How an ice cream cone has nourished a Chicago family for three generations and 90 years of business.
Opening an ice cream store in Chicago is not for the faint of heart. Factor in a mostly deserted neighborhood and the Great Depression, and the idea of selling ice cream under these circumstances looks utterly harebrained. Yet that’s exactly what the Sapp family did in 1926 when they started Original Rainbow Cone, and their signature treat — five flavors arranged in diagonal slabs — has come to symbolize spring and summer for generations of Chicagoans who grew up on the city’s south side.
Lynn Sapp, the granddaughter of the founders, runs Rainbow Cone today and has ambitions of taking the business national, while staying mindful of her predecessors’ legacy of frugality and resourcefulness that has kept the seasonal business going for 90 years.
You wouldn’t think orange sherbet, pistachio, Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts), strawberry and chocolate would all go together, but it’s fantastic. When I visited Rainbow Cone on opening day, I inhaled mine and almost went back for a second one. I wouldn’t have been alone, either. There were people eating rainbow cones in line, waiting to buy more.
WAILIN: There are many ways to mark the beginning of spring in Chicago. There’s the day when Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers report for spring training. There’s the day when the heat lamps on the city’s elevated train platforms turn off. And there’s the day when Original Rainbow Cone opens its doors.
(Sound of crowd)
WAILIN: It’s grand re-opening day at Rainbow Cone and at least 50 people have lined up outside the shop’s distinctive pink building on Chicago’s south side, bundled up in winter coats and hats and gloves. It’s an overcast day, with temperatures in the upper 30s, and there’s still patches of snow on the ground.
CUSTOMER: Crazy (laughs). I feel crazy. But hopefully it’s worth it!
Everyone here is waiting for their first Rainbow Cone of the year. And what exactly is a rainbow cone?
CUSTOMER: Orange sherbet
CUSTOMER: Palmer House
WAILIN: Starting from the top: orange sherbet as a palate cleanser, pistachio, Palmer House, which is vanilla with cherries and walnuts, finished off with strawberry and then chocolate at the very bottom. Five flavors, sliced instead of scooped, and arranged at a slight diagonal, with the chocolate just peeking out of the cone and the orange sherbet in an almost vertical slab down the back. Joseph Sapp invented the rainbow cone in 1926, when he and his wife, Katherine, opened their ice cream parlor in a part of Chicago that was still farmland and apple orchards. Today, Joseph and Katherine’s granddaughter, Lynn Sapp, owns the business. This year marks her thirtieth at the head of Rainbow Cone, and she starts every season by remembering the previous two generations of Sapps.
LYNN: I always say a prayer, thank you Grandpa, Katherine and Joe, Mom and Dad, thank you for everything that you’ve given me. I do, I’m very grateful because it’s an honor to do this. You pass it down and you’re part of the thing and you’re up on the counter saying hi to people, “Oh my God, good to see you this year,” and you create a lot of family and friends that way, so people know who you are.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show: The story of how an ice cream cone has sustained three generations of a Chicago family. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp 3. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.
LYNN: They got the money to buy the land that the present building is on and then they got the money to build one story of it. Now, imagine opening a business where there’s no loans, no nothing. Everything is cash…
WAILIN: The 9200 block of South Western Avenue was an unlikely place to open an ice cream parlor, or any kind of business, in 1926. Today, Western Avenue is the longest continuous street in Chicago and thick with traffic for its 24 miles. But ninety years ago, the stretch of Western where the Sapps opened Rainbow Cone was just a dirt road, with nothing around except a few cemeteries. The Sapps believed their store would draw families visiting the cemeteries on Sundays, and they were right. But then the economy collapsed.
LYNN: You open in 1926 and you head right into a Depression. Our original prices were 12 cents for a cone. Well, when you think dinner was a dime for a whole plate of food, 12 cents was a lot. Five cents for a small Rainbow was a lot. So it had to be good. They had to feed you, so that’s why our ice cream is fresh fruit and nuts.
WAILIN: Running Rainbow Cone through the Depression left an imprint on the Sapp family and the business that’s still felt today. Joe and Katherine Sapp had to make sure their product represented more than just an indulgence, that it could fill you up and be worth the 12 cents you might have spent on something else. The Sapps also learned to stretch every dollar. They broke down the cardboard boxes that the cones came in to use as floor coverings and cleaned the windows with newspapers. Katherine Sapp washed everything with Borax powder and vinegar. And the store used the same big freezer, made from oak and metal and batted cotton, for 60 years, until the bottom finally fell out.
LYNN: My grandmother was a very tough woman. She was a very smart woman and Joe, my grandpa, created the cone and Katherine was the vehicle behind making sure every penny was used wisely. Just the other day, I was cleaning and found what they call cardboard sheets that my grandpa’s Sunday dress shirt used to come in for cleaning, and they used to take that piece of cardboard that the whole shirt was folded around and then she would write everybody’s hours, their phone numbers—all of the business was done on a single piece of cardboard that came in my grandpa’s Sunday shirt from the cleaners and that was her records and that’s how she paid people and there was no, no waste. They didn’t have it, you know. There was no waste and even when it got, you know, things were better, there was no waste, because that was a sin, to waste food, to waste anything.
WAILIN: As the economy improved, Rainbow Cone became a gathering place for the neighborhood and a place to escape the summer heat in the days before air conditioning. During World War 2, the Sapps posted casualty lists in the back window, and Lynn’s grandfather installed a radio so people could hang out and listen to the news. But only during the warm months. This was Chicago, after all, and it didn’t make sense to stay open in the winter. Lynn’s predecessors had second jobs — her grandfather was a Buick mechanic and her father, Robert, was a building engineer for the Chicago Public School system. After she bought the business in 1986, she expanded Rainbow Cone to venues like the Taste of Chicago, an annual outdoor food festival that draws over a million people a year. But the ice cream parlor is still a seasonal business, and as with previous generations of Sapps, Lynn faces the pressure of making enough money in the summer to cover maintenance of a 90-year-old building and other expenses during the rest of the year.
LYNN: I’ve made it into a full-time job and just like expanding the product, having other people use it, doing different events, trying to maximize the warm months here and get as much money as we can to pay our bills in the winter. So we store everything we can, you know. Everybody’s like oh, you do so well at Taste, you do so well, all that goes in the vault and is you know, used for November, December, January, February, March when it’s, you know, 20 below and you can’t get in here because the snow is so high.
WAILIN: Lynn is the youngest of four children and grew up in the store, hanging out in a playpen in the back with her grandparents. Her grandpa Joe used to make tiny rainbow cones for her and her dolls, but she only wanted chocolate ice cream for the first nine or so years of her life. As she grew up, she and her siblings put themselves through college by working at Rainbow Cone. But it was never assumed that Lynn would simply inherit the business from her parents. She had to come up with the money to buy it.
LYNN: I had a teaching degree and I was teaching up north, and the roof fell in and the damage was so extensive that my dad was overwhelmed and at this point, he was getting older. That’s when I stepped in and said well, if you want me to clean it up, then I want to buy it, and that’s how we started the negotiation and that’s how I purchased the company.
WAILIN: Lynn started making changes that brought Rainbow Cone out of its comfort zone. She got a van and took the ice cream to festivals around the city to introduce it to people who’d never visited the store. She got rid of the white nurses dresses that was the uniform for female employees, and replaced them with t-shirts. She introduced new flavors like butter pecan, cookies and cream and mint flake, and packaged the five rainbow flavors in pints and quarts for customers to take home. But even as Lynn grew the business, she was mindful of her family’s legacy of frugality and resourcefulness. That’s how she started selling rainbow ice cream cakes.
LYNN: When I bought the store from my dad, I didn’t have any money, so I was invited to all of these birthday parties, anniversary, you know, christenings, you know. Well, I had no money. I had to look at what I had, so I literally made the bottom of the cake, put some ice cream on it. I used to make my own buttercream by hand back then. I do not now (laughs). Now it’s whipped topping product, but that’s how I started, and I’d bring the cake to the party and that was my gift because that’s all I had, so it worked, so it was good.
WAILIN: As Lynn kicks off Rainbow Cone’s ninetieth year, she’s looking at national expansion and franchising opportunities. This is a huge deal for a business that has spent almost a century in a single neighborhood location, despite getting requests from the Chicago diaspora to bring Rainbow Cone to other states. She’s tested the waters a bit by licensing Rainbow Cone to a chain of ice cream stores in the southwest Chicago suburbs, where she personally trained the workers in how to serve it, and she feels like now, the business’s ninetieth year, is finally the right time to introduce her Grandpa Joe’s creation to a bigger audience.
LYNN: People say, you know, you should have expanded years ago, why aren’t you expanding? Because it’s a very unique and special ice cream cone, and I guard it very carefully because I want it done right. The other thing you’re guarding is people’s memories, and it’s memories of the product for 90 years and that, you know, person that walks up to the counter has to have a positive experience because they’re remembering their childhood when their grandma and grandpa bought them, they’re bringing their kids, so it’s not just my rainbow cone, it’s their rainbow cone too. That’s people’s memories, you know, and am I controlling about it? You bet ya! That’s why we’re still here for 90 years.
WAILIN: The nostalgia is strong for Chicagoans like Bridget Powell, who along with her parents was first in line for the grand re-opening.
BRIDGET: They used to ride us up here on the back of the bikes when we weren’t big enough to ride our own, and then we’d ride up here together as a family and get Rainbow Cone several times in the summer. It was something to do together as a family, get ice cream, you know. It was a nice tradition.
WAILIN: On a cold, windy day like this, summer in Chicago can feel like a distant memory or a mass hallucination dreamt up by a population with cabin fever. The re-opening of Rainbow Cone is a reassuring sign that warm weather will be here soon, and taking that first lick of the rainbow is celebratory and nostalgic all at once. Just ask Bridget and her father, Timothy.
BRIDGET: You know what? It’s the best damn ice cream I’ve ever had. I won’t deny that.
TIMOTHY: It’s as good as it ever was.
WAILIN: The Rainbow Cone ice cream has always been made off-site by other companies following the Sapp family recipes. The business has been around for long enough to outlast suppliers and see dramatic price increases in certain ingredients, like nuts. When the costs of running the store go up, Lynn can’t just jack up the price of a rainbow cone. She has to find savings elsewhere. This year, because of an increase in the minimum wage in Chicago, she’s hiring seven to 10 fewer employees — a tough decision for a business that’s always prided itself on giving local high school students their first job. On the revenue side, the store’s big challenge is weather. The only seating at Rainbow Cone is a cluster of picnic tables in the back yard. So if it’s rainy or unseasonably cool, customers stay away.
LYNN: If you’re making a buck today in the food business, I say God bless you because you don’t understand what you have to go through to keep that dollar. For us it’s the maintenance of the building, it’s the maintenance of equipment, it’s, you know it’s paying the city’s fees, all measured in how many cones do I have to scoop to pay for this, that’s true, what am I slicing today? (Laughs)
WAILIN: But Rainbow Cone is nothing if not steeped in a Depression-era legacy of resourcefulness and sticking to it. Lynn says her grandpa Joe was all about quality product, cleanliness and good service. When she gets bogged down in the minutiae of running the business, she thinks back to when it was just her grandparents and a little shack on a dirt road, serving 12-cent cones to families dressed in their Sunday best.
LYNN: It’s not just Original Rainbow Cone owned by the Sapp family, it’s Original Rainbow Cone owned by the Chicagoans who have come here for generations. I mean, 90 years says a lot about a business, so it’s just staying with the basics that even I have to admit, I’ve gotten sidetracked from. With all of the, we have registers now with POS systems that can tell me per ounce, you just have to stay with the basics. And every time I’m like rechanneling Katherine and Joe, saying okay, we have to have the best product we can have, greatest ingredients, we have to have cleanliness here, and then we have to serve it with a smile and make sure we keep doing that. It’s not easy, but you just gotta keep doing it.
WAILIN: Ninety years later, it’s still about the basics: orange sherbet, pistachio, Palmer House, strawberry and chocolate. It’s the taste of childhood summers for generations of Chicagoans who grew up on the city’s south side, and Lynn understands her role in preserving that important, ineffable link between taste and memory.
LYNN: As the world gets crazier, people want relief. People want a little bite of it’s gonna be okay, and that’s an Original Rainbow Cone for 90 years, it’s been telling people, this is a great fruit and nut ice cream, it’s sliced, it’s not scooped, it’s completely different, and it’s gonna make everything okay. So (laughs) that’s where we’re at.
The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to sdlavergne and Da Chipsta for your recent five star ratings on iTunes. We would love it if you could leave us a review on iTunes too. You can also sign up for our newsletter and find links to episode transcripts at thedistance.com. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.