Frozen in Time
I was a kid growing up down the Peninsula, spending summers with my grandpa at the Bay Meadows racetrack, getting coached in how to bet a trifecta or where to find the three-fingered guy who seemed to know which fillies were running hot that day. Afterward, he'd take me to Swensen's for ice cream. I liked Rocky Road. We'd lick cones, closed up in grandpa's caramel-colored Caprice.
Earle Swensen opened his first ice cream shop on Russian Hill in 1948. By 1964, he began franchising his concept, five years after Richard Campana started working at the Hyde Street original. Swensen passed away in 1996, and Campana bought the shop nearly three years later, though the chain had transferred to a company with far deeper pockets. Nowadays it's owned by IFI, a franchising corporation based in Canada, near Toronto. President and CEO Aaron Serruya tells me the Swensen's name has faded in North America, where there are only 30 shops, but worldwide it's thriving, with a total of 410 spread mostly across Asia and South America. Go figure.
The Russian Hill original, meanwhile, is one of the few shops still run semi-independently (Campana still owns it), one of only 10 Swensen's worldwide allowed to make its ice cream onsite, using Earle Swensen's original recipes. "You're chocolate lovers there in San Francisco," Serruya says, and I imagine him poring over a spreadsheet of raw cone-sale data. "Huh," I say, thinking about that Rocky Road. "I guess we are."
In fact, it's two other chocolate flavors I'm drawn to these days.
Swiss orange chip has a cocoa base, tiny chips with the irregular shapes of playground bark, and a big old wallop of orange essence. It seems to tint the ice cream a shade like patina'd bronze, and though it's initially thrilling, the orange oil starts to feel hot in your sinuses. Swensen's best flavor? Sticky chewy chocolate, made with cocoa powder and what must be some particularly viscous chocolate syrup, tarry enough to yield a wonderfully stretchy body to the finished ice cream. It coats your tongue, is neither too sweet nor too bitter, and avoids the high-butterfat ponderousness of modern superpremiums — the perfect ice cream for the front seat of a Caprice, or the walk down Hyde Street, the crockery-rattle sound of the cable car mechanism in your ears.