Chill out on a hot day at a really cool shop
Every summer, the ice cream shop run by Zhao Xuekuan on Guohe Road in Yangpu District is a cool oasis on scorching hot days.
It sells an incredible 500 brands of popsicles, ice cream cups and cones, both domestic and imported.
Zhao took over the small shop, which has been operating near a residential area for 20 years, about a decade ago. Each morning, he opens at 8am, and a steady stream of customers files in until he closes at 9:30pm.
The shop also accepts online orders. Employees pack orders in thermal bags or paper boxes and put them in a special fridge, waiting for deliverymen to take them away.
“Most of our customers are seniors living nearby,” says Zhao, who hails from the city of Taizhou and retains a very thick Jiangsu Province accent. “Young people love to order takeout online.”
Stocking begins long before the weather turns warm.
“Every year we start to stock at the end of February because the ice cream season begins in March and extends through October,” he explains. “Of course, the peak season is July and August.”
A string of empty ice cream wrappers is hung in the shop to make it easier for customers to choose from so many options. A price list printed on red paper covers an entire wall. It displays both wholesale and retail prices for all items.
“Wholesale” doesn’t refer to supplies to convenience shops or grocery stores. If anyone buys 10 items of ice cream — no matter what brands they pick — they get the more favorable wholesale price.
That explains why so many people take large thermal bags to the shop and carry dozens of popsicles home. Zhao clearly knows how to keep customers happy.
“There is the so-called ‘Internet celebrity’ ice cream that is so popular among young people,” he says. “We know what kinds of products we should heavily stock and which require only a few batches.”
The “Internet celebrity” ice cream he refers to is a salted yolk-flavored popsicle that was released this year. Creamy ice cream wraps around the yolk flavor, and the combination of sweet and savory is heaven-sent to people who swear by it. Others don’t like the taste at all. The lively debate boosts Zhao’s business.
Tradition dominates, however. Frozen treats from local Shanghai brand Bright, which have been on the market for decades, remain top sellers. Neapolitan ice cream, chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream, adzuki bean popsicles, mung bean popsicles and vanilla ice cream cubes are sold box after box within just a few hours’ time.
A senior couple who frequent the shop tells Shanghai Daily that ice cream flavors define generations. The couple usually buys 10 Magnum bars and five saltwater popsicles. The price of the former is about 10 times that of the latter.
Magnum ice cream has been in Shanghai markets for about 20 years, and saltwater popsicles, made with pure salted soda, is considered a quintessential old Shanghai treat.
“At first we thought we needed to buy 10 saltwater popsicles to get the wholesale price,” says the wife. “But when we found out that was not the case, we just buy five. The Magnum bars are for our grandson; the popsicles are for us.”
She explains it’s not a matter of money.
“Magnum bars are too sweet for us,” she explains. “And after so many years trying different types of ice creams, we still find that the simple saltwater popsicle is the most satisfying. Maybe that’s because our taste toward ice cream has never changed. But few children like them.”
Behind a thick metal backdoor of the shop is a cold storage a bit larger than the shop itself. Two employees and sometimes Zhao himself go into the storage to fetch products when there are big orders. The temperature there is around minus 20 degrees Celsius, 40 degrees lower than the air-conditioned shop.
Thick down coats and cotton-padded jackets are stacked behind the counter. When it is busy, Zhao and his employees shuttle back and forth nonstop between the shop and the cold store.
“It’s a matter of ice and fire,” he says of the temperature gradient. “We have gotten used to it. At least, we don’t catch cold anymore.”
Zhao is a bit of a master in dealing with a wide array of customers. Since most are elderly, he handles confusion over coins, dithering about what to buy and the people who are grumpy no matter how hard he tries to please. But Zhao never gets impatient and treats everyone with a smile.
One of the shop’s frequent customers is an 86-year-old with diabetes. Zhao has added a special sugar-free section on the takeout order list. All the ice creams in the section contain the sugar substitute xylitol as sweetener.
“Modern technology helps people, even with a small popsicle,” Zhao says.
“So I can do that, too. After all these years, loyal customers keep coming back, and I even get people who have moved away. I can’t tell you how much I value their patronage.”