Sno-Ball Effect

The fifth Starbucks site in Towson was once home to summer crowds, sticky fingers and a teen-age entrepreneur.

April 14, 2004|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

Long before there was a drive-thru Starbucks under construction at the corner of York Road and Burke Avenue in Towson, another business boomed there, a business as ubiquitous in Baltimore as Starbucks is in America.

What Starbucks is to roasted coffee beans, 22-year-old Kate Weller was to sno-balls.

Just as Starbucks transformed a coffee shop into a corporation, Kate turned a summer job into one that earned enough money to buy her a Jeep and help pay for college.

Starbucks may have its muscle and merchandise, it may open a new store at the rate of about 3 1/2 a day worldwide - it may even be able to fix a cup of coffee 19,000 different ways - but Kate had something the Seattle-based giant will never have on that corner.

She had a sno-ball flavor called Death by Chocolate.

She had a special flavor every day, many inspired by her father, a dentist, at the supper table the night before.

She had 15 teen-age employees at the height of her business - and a summer crush on one.

What Kate's Sno-Ball stand had that the new Starbucks will never have is a hometown story.

And it goes something like this:

Once, there was a little girl who sold lemonade.

Why did she sell lemonade?

To make money, of course.

No one - not Kate's mom, Terri; her dad, Jim; her big brother, David; or her little sister, Caroline - can remember where Kate, who was 5 or 6 then, got the idea.

Nor can anyone remember why she dumped the lemonade one day and converted the operation to sno-balls.

All three kids grew up in the house where the parents still live in Stoneleigh. What they all remember is the stream of kids walking by their house on the way to the community pool.

It didn't take Kate long to put supply and demand together.

Just as Starbucks started small, with one shop in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1971, Kate started small, with a single Snoopy ice shaver in her back yard.

In the early days of her business, Kate did not keep regular hours. Sometimes she left a note on the door telling potential customers to ring the cow bell for service.

Around the same time, on the other side of the country, Starbucks was beginning to aggressively expand. By 1988, it had 33 locations. A year later, 55. Two years after that, Starbucks opened its first store in Los Angeles, and the number of locations grew to 116.

A few summers later, in 1993, Kate finally took her garden cart and moved her business up Hatherleigh to heavily traveled York Road. It was a bold venture. She had only two flavors when she hung her shingle on the sidewalk in front of a video rental store, but cherry and grape would serve her well.

Starbucks might never have expanded so rapidly had its marketing director not traveled to Milan in the early 1980s and been inspired by the espresso bar culture there.

Kate might never have moved from her yard had she not received a larger ice shaver for her 10th birthday.

"The Hawaiian crank shaver," she recalls. "You plugged it in and put ice in the spout and shaved ice would come out the bottom. This was like heaven to me. I loved it so much. It was the coolest birthday ever."

A grown-up had to go with Kate to stand on a chair and plug in her machine outside the store, but she bought the ice herself when she ran low, and if she needed to make change, it was up to her to dart inside the video store and ask the owners.

"One day I remember making like $50, and I thought, `This is so great.'"

By the time Kate was 12, she had saved a few hundred dollars and come to a turning point. She faced a question every successful entrepreneur encounters: Grow the business or stay the same?

It was a decision that would change the course of many summers to come.

"Looking back, it's pretty unbelievable," she says. "I was very together. It's shocking."

Kate talked to her mom, who taught nursing at Towson University and at Villa Julie and three years ago opened Chesapeake Medical Staffing. Then the two of them went to see Kate's dad who, by virtue of his solo dental practice, knows a thing or two about business.

Kate had the desire to increase her market share. Her parents approved her expansion plan, and her grandmother became her first backer, buying a commercial ice shaver and a shed from Home Depot. Kate's dad cut out the window and added the white picket fence, Kate's mom donated the flower pots and window boxes, and a friend of Kate's brother was from a family of sign makers who cut her a deal on a sign that said simply "Kate's Sno-Balls."

Kate learned that what business developers say about location is true. She scouted Towson until she found the Rodgers Forge United Methodist Church parking lot on the corner of Stevenson Lane and Bellona Avenue. The family hauled the shed there, plugged in a radio, hung Christmas lights, set out a few tables and umbrellas, and like bees to sno-ball syrup, the customers came.

They came with strollers and gaggles of children. They came steadily every night from 5:30 to 8:30. Whole ball teams came tumbling out of mini-vans.

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