The Family Business
One day, you’re just a 12 year old, behind the counter, explaining the flavor of mango to a stranger. Then one day you’re the owner of the store.
How's it like growing up in an ice cream store? For True Stories in Sound at Columbia Journalism School, I produced my first audio story exploring the Chinese-American identity, the love for food, and the family relationship.
[Zeyi Yang]: This is True Stories in Sound, I’m Zeyi Yang. Let’s play a game, one of those deceptively simple games. How can you describe the flavor of a mango?
[Customer 1]: Um, creamy…and…very yummy.
[Customer 2]: Oh my god. Um, delicious, tropical, slightly sour and sweet? Slightly perfumey? I don’t know. How do you describe that? I don’t know.
[Zeyi]: Not bad. It’s not that easy. In an online discussion about the taste of mango, the most thought-provoking explanation was: “A ripe mango tastes like a peach, if you subtract the taste of orange.” Well, I’m not sure my taste buds can do calculations like that, but it’s a nice try.
Those answers at the beginning came from two customers at an ice cream shop in downtown Manhattan. They loved the mango flavor, but they couldn’t really describe it, so I figured that maybe the person who produces the mango ice cream might do better.
[Christina Seid]: It’s fruity. It’s kind of… I think it’s just fruity.
[Zeyi]: OK, she tried. That’s Christina Seid, the owner of the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. While this mango thing might be only a game for us, it used to be Christina’s every day dilemma.
[Christina]: I even remember when I was a little girl and then gave them a sample of mango or green tea, they were like, what’s a mango? Dude, what’s a mango? Can you imagine someone saying that? Some people didn’t even know what green tea was. And then when you explain green tea, it’s like: It’s GREEN TEA. It’s ridiculous nowadays, right?
[Zeyi]: It is. These days, even if we can’t describe it so well, most people are familiar with the taste. This wasn’t true back in the 70s. But it was all about to change.
The first Haagen-Dazs store opened in Brooklyn in 1976. Two years later, the first Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont. And then:
[Christina]: My father opened the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in the late 70s, 1978. The first flavors in the ice cream shop were still kind of basic, like vanilla, chocolate, strawberry.
[Zeyi]: But Christina’s father Philip soon decided to move beyond the classics.
[Christina]: My father started incorporating things like green tea, mango, red bean…because he lived in the neighborhood and you know how Chinese people are like, “oh, you don’t want chocolate. It’s too sweet.” It’s just not traditionally like part of our palate.
[Zeyi]: Yeah, I know. Even today, when my Chinese friends come to visit me in New York, we are always looking for Asian dessert places because we just don’t understand, why do we need so much sweetness? And that’s probably what Christina’s father was thinking 40 years ago, when he became the first…
[Christina]: I’m not gonna say the first, but among the first
[Zeyi]: Okay, among the first adventurers to introduce these Asian flavors to America.
[Christina]: But this is before Snapple made their line. This is before Arizona.
[Zeyi]: She means the ice tea companies, which are now ubiquitous. And it isn’t just tea that has incorporated Asian flavors…
[Christina]: I think, a lot of times when these big companies made their version of it, people just think, oh it has always been an American thing. Like, it’s Cup O’Noodles, or something.
[Zeyi]: But it’s not. Christina was there to witness mango and green tea gradually becoming popular. She was born 5 years after the store opened and started to help with her family business when she was still young.
[Christina]: I think I really started being helping out at the shop maybe around 12, because I can scoop, like I’m tall enough. Back then, my family didn’t have as much money to, like, hire help. Sometimes it’s just my dad and one person working up front.
[Zeyi]: What Christina did at the time was not considered serious work. It was just a daughter’s duty of helping her parents. What’s more, the parents never wanted any of their kids to consider this a real job.
[Christina]: Um, it was always our goal to be like a professional, you know. Like we’re Asian, so it’s either a lawyer, doctor… You know that joke, right?
[Zeyi]: Of course, I know. There are only four career choices for Asian kids like me. Lawyer, doctor, engineer, or a disgrace to the family. I know it because a journalist falls into the fourth category.
[Christina]: Family businesses. You just do it and then you put your kids through college and then next generation does better. That was a hierarchy. That’s just how things are supposed to go.
[Zeyi]: It sounds like such a typical or even stereotypical Asian American story. But in fact, it didn’t happen.
Their ice cream business was getting much better over time. So good that Christina had to spend every minute not in school to help in the store.
[Christina]: I was able to go away to college but it was like, no negotiating, like during the holidays, during summer, you have to work at the store because that’s like high seasons. Then when I did grad school for teaching, which teaching has weekends off and summers off, so it’s nicer offs, perfect for ice cream.
[Zeyi]: But there finally came the moment when Christina had to make a choice.
[Christina]: I can’t give up the family job, either you have two jobs or you have one job. I mean, I love teaching, but it’s not, it’s hard to love anything where you’re not sleeping or you can’t be focused. And I just wanted to just jump into the family business, like a hundred percent.
[Zeyi]: And that’s when Christina drifted away from the typical trajectory that her parents had planned for her. She started to take over the ice cream store.
[Christina]: I don’t wanna say take over, because I don’t wanna feel like I’m leaving my dad out.
[Zeyi]: Right, it’s more like they were operating the business together. Christina began to make more executive decisions, like the choice of what new Asian flavors should they add to the ice cream store. Mango and Green Tea are not exotic to New Yorkers anymore. They need something more appealing like Durian. Meanwhile, her father Philip still came to the shop to supervise the ice cream production.
Their business is expanding. They are hiring more staff. And that’s not the only change. New York City’s biggest Chinatown isn’t in Lower Manhattan anymore — it’s out in Flushing. And that’s where, last December, they opened a second location. But even as they expand, it’s still a family business, with an emphasis on the word “family.”
[Crystal Kong]: Sometimes Phil still drives Christina to work, which I think is kind of cute.
[Zeyi]: That’s Crystal Kong, the 23-year-old store manager of the new Flushing location.
[Crystal]: And then she’s always like: Thanks dad, love you, see you later. It’s kind of like you don’t even realize that they’re that much older than like me, but they still have like that, you know, young kind of childhood bond. I wish that was my dad.
[Zeyi]: Crystal has been working at the Flushing location since it opened.
[Crystal]: Contrary to belief, scooping ice cream isn’t that easy. I’ve trained some people that for some reason, don’t know how to scoop ice cream.
[Zeyi]: But Crystal… She isn’t bragging, but she’s a natural.
[Crystal]: Like I knew how to make the milk shakes. I could do cakes, I could do scooping. So, I kind of was destined to be an ice cream scooper, a scoopologist, that’s what we call it here.
[Zeyi]: A scoopologist. She had the right experience too. She used to work in a Haagen Daz and a Hershey’s ice cream store. But when she met Christina a couple of years ago,
[Crystal]: I was kind of fangirling on the inside. I was super nervous. I was like: oh my gosh, she’s the one that makes the ice cream. I’m so excited.
[Zeyi]: The excitement shows.
The new store is full of goodwill and friendly vibes. It’s the atmosphere that Christina and her father have created since it was still a small mom-and-pop shop. Over forty years, it stays the same, just like how Philip’s look stays the same too.
[Christina]: People think he’s like my brother and I’m like that could go both ways because he’s like seventy and I’m like forty, so clearly that’s not possible. So either I look really old or he looks really young or a combination of both. But I think I look alright.
[Zeyi]: Although Philip is gradually stepping away from the day-to-day management of Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, everything in the store reminds Christina of how her father used to run this place. That’s exactly what she wants.
[Christina]: I think even though I’m like almost forty years old that I still think I’m like, your dad is always your dad and you just want to make your parents happy, as cheesy as it sounds, because now like when I’m like with my daughter. Daughter’s like six and I have a two-year-old. They look up to you. They want to make you proud. That feeling never really goes away even when you get older.
[Zeyi]: And, you don’t need to be a doctor or a lawyer to make your parents proud. You can also become a Scoopologist.
Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.