Southern Snow Manufacturing
103 West W St.
Belle Chasse, LA 70037
When April is coming they’re thinking of Annette and Frankie out at the beach. It’s a mindset. They hadn’t had sno-balls all year. They can't wait to get sno-balls. Then August comes around and they say, “I’m gaining too much weight eating these things.” These things aren't diet balls, you know. – Bubby Wendling
Beginning during the Depression era, Simeon Clement shaved ice by hand at Clement’s Sweet Shop in Algiers, just across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans. More than 80 years later, Simeon’s grandson, Bubby Wendling, runs one of largest sno-ball supply businesses in the world. At Southern Snow, Bubby oversees the manufacturing of electric ice-shaving machines, block-ice makers, and roughly 170 flavor extracts; he also sells imported ice-shaving machines, retrofitted sno-ball trailers, and every product a vendor might need to equip a sno-ball stand. Bubby (given, but never used, name Milton) also started out as a sno-ball stand owner, operating for a few years out of a house trailer, but he found his calling in developing flavors and mentoring small business owners. He and Southern Snow’s flavorist, Carl Brauner, work with essences sourced from numerous flavor houses to concoct their own signature line. Carl, who earned a degree in industrial technology before discovering his super-palate, is also Southern Snow’s colorist, a big job considering that, as Bubby puts it, the amount of coloring in one sno-ball “could color a whole swimming pool.” Bubby’s mother and sister have worked in the business; his nephew, Greg Darling, left a career in the prosthetics field to work with him and gives Bubby hope that Southern Snow has a long future ahead.
What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Bubby Wendling, Southern Snow Manufacturing – Belle Chasse, LA
Date: May 4, 2011
Location: Southern Snow Manufacturing – Belle Chasse, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Wednesday, May 4, 2011. I’m in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, at Southern Snow with Mr. Bubby Wendling. Could I get you to say your full name for me, please, and your birth date?
Bubby Wendling: It’s Bubby Wendling. January 5, 1947.
Is Bubby short for anything?
Yeah, it’s short for little sisters and brothers that can't say “brother,” so it’s really a New Orleans name.
Can you tell me in your own words how you make your living?
Well we pretty much put people into the sno-ball business. We manufacture shaved ice machines and we import some shaved ice machines for special operations. And we manufacture the flavors, which is our main business, which we make most of our income on. And we have over 170 different flavors and we reach the ethnic markets. So we have like the Spanish market; we have guanabana and tamarindo and all the ethnic flavors that are big in Southern California, Southern Texas, Southern Florida—whatever one I missed there. And then we have all the supplies that anyone would need as far as the bottles and stoppers to put the flavor on the syrup; the tanks to mix up the sugar and water, cups, spoons and straws—and of course the cups, spoons, and straws market is basically local. But we’ll ship the other stuff from New Zealand to Alaska and all 50 states.
How did you get into this business?
My grandfather had a hand-scraper back around 1929; it was during the Depression and they always did sno-balls. And during the ‘50s I worked in his stand, and some days they would sell $100 of sno-balls with two machines and four people. And that’s a nickel sno-ball, so that’s just like selling $1,000 or $2,000 of sno-balls today when they had a great day, you know. So I didn't forget that. [Laughs]
And so later on I went to college and I had some jobs, and I decided that I wanted to be in the sno-ball supply business. And so I opened up a stand in 1980 and I ran it myself for two years, and then we went into the flavor business. The following year we built machines, and then the ’84 World’s Fair hit and we sold quite a bit and we were in the market then. We were a success at that time.
Tell me where your grandfather’s stand was.
His was in Old Algiers. It was at 638 Sigmund Street, and back then people had cars; a lot of people had cars but they took the bus everywhere. The car they only took out on the weekends. And they would think 3,000 miles a year was a lot of miles for their cars. They’d gas them up on Sunday and—or Saturday morning—and then they would go up there and eat sno-balls. So sometimes they’d buy several sno-balls, eat one, go back and get another one. They were a nickel. And they’d be like—the sno-ball stand was close to a park so there was plenty of parking, so there would be 10--12 cars parked by the park all getting sno-balls. Yeah, that would be a big outing. “Let’s get in the car and let’s go get sno-balls.” And the car would be parked the rest of the week. They would catch the bus to work.
You said that [your grandfather] used the hand-shaver. Did he ever graduate to the machine?
Yeah. He was one of the first ones to have a machine on the West Bank. You know it was like after the War, is when they got popular. That’s when they claim the machines were around. Hansen’s was around 1934, and then they had something called SnoWizard around 1937, but none of these machines became popular until after World War II. That’s when they started selling enough that anybody had even seen one. And in the ‘50s they had no less than four manufacturers of shaved ice machines in New Orleans.
Tell me a little bit about ice. Was it the same? Did he buy it in blocks back then, or make it in blocks, or was he buying it in like huge—?
No, back then he had a bicycle with a big basket on it and he’d go down and get 50-pound or 100-pound blocks and ride back with it. And then he had a guy in an ice truck. The ice trucks were still popular then. And they would put a 300-pound block in—several 300-pound blocks—in the back of their truck to keep it from melting. And the big thing is keeping the wind off of it. So they put a canvas over it. And it, just like they did back in the ‘30s for delivering ice to people with ice boxes, they delivered to the sno-ball stands the same way, and it was quite a few guys that was pretty reliable, you know. And so mostly you had your ice delivered.
And what about your stand? Where was that located?
It was at 1615 Monroe Street in Gretna. And it was a house trailer, half of a house trailer, because a lot of people start in these little stands and then you find out they got half their stuff at their house. So I was going to stay in this house trailer and I was going to have a sno-ball stand at one end of it and the master bedroom—I cut out all the windows and was selling out the windows and had a porch and a lean-to on top of it and it looked pretty good. You know I had planned it out. But I thought I was going to stay in the trailer, but cups, spoons, and straws and boxes ran me right out of the trailer and I had to go to some other place. And it was a full-time sno-ball stand.
Do you think that it was because that your grandfather had a stand that you got so deep into this business?
Yes, it is. I know they made a killing in the retail end. But I wasn’t that good at the retail end because I wanted to make every sno-ball that went out the window. And so I had a line going around the block and I couldn’t make them fast enough. I made a great sno-ball but—[Laughs]. So I wanted to get in the supply end and I knew the business was growing. I really didn't do the kind of research that I needed to do to go into that business, but the first year we built 50 machines and sold all 50. So we were rolling. And the next year the World’s Fair hit and we sold 184 machines, so we were in the game then. And that’s how you sell flavors, is when you sell a machine.
Now like last year, how many machines did you sell?
We sell around 200 a year. In the heyday we were doing 300, over 300 you know, and they kind of backed off a little bit. But the flavor and the supplies and all, that keeps growing. And being you’re in New Orleans and you’re one of the oldest manufacturers, you have all the best prices, the best supplies. It’s the place to shop so you’re getting in everybody else’s shaved ice business with the flavors. It’s all the Japanese cube machines, the Japanese spinning machines, the snowy in-between machines, the sno-cone machines—all the best stuff is right here in New Orleans at the best price, so we don’t have to depend just on your machines. And yet you can, to some extent, because the first machines are still out there. We still have parts and service on the first machines we built; some of our very first machines are still out there. Some of the old machines built by other manufacturers are still out there and we service them and some of them are 50, 60 years old. All the parts for all the New Orleans-style machines are still available.
How similar is the Southern Snow Machine now to the one that you were building in the ‘80s?
Very similar. We improved on the bearings, the bearing system. And quite a few little things. You know we’re sort of like your little Volkswagen. They used to say that—they showed the two Beetles up there and they say they look alike, but there’s 29 different changes. But there’s not enough changes on it that we don’t have all the parts for it—you know, any modification that we made on a new machine will fit on an old one.
Do you have one Southern Snow-style machine, or do you have more than one?
No, it’s just one. Every year we just have one machine and we offer three different motors on it. We have a 110, which most people get for their sno-ball stand. We have a 12-volt machine for mobile use, and we have a 220-volt motor for like Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.
Tell me what has changed in the sno-ball culture in New Orleans over the past 30 years, let’s say.
Not much. [Laughs] Not much at all. Everybody has got their favorite flavors and it’s still usually flavors like chocolate, spearmint, and nectar that you can't give away outside of New Orleans, and they’re still very popular here. Those three flavors are all New Orleans.
I’m kind of getting ahead of myself here, but since you mentioned it, could you talk a little bit about nectar—what that is, and why it’s special to New Orleans?
Yeah, nectar is—a lot of people get some strange ideas about it, but it came from the nectar soda made by Katz & Besthoff, the drugstore. And they had a soda, nectar soda, and then the extract company decided to copy that nectar, and it’s basically almond and vanilla.
How old was that? How far back [does K&B] go?
I don’t know. Katz & Besthoff goes way back. You know I don’t know if you’re familiar with Uptown New Orleans people. They never left Uptown. They think there’s a cow pasture across that bridge over there. And I lived on Napoleon Avenue for three years and they bought everything at Katz & Besthoff. You know [Laughs], at this drugstore you bought everything.
Did they produce that flavor at K&B?
No, probably somebody made it for them. That’s back in the days of every drugstore had a soda fountain where you’d go in and get the floats, you know, and maybe a banana split or something or some scoop ice cream. And no telling how far back that goes.
Does nectar always have cream in it?
It should. You know that’s how it got so popular. If it didn't have cream in it nobody would have ever bought it. It would be the same as almond or vanilla. [Laughs] So anything you make a cream flavor out of, you know that’s going to sell.
Earlier when you were giving me the tour, you called New Orleans the sno-ball Mecca.
Yeah, yeah, all the major manufacturers are here. You know you go on the web and they got about 15 people you can contact, but most likely you’re talking to a franchise or somebody that has a machine and buying flavor off from somebody else or vice-versa. And if you come to New Orleans and go to a manufacturer here, you’ll learn more in a half hour here than if you visit all 13 of the other guys.
By “manufacturer,” you mean of extracts?
Yeah, either a manufacturer of extracts or machines or the combination of the two.
Why is that New Orleans is the Mecca for that?
It’s just this style machine, the New Orleans-style shaver, was developed here and in the ‘50s they had four different manufacturers of this machine right here in town, you know. It’s kind of unheard-of. And they have some machines made in Baltimore but nobody buys them. They’re horrible. [Laughs] And then they had a couple of machines made in St. Louis and they wasn’t that hot either.
You mentioned earlier that when you had your stand you made a really great sno-ball, which was why you weren't very good at the retail part. What, to you, makes a really great sno-ball?
We just had extra-thick syrup and we went around and got everybody’s extract and picked out what we thought was the best at the time. And, oh well the big thing was I made sure snow was coming out the machine. If trash came out I threw it on the side, you know. And so I made sure we had good snow coming through the machine, and then I’d fill it up with ice. I’d put the syrup on it; it would collapse. And then I’d put another point on it and put syrup on top of it, so it’s a perfect sno-ball. Nobody packed it too much, too little, whatever, and it was—if you make a two-stage sno-ball, you can't make a mistake with it, but it takes over a minute to make it. And so the line gets longer and longer and you’re not getting the sno-balls out.
Can you talk a little bit about the mechanics of getting snow and not trash, like you just referred to?
Sure, yeah. You got three variables on the machine. You have this setting, the setting in the sharpness of the blades, and the setting should be the same all the time. So you’re dealing with the sharpness of the blades, the temperature of the ice, and the amount of pressure you put on the handle. And how Hansen’s makes that real fluffy snow all the time, they get the ice at minus-five, minus-ten degrees, and if you put that temperature of ice, it’s always going to put out the same kind of snow whether the blades are sharp or not.
And if you ever notice over at the Hansen’s, if the ice doesn’t come out the way they want it they’ll take that block of ice out of the machine and put it back in the freezer and use it again when it gets back up to temperature. I like the ice a little bit warmer. I think it’s even more like snow than what Hansen’s has. Hansen has a great product but it’s more and more like a slush than it is fresh-fallen snow. But if you have the ice between zero and plus-five degrees, it’ll make a powder just like you go skiing on.
When you say that that’s how you set your freezers, are you making sno-balls right now?
Sure, we demo them down there all the time. Yeah, we can demo one before you get out of here. [Laughs]
Who do you demo them for?
Oh yeah, we demo three times a day [for] people going into the business. It’s a sales demo. We got two or three flavors set up there and we run the machine and we do tricks [Laughs] like fancy sno-balls. By the time I do a strawberry, a strawberry cream, an ice cream, they’re sold. But I can make a Peter & Paul Mounds that’s pretty good.
What is that?
It’s a coconut with a little evaporated milk and a squirt of straight Hershey’s on top. Yeah, it’s great. [Laughs] And we got our new peanut butter back. I’ve been wanting to get that; we can make a Reese’s Cup with that: a little peanut butter, a little evaporated milk, and squirt straight Hershey’s right off the can.
When I was taking the tour we came upon the man who develops the flavors. Can you tell me his name?
Yes, Carl Brauner.
And he had just, I guess, re-developed the peanut butter flavor. What was going on there?
With the peanut butter flavor, we very rarely—it’s hardly any time the price of any ingredient stops us you know. When I go to flavor houses or people—flavor stuff—you know I hide that I’m doing shaved ice. They think I’m doing snow cones and they go right to the cheap list. [Laughs] And I said, “No, we want the best, very best stuff you have to make these flavors with.” And peanut butter is one of the two or three we slipped on. They had this company that had a gigantic minimum and we were only selling 10, 15 gallons a year, so I passed and bought a secondary one. And when we ran out of that I decided now we’re going back for the big minimum and get the great one in.
You’re sort of the last stop. You are the place where New Orleans sno-ball makers come to get their flavors. Now it’s interesting to me that you go somewhere even further to get stuff to make your flavors. Can you talk about what are you buying?
Yeah. Who in the heck is making these flavors, is what you’re asking?
Because you kind of are.
Okay, they got these places called flavor houses and when you go there they’re going—. You know you might remember back in high school, you might go down the hall and you smell strawberries or bananas, you know. That was the chemistry class and they’re making something down there. They made a little flavor or they made an essence, you know. So we go to flavor houses and these people are, I guess, flavorists, chemists and flavorists, and they sit there and they’re cooking with chemicals all day and they make a flavor called strawberry. So what we do here, we go around to about 26 of the best flavor houses we can find and we tell them to send us everything they got. You know and we might find a strawberry that is really strong upfront from one manufacturer, and we find another one that’s not that strong but it’s got a juicy aftertaste—you know, real juicy follow-up.
And that’s pretty much what we do here. Now let’s talk about those guys. If we buy an almond that’s a straight chemical, so they’re just buying this—. I can't think of the name of it but they’re just buying it from another chemical company and reselling it to us. So and then if you go to any sno-ball stand, they can say they make their own flavors, every one of them, and what they’re doing, they’re buying from two or three guys like me and putting four ounces of concentrate into sugar water. So everybody is making flavors. [Laughs]
Where are these 26 flavor houses?
All over the place. They got a couple in Europe but most of them—they got some on the West Coast, some in Chicago; most of them are smokestacks up in New Jersey.
Okay, so Carl and you order these flavors and then work with them?
Okay, yeah, the flavors come in—they’re all different strengths and they come in as a clear liquid. Some are 20 times stronger than the others. And when you first get them you throw them in water and they float on top. They’re an oil; they’re like motor oil. So we need to find out how much of alcohol or propylene glycol we need to mix with it to go into solution into water. Then we have to decide how much of this flavor we need for 32 gallons of syrup, and then that’s how much we put in one gallon of concentrate. Then we have to put preservatives in there and we have to put acids to bring out the flavor—the tart flavors. We have to add acids for that, and color. And then if we got 160 flavors, we probably got about 50 different levels. So you couldn’t have a sno-ball stand over there putting a half-ounce in one gallon and two ounces in another and four ounces in another one; you know it’s got to be uniform. It’s got to be four ounces per gallon for a sno-ball stand to handle it. We can't have a recipe on each bottle and a measuring cup for each one and a bunch of kids mixing this mess up, you know.
Do you have one strawberry? Do you decide this is what our strawberry tastes like, or do you have a few different ones?
We have one strawberry we settled on, and like I said it’s got two strawberry flavors. And then I’ll tell you we bought the Eisenmann Flavor Snow line, so we make their strawberry, and once in a while somebody will ask for something strange and we’ll make another strawberry for them if they buy enough of it, but it’s rare.
What’s something strange might they ask for?
Well usually it’s a color change.
Like, “We want a strawberry but we want it blue?”
Yeah. Well we make a blue strawberry, but he just might want his darker or lighter or something like that because we also sell to people with daiquiris and we got too much color in there so we’ll make something for them with a lighter color.
You were telling me you basically sell the flavorings per gallon. How many sno-balls come out of there?
A gallon of concentrate, we sell it for $27 a gallon, and it would make 32 gallons of syrup or 1,000 12-ounce sno-balls. And I think one sno-ball could color a whole swimming pool. It’s a lot of color in it.
What are your top three sellers, just overall?
I’d say strawberry, bubblegum, and then cherry.
Talk to me a little bit about some of your less popular flavors that you keep around because there’s just enough demand.
Maple might be the slowest mover of the whole bunch. It tastes just like maple syrup, but nobody is happy about maple syrup. They think of pancakes with that. And we got a pistachio that tastes great but we don’t sell much of it. I think cherry limeade, it doesn’t sell too much.
Those trailers [outside]—can you tell me what they are? How you outfit them when you sell them?
Yeah, they’re ready to go. We give certain little options on it. Every one I got sitting here, you look at the sticker on it and you pay that and there’s nothing extra on it because it’s loaded. already got the sno-ball machine in it, chase lights, air conditioning, everything. And so the way it works, it kind of has gotten man where no man has gone, because it has a 12-volt system in it and a 110-volt system in it. So what you do is, on your way home you pick up ice. Then you plug the trailer in. When you do that it runs your 110-volt freezer, your 110-volt hot water heater, charges your sno-ball machine battery. The next day you unplug it. And use the freezer like an ice chest all day long. You got two gallons of red hot water in the thermos for the Board of Health to see in all four sinks; battery is charged; you’ve got 1,000 12-ounce sno-balls and one battery charge. Go back home and do the whole thing over again. And you can do it in the middle of a blackout. You don’t need no power. But the only trick is every trailer does have an air-conditioner. To run the air-conditioner you need to pull it with a pickup trailer with a little generator in the back big enough to run your air-condition. You don’t want the air-condition, you’re independent.
How much does one of those run?
Right now the current price on them is between, I’d say $17,600 and $21,600.
How many sno-balls would you have to sell to pay that off?
A bunch. [Laughs] I don’t know. Some people have paid them off in two months. You never know; you can get a swinging hot spot. Some people sell $500--$600 a day out of those things. It’s ridiculous. I got some people selling $100 a day and they got their kids running it in their front yard some kind of way and they just love it. And then I got other people making, you know, $500--$600 a day because it’s just aggressive, getting a good location. You got to kind of have a personality for it because wherever you go to buy your occupational license, as soon as you walk in and say, “I got a trailer and I want to sell anything,”—“Oh you can't do that here.” You got to get past that.
When you travel, do you try lots of shaved ice-type treats?
Oh yeah, if I find something. I went to Costa Rica and I bought a little scraper down there, and I bought one from the US Virgin Islands, and I just went to Hawaii for the first—I’ve been to Hawaii a dozen, at least a dozen times for three hours at a pop on a plane going some other place, so finally I went to Hawaii last year and I went to Kawaii, and I went and visited every shaved-ice stand I could find. And it looks like I’m going to go back this year and do Maui and Honolulu and just visit every one of them just to see what they’re doing. But even though our flavors are superior to what they have, they don’t want to change anything you know because it—the guy is making stuff right on the island.
Why are the flavors here superior?
Well it’s just so much more research and development done on it. It’s 70 years here. And you know it’s very competitive, and every year we will come up with three new flavors or review three or four old flavors. We’ll pick out something and try to improve it, something we think we got a shot at improving or something we thought we tasted some other place. So we’re on top of this flavor thing. That’s where all the money is at.
Can you tell me what some of the newer flavors are from last year or this year?
Well we made a pomegranate-cranberry because pomegranate is such a big deal. We also made a cherimoya this year because a couple other people made it, and we actually made a lot better one than they made. It’s called a custard apple from the south of Spain, so when they saw “custard,” I think they made it out of vanilla. But this thing has a real fruit flavor to it. So we got a really good one of those. And let’s see. Last year we made something called cinnamon bubblegum. And I can't think of the other ones; they get so many of them. You know a couple of years ago we made kiwi, which was a big deal. It tastes just like a kiwi.
When I walked into this building it was like I walked into a wall of aroma. How would you describe that smell?
Well I don’t smell it anymore. That’s how I’d describe that. [Laughs] But it’s actually flavor escaping from 1,000 bottles. That’s what you’re smelling. [Laughs]
What is your favorite part of your job?
That’s a good point. I guess sometimes you’re putting somebody in business and you’re like a big hero to them. You know some people come in here and it’s like, okay, it’s all about a dollar. I’m going down the street. Or they’re really going to buy it here but they’re kicking tires all day trying to get the price [down]. And then some people come in here and they realize that this doesn’t cost nothing to get into and they want a long-term relationship. They’re going out in town; they know they’re going to make a killing with this stuff. And they get excited. You get excited. You know, I got excited when a lot of people bought trailers out of here and went out after [Hurricane Katrina], up to New Orleans East on the lakefront and made a killing with those things. [Laughs] It was great; you know they came in here—you could see them. When they came here to buy supplies, they’re sky high. [Laughs] They like walked into Disneyland again. I really like that part of the business. They’re people that had never made any money in their whole life and all of a sudden they’re making five times what they made, you know.
It’s still one of the cheapest businesses to go in. And the other thing, this thing is going to be here forever. The next 100 years from now there’s still going to be somebody that knows that he can go out there and make a good living with—it’s a hustle, you know. The first guy at City Hall will tell you, “You can't go in that business.” You got to find a spot, but you’re always going to be able to crush this ice up. There’s never going to be an icee or a yogurt that’s going to be like this. You know you got to take the ice. You got to manually shave it. It’s a simple machine. And forever, it’s been like that since 1900 and it’s still going the same way. It’s such an inexpensive treat. You make it for a quarter. The recession hits, it takes the people right out of the ice cream shops and into the sno-ball stand.
I think that that’s a great way to wrap up, on a positive note. I’m thrilled to talk to somebody this deep into the business.
Yeah, we’re deep.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.