Soft Stuff tells a tale of sweet success

17 years of dishing up ice cream in Ellicott City

Small business

June 19, 2000|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

This is the 17th summer that the Weal family has been in the business of dishing out ice cream - the kind of Soft Stuff kids line up to eat.

And with the weather heating up and ice cream season kicking into high gear, children are lining up outside the Ellicott City shop, Soft Stuff.

"Everybody that lives around here knows about this place," Colleen Lavin, who just finished her freshman year at Mount Hebron High School, said after gulping down a root beer float on a recent evening.

Colleen and her junior varsity softball teammates, who typically gather at Soft Stuff on U.S. 40 after games, had gleefully ventured out under gray skies and drizzling rain for a taste.

"Everybody smiles when they come for ice cream - it's not like going to the dentist," Joan Weal said one morning, assembling the machine that oozes orange and vanilla Soft Stuff from April until the end of October.

The other five months of the year, Joan Weal and her husband, Ed, take refuge at their condo in Naples, Fla., recuperating from the jobs where they - literally - live during ice cream season.

The Weals' house is attached to Soft Stuff, sandwiched between the ice cream business and the Forest Motel. Mr. Weal owns the motel with his two sons, Michael and Steven.

The couple moved into the house in January 1984, when they were newlyweds. The move came after a year in Columbia and, before that, living in Delaware, where Mrs. Weal worked at DuPont Co. Mr. Weal was a retired regional sales manager for a trucking company, and "my husband, a born-raised-and-will-die-in-Maryland man, wanted to come home," Mrs. Weal recalled.

So they did, and they started an ice cream business here, even though all the couple knew about their product was how to eat it. But their business has since grown into a smooth operation.

"Whenever we're open, unless it's raining, it's kind of the place to go to for families, young people," said Michael Weal, chief of the District Court Division in the state's attorney's office in Howard County.

Michael Weal, who owns Soft Stuff with his brother, Steve, and his stepmother, Joan, and can sometimes be found filling cones there, would not disclose sales figures, but he estimated business has increased by at least 50 percent since the store opened in 1984.

And the Weals' ice cream knowledge has grown as well. With 20 teen-agers working part time for them, the Weals keep their shop open from noon until 9 p.m. on school nights and until 10 p.m. on weekends and summer nights.

Their product - especially the chocolate and vanilla twist cones - draws lines that snake down the driveway. Customers come from as far as Baltimore or as near as the adjacent motel for a lick of the summer treat. And the pair can swiftly manage the temperamental ice cream machines. "The machines are like princesses: very delicate," Mrs. Weal said. "And if something's not right, they blow a gasket."

Ice cream knowledge and hungry kids aside, the business depends on one other factor: the weather.

One of the Weals' routines is to keep a log of each day's weather. What they've found, Michael Weal said, is that it directly correlates with the day's business.

Although a handful of people lined up outside the store on a rainy afternoon last week, the 20 days of rain in April and May put a damper on their income, Michael Weal said. Last summer's drought had the opposite effect. "People were out in force," he said.

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