone were the key to happiness. “Everybody that pulls up in that parking lot has a smile on their face,” he says.
And I can tell you that those smiles stick around as customers leave that lot, too — most of them now a bright shade of red, green or orange.
Silver is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Jerry’s Sno Cones
1657 Wells Station Rd.
Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Regular sno cone $2.50, supreme $3.50.