Four Score Years of Shubert’s Ice Cream in Chico
Eighty years ago this past spring, as Leonard Shubert drove the tree lined Esplanade in Chico, he knew he had found a home for himself and for his ice cream parlor. Shubert made a bold decision to leave frigid Montana, where his work as an insurance salesman had been upended by the Great Depression. His departure was buoyed by an alluring offer from a company selling ice cream-making machines and the company’s promise of a hefty supply of mix with the machine purchase.
But where to settle? Shubert wanted a sunnier climate, one that would favor his luck as the owner of an ice cream shop. Little did he know that eight decades later, that very shop would proudly remain in the same location on Chico’s 7th Street, east of Main Street, run by the fourth generation of his family, still a “scoop shop”—the title the ice cream industry confers on ice cream shops that produce their own homemade product on-site.
Enter the Subsequent Generations
The second generation of the family soon entered the business. In the early 1940s, Shubert, after getting the shop established, sent his nephew Charlie Pulliam a $100 bill and an invitation to join him in Chico. Charlie and his wife Crystal packed up their belongings and got on a train from Missouri headed for a new life in the west. Family lore has it that Grandma Crystal cried from Missouri to Colorado on that train ride, but they settled in Chico and raised the third generation to work in the business, their son Chuck Pulliam.
Before ten years were up, first generation Shubert and second generation Pulliam had added the chocolates that make Shubert’s Ice Cream and Candy a truly year-round venture. Leonard Shubert was known as a kind-hearted man, and when he heard that a chocolate shop on neighboring Main Street was going out of business, he approached the chocolatier with an offer of space in the ice cream shop, and the candy cases moved over. This arrangement worked for some time, and eventually Shubert took over the candy making as well.
Chuck Pulliam, along with his wife Kay, took charge of the shop next, the third generation in the dynasty still behind Shubert’s today. Throughout its eighty-year history, family members have done the bulk of the work making ice cream and chocolates, plus all the ordering, bookkeeping, marketing, and community relations behind those products. Fourth generation Nathan Pulliam and Kasey Pulliam-Reynolds, Chuck and Kay’s children, didn’t necessarily plan on going into the family business. Nathan kind of fell into it. As with many children in the family, he began working in the shop as a teen, and then, he said, “I got more and more responsibility over time, and the paychecks got bigger, and here I am.”
Kasey came into the business when her mother died unexpectedly. She had intended a life outside of Chico, in corporate America, where she headed after college. Her mother’s death brought her home to help her father, and her business skills enabled her to assume Kay’s bookkeeping and managerial tasks. Kasey’s husband Mike now manages the manufacturing and supply chain side.
Siblings Kasey and Nathan have since inherited Shubert’s. Family members still make the ice cream three times each week, and Nathan has become Shubert’s chocolatier. Recently, the fifth generation began to help, as Kasey and Mike’s daughter Jayme came on board after getting her marketing degree at Butte College and daughter Mati helps with special events and during the holidays. Cash is the other fifth generation family member; at age eleven, he is considering an array of options including a career as a video gamer or YouTube celebrity.
What has sustained Shubert’s through eighty years and four-going-on-five generations? Kasey Pulliam-Reynolds attributes their success to “doing things exactly the same way” as Leonard Shubert. She speaks with pride about “not evolving with the times,” by which she means, among other things, not jumping aboard bandwagons chasing fancy flavor trends.
“Doing things exactly the same way” seems true, with some caveats. Witness a recent customer, returning to the store after forty years and delightfully exclaiming, “It’s all exactly the same!” And second and third generation customers who return to the shop recount childhood memories of driving from the farm through Bidwell Park in the bed of their dad’s pick-up, headed for Shubert’s and ice cream.
Shubert’s still uses Leonard Shubert’s original ice cream machine and recipes, though it isn’t clear whether Shubert’s now-famous Chico Mint ice cream began with Leonard. Shubert’s chocolates, with big sales at Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter, still peak when ice cream sales slow. Recent years have seen the sales of chocolate buttercream Easter eggs climb up to 8,000 eggs. Leonard Shubert’s kind-heartedness has been expressed throughout generations of the family; exemplified by store anniversary and opening celebrations offering $2 scoops. Today, Nathan Pulliam continues making Grandpa Charlie’s pastel-colored white chocolate mints, a labor of love, literally hand-dropped one at a time with a funnel, then flattened with a wooden dowel.
Shubert’s still prides itself in using the best quality ingredients available and still buys local products whenever possible. Walnuts, almonds, butter, cream, and honey are a few of the ingredients that the scoop shop sources here in Butte County. Even when ingredients grow scarce, Shubert’s doesn’t compromise. In the early days, during World War II, butter and milk rationing limited supplies. Commercial users received rations of 70-80% of normal usage. Kasey Pulliam-Johnson reported that the family just stuck it out and waited their turn, never settling for any lesser quality ingredients.
Currently, a vanilla bean shortage has caused the price of vanilla to skyrocket. Shubert’s uses a triple-fold Bourbon vanilla. Triple-fold refers to the strength of the vanilla; vanilla sold for home baking is rated single-fold, while triple-fold is used commercially for a more intense flavor. Bourbon vanilla, in Shubert’s case sourced from Madagascar, is a variety of vanilla named after a former French island colony located in the Indian Ocean, Isle Bourbon (now the island of Reunion). Kasey recalls not too long ago paying $80 per gallon; now, the cost is $700 per gallon, and even so, scarcity leaves few suppliers.
Though Kasey shared that the number of scoop shops across the nation has steadily declined from about 7,500 in the 1980s to approximately 850 today, Shubert’s is thriving. So much so that a second location just opened in the Chico Mall. The family piloted the mall location with a pop-up shop at Christmas and found success with many new customers who don’t frequent downtown. The family also recognizes north Chico residents as underserved, and they talk of opening a store there, with perhaps all three locations served by a central ice cream- and candy-making facility.
Another new facet of the business is catering. A few years ago, a customer asked about having an anniversary party catered with ice cream. That event lured in a few guests at the party, who booked their own ice cream parties—and another arm of the business was born. There’s a second serendipitous element to the catering offshoot: Kasey had bought two mobile ice cream carts from the owners of Ben & Jerry’s when it went out of business. “When I bought them, I wasn’t even sure what I would use them for and they sat in storage for more than a year,” she said. Now the carts serve Shubert’s catered parties, and the catering calendar has events scheduled two years out.
Loyalty Begets Loyalty
The handmade treats made by Shubert’s have woven their way into Chico family life. Jim Matthews, a longtime Chicoan, has been a patron of Shubert’s since the early 1960s. He knew Grandpa Charlie and used to visit the back room of the store for slivers of chocolate while on his lunch break from his job on the corner of 7th Street and Broadway, just a block away from Shubert’s. Matthews said Shubert’s is a family tradition, and whenever the kids and grandkids come to town, they pay the shop a visit. “I like a cup of vanilla with all the fixings,” he said. Jim isn’t alone; according to the International Ice Cream Association, vanilla is the most popular flavor, chosen by twenty-nine percent of Americans. Another downtown business couple, Bob and Barbara Maloney, owners of Bird in Hand in Chico (who themselves just celebrated thirty-five years in business), come to Shubert’s for a milkshake whenever a big decision looms. Theirs is a tradition that began in 1971 when they were dating and deciding whether or not to get married. “Any big decision is better made over a milkshake,” Bob said.
Such is the loyalty that haa led to Shubert’s fourscore years, a loyalty that Shubert’s reciprocates. Tears gathered in Kasey’s eyes and her voice choked when she spoke of what the eightieth anniversary means to her. “It’s humbling,” she said. “I owe so much to my community for allowing us to have this amazing business for so many years.” She paused. “It’s an honor.”
Bonnie Chapman is fulfilling a lifelong aspiration to write in her new job as an empty-nester/freelance writer. She spends the rest of her time volunteering for Soroptimist International of Chico and for Girls on the Run of the Northstate. For fun, she enjoys spending time with her family, running the trails with her husband and planning adventurous trips as often as possible. Her favorite flavor of ice cream is…vanilla ;).