With umbrellas and in bathing suits, in weather fair and foul, customers of all ages make their way to this popular Ellicott City ice cream stand

Soft serve - no hard sell


There is nothing like a cloudburst to stop the flow of traffic to an ice cream stand.

Yet there is something about the soft-serve ice cream at Soft Stuff in Ellicott City that will make devotees visit, rain or shine.

Customers disappeared from Soft Stuff's parking lot just after 4 p.m. Saturday as a torrent of rain arrived. Ripples of water formed a fast-moving stream across the parking lot. The servers had about five minutes to themselves before Miles Minear's sugar-fix got the best of him. He jogged up the wooden ramp in the rain and ordered two large vanilla cones with a cup of "wet walnuts" drizzled in maple syrup.

Every time he visits his brother he has to stop by - no matter what the weather is, he said.

"I've been known to have three [cones]," said Minear, who lives in Dover, Del. "I didn't feel so good after that."

Rain slows business at the wooden shack on U.S. 40, but the quiet doesn't last long, said Lauren Tutko, a supervisor.

"There will be thunderstorms, and people will be out there with umbrellas," Tutko said. "We have some true Soft Stuff lovers out there."

The number of customers who brave the rain puzzles and amuses co-owner Steve Weal.

"I have no idea why they'd come in the rain," he said. "I wouldn't, but I guess they need a fix."

As the rain was starting to subside, Nancy Gaither and Laurie Bader came up to the window with wet hair and their bathing suit straps peeking out from under their shirts. They had to leave the pool when it started raining, so they decided to get a cone.

"We thought, we're already wet so why not?" said Bader, who drove from Annapolis to Woodstock to visit Gaither.

The sun came out, but not for long. Drizzle became a steady rain, and soon it was as heavy as the previous downpour. The parking lot emptied again.

Emily Kay, 19, one of the servers, went into the back and started reading about genetics in her microbiology textbook. A nursing major at York College, she said she had to squeeze in a summer course so that her fall schedule would be less hectic.

"This job allowed me to have flexibility," she said. "It's convenient. It's close, and you're with your friends. And you can choose your hours. They make it easy."

Soon, all but one of the girls joined Kay in the back at a table behind the large stainless steel refrigerators. Nearly everyone on the shift had worked there for at least three summers. Soft Stuff tries to hire 16-year-olds and keep them until they graduate from high school. Many servers, including Kay and Alex Rohrback, return on college breaks.

Workers start at $6.25 an hour. They get 50-cent raises when the season starts April 1 and another raise July 1. The servers almost always return, they said, because it is a low-stress job and customers seem to be happy - even when they have to wait in long lines. The servers are allowed to eat ice cream during their shifts and can take home leftovers when the machines are emptied each night.

"People always ask if I get sick of it [ice cream]," said Beth Lueck, 16. "I can't get sick of it."

"I could eat it forever," said Colleen Yanson, 16.

The jobs have become sought-after among the servers' peers because the work is fun and the commute is short, said Tutko, who has worked at Soft Stuff for five summers. It is not uncommon for siblings to work together. Tutko's older brother, David, is a server, too.

The stand on U.S. 40 near Centennial Lane opened in 1984, the brainchild of Joan Weal. Her husband, Ed Weal, owns the Forest Motel next door. Joan Weal managed Soft Stuff with her two stepsons, Michael and Steve Weal. Four years ago, Joan Weal retired, and the sons bought her out.

When it is sunny, Soft Stuff is the kind of place where customers line up sometimes 30 deep. At its 10 p.m. closing time, servers have to go to the end of the line and turn new customers away.

The menu is simple. Soft Stuff has chocolate, vanilla and orange ice cream and rotates a flavor of the week. The flavors can be twisted together in cones or bowls and loaded with toppings, such as hot fudge, peanut butter sauce, butterscotch and cherries. They also can be mixed into milkshakes. Soft Stuff sells vanilla frozen yogurt and slushes in flavors such as watermelon, blue raspberry and lemon lime.

The latest rain seems to have stopped as quickly as it started. Ron Wombacher and Anthony Needam walk up to the window each with two daughters in tow.

Three of the girls got cones swirled high with layers of vanilla ice cream rolled in rainbow sprinkles. Alyssa Wombacher, 4, got a cone of orange and vanilla twist with sprinkles. It wasn't long before the sun began to melt her ice cream, sending orange streams of it running down her arm. Undeterred, she smashed the cone into her mouth, creating an even bigger mess.

"I have to run you guys through a car wash," said Anthony Needam, watching the other girls unsuccessfully manage their dripping cones.

"We've got ice cream everywhere," said 4-year-old Destiny Needam with a big grin.

About a dozen members of the Lloyd family made the trip to Ellicott City to celebrate Tom Lloyd's 83rd birthday. It's the same every year - a crab dinner and a trip to Soft Stuff.

Actually, it was Tom Lloyd's second time at Soft Stuff that week. He and his wife, Eva Mae, came three days earlier to celebrate on the official day. Eva Mae Lloyd got her favorite - a vanilla sundae with hot fudge.

The couple usually limit their Soft Stuff visits to once a month.

"If I wasn't on a diet, I'd come here every day," Eva Mae Lloyd said.

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