Cool Entrepreneur Gets Attention 80 Shakin' Ways

Deep South Snowshakes Taking Market By Storm

December 01, 1991|By Marie Westhaver | Marie Westhaver,Contributing writer

Jim Nicholson flips the cups of powdered ice in the air.

"Would you like a free sample today?" he asks a passer-by, producing a giant coin from behind her ear before filling a cup with snow and strawberry flavoring.

His approach to making Deep South Snowshakes is a great attention-getter. It also helps him make thousands of snowshakes disappear every week.

"You've got to live your business," he said. "People think because the product tastes the way it does, it sells itself. Wrong,wrong, wrong."

But Nicholson, owner and operator of Deep South Snowshakes at The Mall in Columbia, has more than sales strategy up hissleeve.

His snowshakes repertoire has grown to include more than 80 combinations of snowcone flavors, as well as hot malt drinks. Nicholson also is considering adding gourmet teas and Italian sodas to his menu board next year.

All of the snowshake flavors are original -- from hazelnut-and-cream to cordial cherry -- and are created and manufactured by Nicholson himself.

"Everything here tastes like it's supposed to," Nicholson said. "If it's chocolate, it tastes like chocolate." Chocolate, egg custard, strawberries and cream, and Dreamsicle are big sellers.

Dismissing the taste of ordinary snowcones as"watered down," Nicholson began experimenting with syrup flavors on the side four years ago as owner of a Subway shop in Fayetteville, N.C. When the business failed, he built his first snowball cart and approached a mall in Greensboro, N.C.

He has since opened eight more stores, carts and kiosks in Woodbridge, N.J., and several locations in Maryland. Nicholson hopes to add 20 additional stands in the Baltimore/Washington area in the next two years. He also has plans to market his unique flavors.

"I want to sell syrup to mom-and-pop stands," he said. "It helps get the name out, and improve the product line."

Originally, The Mall in Columbia turned down his request to open a snowshake kiosk because the Rouse Co. frowns on food carts in its malls. But after Nicholson's successful cart in the Woodbridge, N.J. mall, he got the green light for a cart at White Marsh Mall, and soon after a store in Columbia.

In April, he moved to the Kings Contrivance area with his two sons, and in June opened the store in the mall. His company is now based here.

"I wanted this store to be an example," he said. The store's design, with its shelves of brightly colored bottled syrups, is Nicholson's own. "It looks like a bar because people react to something different," he said. "They say, 'A bar? In the middle of the mall?' "

Nicholson's showmanship is another attention-getting technique. "It's not just for you," Nicholson said as he did a rope trick, "It's for the guy behind you who isn't a customeryet."

Nicholson coined the word "snowshake" because, "everyone thinks they know what a snowball is." He figured a different name wouldencourage people to try the product and discover the difference -- snowballs are icy and harder, while the snowshakes have a slushy consistency.

His desserts, Nicholson says, edge both yogurt and ice cream when it comes to calories and cost. A 10-ounce serving has 120 calories, about a third that of yogurt, and well below ice cream.

"Before TCBY started out, everyone had a perception of what yogurt was,"he said. "I'd like to do with snowballs what TCBY did for yogurt."

Nicholson charges $1.50 for the colorful shakes, $1.75 for chocolate or sugar-free flavors, compared to about $2.70 for a similar serving of premium ice cream and $2.40 for yogurt. He also offers three toppings for 35-cents extra -- marshmallow, light cream and whipped cream.

The shakes come with a spoon in a paper cup. They have no fat or cholesterol, he adds.

"It's a family oriented store, but adults are my biggest customers," he said.

On a peak week, Nicholson willsell 5,000 snowshakes and hot malt drinks. But surprisingly, it is not the hot summer months that produce the most snowshake business, but November and December, when holiday shoppers elbow their way up to the bar.

Nicholson says that investors have approached him, but hewill sell partnerships and franchises only to people who appear to be motivated and interested in hands-on management.

The intensive two-week training that goes with opening new locations includes teaching the operator to make snowshakes with style, as well as the scienceof working with ice.

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