Snowball Fight

In a cold war of one-upmanship, Opie's and Tastee Zone battle for the hearts and appetites of all of Catonsville.

September 07, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

On the night seven years ago that Mark Waddell was first presented to the congregation at Catonsville United Methodist Church, a few members took their new pastor out to Tastee Zone for snowballs and ice cream.

Tastee Zone has a fiercely loyal following, so it was not surprising to find Waddell and his daughter, Haley, there again last week, enjoying a caramel sundae. "The caramel here tastes like caramel," he says. "The caramel at Opie's tastes like butterscotch."

In Catonsville, a town divided by snowball stands, there are two kinds of people: Opie's people and Tastee Zone people, and Waddell has just identified himself as one of the latter. Shortly after doing so, he wonders if that was wise.

"This is not in any way an official endorsement," he cautions, caramel dripping from his plastic spoon. "All the Opie's people will stop coming to church because I endorsed Tastee Zone!"

To an outsider, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two snowball stands. Both put the word stand to shame. They're snowball palaces, offering ice cream and milkshakes and snowballs done every way you can imagine. Both have decks and picnic tables and friendly teenage girls behind the counter.

And both are on the same block of Edmondson Avenue, separated only by an Italian deli and a 7-Eleven (neutral, Switzerland-like).

Yet locals offer all sorts of distinctions. Tastee Zone has a better orange snowball. Opie's has better ice. Tastee Zone has more flavors. Opie's has better prices. Tastee Zone has a deck with benches. Opie's has lots of picnic tables and grass.

And now, Opie's and Tastee Zone are engaged in a snowball arms race of sorts, each adding improvements that pressure the other to match. Last year, Opie's upgraded from a side-of-the-road shack to a 300-square foot building with picnic tables and swings. So Tastee Zone added its own picnic tables.

It's a war of words, as well.

"The customers tell us we're a little friendlier, and the service and the quality is better," says Beth Jester, who works at Tastee Zone.

But ask John Corbitt, the owner of Opie's, why people like his stand and he says, "It's the personality and the service. It's very different, from what I hear, at Tastee Zone. That's our edge."

Corbitt opened Opie's 20 years ago this summer to help pay his college bills. (As a kid, he looked like Opie from The Andy Griffith Show. Now he's 42 and looks like Ron Howard.) Corbitt ran the stand himself for three summers before hiring some help. He still owns the stand, and the land, but he hires a manager to run it for him.

For the last few years, that manager has been Jenn Centineo, who celebrated her 21st birthday last week and orchestrated last year's move from the small shack to the larger building. The move allowed Opie's to offer ice cream products for the first time, closing off a significant advantage previously enjoyed by Tastee Zone. Centineo sets the prices, as well, and has kept them low.

A small snowball is 75 cents (tax included) and a small soft ice cream cone is $1.30 - both about a quarter cheaper than similar products at Tastee Zone.

"You go up there, it's really expensive," Centineo says.

Tastee Zone first opened in 1990 and was owned by a string of people until 1999, when it was taken over by Kavern Snow Syrup, a company run by Kathy McLane and Vernon Geis. The two friends (who merged their first names to get Kavern) opened their first snowball stand in Pasadena in 1992.

"We started out with 10 flavors and a sleeve of cups, and it's just snowballed from there," says Geis, 56. (There is no humor like snowball humor.)

He and McLane, 41, eventually took over a friend's syrup operation and now distribute to more than 200 snowball stands across the country. They make about 3,000 gallons of syrup each week during the height of snowball season, using about 10,000 pounds of sugar.

They also own four snowball stands - their original stand in Pasadena, Tastee Zone in Catonsville, plus another in Catonsville and one in Glen Burnie. When they bought Tastee Zone, they knew of Opie's nearby, but at the time it was just a small snowball-only stand, and they didn't consider it competition.

Then they saw the new building going up.

"When we drove by in March of last year, I was like, `I wonder what they're building," McLane says. "Then our landlord told us, and I thought, OK, we got a problem."

Aword now about snowballs. We begin, as always, with the Roman Empire. Legend has it that Roman Emperor Nero sent his slaves up to the mountains during the summer to bring back snow. He then flavored it with honey and fruit, and thus was born the first snowball.

Fast forward about 1,900 years to Baltimore in the early 20th century. Snowballs were served in the early part of the century on butcher's paper at small grocery stores. The trick was to fold the paper so the snowball didn't spill while you ate it. The ice was shaved from a block by hand in those days.

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