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Fosselman's, the Alhambra emperors of ice cream

There are few foods as inherently nostalgic as ice cream. A scoop of vanilla melting down the jigsaw pathway of a waffle cone. The high jingle of an approaching ice cream truck. The casual geometry of a banana split. Any of these can swing open the gates of childhood. Maybe because of this, ice cream parlors hold a particular kind of pull, as if their cold engines spin memories as easily as dessert. 

Walk into Fosselman's ice cream shop in Alhambra, a city about 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, and it feels as if those engines have been working in overdrive — which in a way they have been, here in this shop since 1941, somewhere for almost a century.

These days, the shop is run by two brothers, John and Chris Fosselman, who are the third generation of their family to own the business. Before them, their father and uncles made the ice cream. And before that, it was their grandfather Christian Fosselman, who started the business 98 years ago on the shores of the Cedar River in Waverly, Iowa.

Ice cream came to Christian Fosselman after a prairie career that had begun with beer, then switched to soda after Prohibition. While on a trip to Los Angeles to attend a bottling convention, Christian bought a mechanized ice cream machine and took it back to Iowa. At home in the upper Midwest, he had a kind of epiphany, according to his grandsons, and thought: Why make ice cream in Iowa when I could make it in Southern California, and sell it all year?

So Christian and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he opened Fosselman Creamery, a wholesale business in Pasadena. In 1937 he opened a retail shop in South Pasadena. In 1941, he opened another in Highland Park and the shop and production facility in Alhambra, where all the ice cream is now made. (The shops in South Pasadena and Highland Park closed in the '70s, as did another in Glendale.)

Fosselman’s Ice Cream Co. sits in a squat brown-and-tan shop on Main Street in Alhambra, the 1905 building embedded between a Wells Fargo bank and an Acura dealership. It’s a decidedly, purposefully, retro place, with old-style signage and awnings, a throwback to small-town America which seems incongruous, misplaced among repeating lots of stickered cars. 

"We’re a destination. There's no reason to come here otherwise, unless you’re going to Costco or Target," says John, now 47, of the shop. It is their only retail store, though they sell their ice cream to, he says, maybe 500 outlets, "from high-end restaurants to food trucks to retirement homes."

Walk inside Fosselman's and you'll see old black-and-white photographs on the walls (from Iowa, from Pasadena), and glass cases filled with vintage ice cream paraphernalia (a 1903 ice cream scoop, a recipe book from Waverly Bottling Works, milk bottles from the '20s, L.A. County Fair medals from the '40s). In the tiny dining room, there are a few mauve banquettes and cafe tables and chairs. And, behind the freezer cases, beneath the retro signs (for sundaes and malts, ice cream sodas and banana splits), you'll likely find either John or Chris Fosselman scooping your ice cream.

The affable brothers, who both live in Pasadena with their families, present like high school football coaches or "SNL" veterans in Americana skits. Baseball caps. Parkas with shorts.

"When we started, there might have been four hours during the entire week when one of us wasn’t here," says Chris, 50, of the years after he and his brother started running the business, when both were in their early 20s. Now, some 30 years later, the brothers both get to the shop as early as 7 a.m. and start the process of making between 1,200 and 2,500 gallons of ice cream every weekday.

Go past the candy counter and the recently installed soft serve machine ("our first new product in maybe 50 years," says John), through the tiny office (kids' drawings of ice cream on the wall) and into the 600-square-foot production room, where all that ice cream is made, in four Emery Thompson batch freezers. The 1930s-era Cherry-Burrell storage vat by the office door holds 225 gallons of ice cream base, a rich and frothy concoction of only four ingredients (cream, milk, sugar, a vegetable-based stabilizer), made for Fosselman's by Scott Bros. Dairy in Chino using the same recipe that Christian created in Iowa a century ago. 

On a recent Tuesday morning, John poured vanilla into one of the batch freezers (the vanilla-filled drum near the door, he says, is worth $8,600). Then he moved down to another freezer and opened the valves to allow gallons of pale green ice cream to pour, marshmallow-like, into an enormous mixing bowl. He then stirred in California pistachios, slowly, by hand, with an equally enormous spoon. Three other men — Fosselman's has all of nine full-time employees, counting the Fosselman brothers — moved around the small, immaculate room, filling 3-gallon tubs with ice cream, adding custard to the vat filled with French vanilla ice cream, stirring tubs filled with Oaxacan chocolate. 

That chocolate was first melted in a giant copper pot that dates back to the origins of the Fosselman Ice Cream Co. itself, along with the ice cream base, over a cast-iron, gas-burning heater in the back room. 

As he'd stirred the frothy cream in that copper pot, John had talked about the odd perils of running an old-school shop in the age of liquid nitrogen ice cream and vegan fro-yo. "Sometimes we'll make something and somebody will punk us," John says, the sound of the metal whisk and the flare of the jets from the old gas stove forming an anachronistic soundtrack to the conversation. He says that sometimes competing ice cream companies will send in spies, in the form of teenage employees, to report back on recipes and procedures.

"Everybody's got to be creative," he says. “We’re not trying to compete for the Rite Aid market.” Thus, along with the rocky road and chocolate chip, the peppermint candy and spumoni, you'll find tubs of lychee macapuno and taro ice cream — flavors that reflect the largely Asian population of the San Gabriel Valley. And for anyone willing to order 12 gallons of ice cream, Fosselman's will create a single batch of whatever flavor you want. "Once we did some lavender cookie thing; it was for 7-year-olds." 

Out in the front of the store, an elderly woman orders an ice cream cake. The Fosselman's accountant ("his dad was our grandfather's accountant," says John) comes through, past the candy counter, filled with saltwater taffy, Swedish fish and lemon drops. A tattooed guy in his 20s asks for a milkshake, which John takes a break from filling half-gallon tubs with Nutella ice cream to make. And in the back of the old brick building, the cold engines spin and spin. 

1824 W Main St., Alhambra, (626) 282-6533, www.fosselmans.com.

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