A snowball stand's success depends on two key things: hot weather and lots of hard work, say Baltimore-area purveyors of the summer treat.
Add those ingredients to the crushed ice and syrup concoction that has long been a regional favorite, and summertime entrepreneurs say they can make a decent living during the season's warmest weeks.
"A lot of people think it's easy to start it," said Margo Torsell, who along with family members runs a three-year-old stand on Liberty Road in Randallstown. "It's not easy. It takes time."
A snowball seller's typically low overhead costs are what make this a worthwhile business, stand owners say. Some stand owners estimate that it can cost between $10,000 and $15,000 to get started, depending on a stand's size and location. Smaller operations can cost much less.
It's a business many people try. The region is dotted with snowball-selling sheds in parking lots and along roadsides. Sometimes, snowballs are sold from folding tables set up outside a home, just like a homemade lemonade stand. Stands traditionally serve snowballs in one of two ways: with crushed or shaved ice.
Most stands are open from May through September. Stand owners with loyal followings often enjoy lines filled with customers who on hot, steamy days are looking to cool off by spending as little as $1 or so on a snowball. Some diehard fans spend more than $4 for larger sizes heaped with marshmallow. Southern Snow Manufacturing Inc., a snowball supply factory in Louisiana, estimates that it costs less than 16 cents to make a 12-ounce snowball.
Several business owners said they went into the business in part to have fun selling a summer treat they always enjoyed themselves. Most stand owners hire college and high school students to help, but many do much of the work themselves.
"I was looking for a low stress, low-overhead business," said Rodney Thompson, who opened a stand on Security Boulevard in Woodlawn seven years ago and a second one on Liberty Road in Milford Mill last year.
"It's hard work, but I love it when it's hustle-bustle like this," Thompson said last week after serving a crowd of his snowball customers.
Thompson said his main start-up expenses were the stand, rent and products, including ice, syrup, toppings, cups, paper products and an ice shaving machine. Thompson said starting costs can begin at $10,000, depending on what type of machine and the number of flavors a prospective stand owner buys. While manual ice shaving or crushing machines can cost a few hundred dollars, commercial electric machines can cost $1,000 to $4,000.
Although he does other work during the off-season, Thompson said snowball stand owners can turn a decent profit, especially considering the short work season. His stands typically are open four months a year during the spring and summer.
"You have to be totally dedicated to it," Thompson said. "When you are running this business, don't even plan anything else."
Richard Weiss, owner of Koldkiss snowball supply factory in Baltimore, said business can vary day to day, depending on the weather. He and several stand owners say fickle weather - such as last week's heavy rains - require them, like all businesses, to prepare for the slow times.
"You really have to set money aside for the rainy days because the rainy days do come," Thompson said.
But Baltimore summers rarely disappoint stand owners - the hot days are one reason why snowballs are so popular, they said. Torsell said she does the most business during late afternoon and evenings, after extreme heat subsides.
"Perfect snowball weather is in the 80s and humid," Thompson said.
The history of the Baltimore snowball dates back decades. During the Great Depression, it flourished as the "hard times sundae" because it was a cheap alternative to other desserts, according to Sun archives. Newspaper clippings tell of snowballs for a nickel in August 1940. And in 1955, a police magistrate ruled that snowball vendors needed a $301 license to operate (now, city snowball vendors need Health Department food permits that cost as much as $450).
But certain things haven't changed through time. Although varying versions of the snowball are sold in places such as New Orleans and Hawaii, the snowball - or "snoball" or snow cone as it's known at some stands - lives on in Baltimore as a distinct regional specialty.
The icy delicacy is served in a paper or plastic foam cup, often with marshmallow or ice cream and eaten with a plastic spoon. Syrup is used to flavor the shaved or crushed ice. From chocolate to egg custard to blood orange to Skylite, most stands have the same long list of traditional flavors. And several operations mix various combinations to market specialty flavors with names such as Sponge Bob and Terps.