Lemeir Mitchell’s water ice shakes up L.A. dessert culture
On Friday afternoon, 24 hours before Lemeir Mitchell opened Happy Ice on Melrose Avenue, the 28-year-old sat and stared at the rainbow-colored room around him. Cloudlike light fixtures hung from the ceiling. The dessert shop’s logo, written in big, groovy letters, decorated the wall.
On the street just outside was where Mitchell first sold “water ice” — which is what Philadelphians like him call the dairy-free dessert with an ice cream-ish texture in the sorbet/granita/Italian ice family — from his food truck in 2017. Three years, two trucks and many sleepless nights later, Mitchell is at the helm of a budding dessert empire with a loyal cult fandom that includes nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram.
You may have seen the trucks rolling around Los Angeles, parked on Melrose Avenue or in South L.A. The psychedelic blue, pink and yellow design sucks your eyes into its happy orbit. The ices, which run around $5 a cup, are just as mesmerizing, each scoop like a cartoon sunset with the saturation cranked up to 100.
The staff is known for yelling, singing and doing whatever it takes to hype up the energy of its customers.
“You cannot leave the truck without a smile,” Mitchell said. “Whether you’re laughing at us or with us, you’re laughing.”
At the grand opening on Saturday, celebrities including Babyface and Cedric the Entertainer made appearances, and hundreds of people waited in a socially distanced line that snaked down the street for such flavors as Cherry Bomb, Watermelon Lush and Time Machine (a cherry-mango-pineapple concoction that channels the vibe of a Big Stick).
But it’s been a long, rough road to opening day.
Mitchell has 10 siblings. His father was sentenced to life in prison for murder when Mitchell was 10 years old; he said he knew he’d have to step up and be an example for his family.
“I basically put anything that had to do with the streets behind me,” he said. “I wanted to do something different.”
His first career was as a self-taught tattoo artist. In his early 20s, Mitchell bought a friend’s tattoo supplies for $50. Thirty minutes later, he was tattooing the Famous Stars and Straps clothing logo onto another friend’s arm. He traveled to Los Angeles from Philly a couple of times with friends to work on tattoos. In the midst of one of his trips, his older brother Kevin died in a motorcycle accident. It was a week before Kevin was supposed to graduate from college; he would have been the first in his family to do so.
“We had plans of building a family and just growing together,” he said. “I took a leap of faith when he passed, and I lost all fear: fear of dying, fear of anything.”
Mitchell gets teary-eyed at the mention of his brother, whose initials “CBK” — for college boy Kevin — are tattooed on his neck and face and featured prominently on the wall in the new shop.
Two weeks after the funeral, Mitchell moved to Los Angeles, got a job at a tattoo parlor on Melrose Avenue and discovered food-truck culture. He then called his mother, Josette, a nurse in Philadelphia.
“‘Mom, I think I’m going to bring water ice from Philly to L.A.,’” he remembers telling her. “‘What if I call it Happy Ice?’”
Josette recalls: “I was for it 100%, but at first I was a little hesitant because he went from tattooing to Happy Ice. But he was always coming home saying, ‘Mama, I want water ice.’”
The day after that phone call, Mitchell went to City Hall and registered the business. Then he booked a ticket back to Philly. He grew up eating water ice at Fred’s Water Ice, a Southwest Philly institution, and he wanted to learn from the best. The dessert is made with water, ice, fruit and other flavorings churned through a special machine until its texture is somewhere between a slushee and sorbet. Owner Fred Cooper mentored Mitchell for two weeks, taught him the company’s 40-year-old water ice recipe and sold him his first water ice machine.
With more and more food trucks popping up in Los Angeles, Mitchell wanted to make sure his stood out. He and artist Serena Saunders, a.k.a. MsPassionArt, painted a canvas of swirling colors and a giant happy face with palm trees in place of eyes and turned it into the wrap for the truck.
“Our first day,” he said of Sept. 4, 2017, when he opened for business, “we didn’t make a lot of money, but the energy and how people were receiving the product made that $400 feel like $1 million.”
Mitchell started adjusting Fred’s recipe and experimented with different methods of scooping the water ice, trying to get the colors to look just right. He slapped stickers onto the serving cups, placing them so the logo would make it into every Instagram shot of his perfect colored swirls.
Then the YouTubers came.
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After a visit from the Ace Family, who have 18.6 million YouTube subscribers, Mitchell says business skyrocketed.
“We started hitting $1,800 on the weekends, and the kids kept coming up saying, ‘We saw you on the Ace Family YouTube,’” he said.
Shortly after the truck opened, Ted Foxman, a Chicago entrepreneur, saw someone walking down Melrose Avenue with a rainbow-colored dessert. He hired Happy Ice, Shake Shack and a bunch of other food companies to cater a 400-person party in 2018. At the end of the night, Foxman said, Mitchell was the only vendor who stopped by to thank him.
“I knew there was something special about this guy,” Foxman said. “I told him right there that I envision a huge opportunity, and I would love to be a part of that.”
The two met for pizza the next week and became partners. They say they now have an eight-year plan to turn Happy Ice into a lifestyle brand with multiple events and an amusement park.
But first, they wanted a physical shop for Happy Ice. It took a bit longer than they’d hoped.
The morning the location of Happy Ice was supposed to undergo its final health inspection, the mayor shut down all nonessential businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two months later, after Happy Ice passed its final inspection in May, George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, sparking protests in Los Angeles and across the nation.
Mitchell wanted to help support the cause. On May 30, he learned of a local protest via social media and decided to bring free Happy Ice to protesters along Wilshire Boulevard. He passed out hundreds of scoops, then drove back to the store to restock and change locations. As he walked over to the protesters on Fairfax Avenue, the sight of smoke billowing from a car made him stop in his tracks and turn back to the store.
There, he found a group of people forming on Melrose Avenue and said he could hear someone kicking in a door nearby. He sent his mother, girlfriend and 10-month-old daughter home. He taped a sign that read “Black-owned business” to his window, then sat out front and pleaded with people not to damage his shop.
I put so much time and hard work into my dream.
Lemeir Mitchell, owner of Happy Ice
Mitchell said he and a few other Happy Ice employees walked up and down the street that day, trying to protect other businesses. They grabbed a hose, connected it to the back of the store and took turns sitting on the roof to make sure the building didn’t go up in flames.
“I feel bad for small businesses, but I also felt bad for the people looting because I know what that type of pain looks like,” he said. “I’ve seen people get shot before, but seeing a swarm of people with that look in their eyes was mind-blowing.”
That night, Mitchell and two employees tag-teamed protection duty and rested on ice insulation bags on the floor of the shop. Happy Ice remained untouched.
Mitchell wants to continue to support the fight for equality. He created a black ice flavor and is donating 100% of the profits to Sisters of Watts, a local Black community organization.
“I really just wanted to make this so I could eat it myself and share the experience with other people,” he said. “Water ice was a gateway to happiness for me, and I want it to be that for everyone.”
7324 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (215) 800-3965, happyicela.com