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Swensen’s Ice Cream: Looking Back at a Neighborhood

by Susan Saperstein

In 1948 Earle Swensen opened his ice cream store on Hyde and Union Streets. Since then, more than 180 flavors have been created, Swensen's franchises have opened worldwide, and Swensen became a multimillionaire.

Earle Swensen, the son of a Norwegian brick mason, started making ice cream on a Navy troop ship in the South Pacific during World War II. He only had the ingredients for vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, but he said the sailors didn't care what flavor he made – they just wanted something cold in the hot climate. Back in San Francisco, he became a Deputy City Assessor. When a small store became vacant on Russian Hill, he started his empire with $750. Realizing he needed more capital, he borrowed an additional $5000. Swensen listened to his customers and started creating ice cream per their requests. He increased the butterfat content to 14%, which was unusual at that time. His reasoning was that many people smoked or had cocktails before dinner – they needed the extra butterfat to enjoy the flavor because their taste buds were not as sharp. He always had ice cream for dessert, and although vanilla was one of his favorite flavors, he personally created many new ones. He said that when he invented a new flavor, he would sometimes wake up his wife Nora Mae in the middle of the night because Adam’s Apple or Caramel Cashew was too exciting to keep to himself.

Marilyn Hemby Berger, who grew up on Green Street between Hyde and Larkin, told GuideLines that San Francisco has always been a city of ethnic neighborhoods, and this area was Italian. In the early 1950s the neighborhood had a small town feeling. Marilyn remembers that on every holiday, her grandmother would fill a plate with the food the family was eating for dinner and give it to the cable car drivers. On the return run, the drivers returned the empty plates.

According to Marilyn, whose older brother scooped ice cream at Swensen’s as a teenager, it was the first store that sold only ice cream. Before that people went to drug store soda fountains. Across the street from Swensen’s was the Searchlight Market, a mom-and-pop store that is still there. On the other corner one can still see on the transom the name of Home Drugs, now replaced by a gift and home furnishings store. The cable car ran down the street. She has fond memories of Halloween when Swensen gave out small children’s-sized cones with orange sherbet and chocolate ice cream. Other people remember it as pumpkin and licorice – but everyone agrees that it was Earle himself giving out the free cones.

Marilyn’s friend Pat Stone (they lived next door to each other) remembers Swensen as a very generous and kind man. “This was our favorite place, our hangout. There was a group of 15 to 20 kids from the block who would go to Swensen’s almost every day.” Pat also remembers Earle Swensen being at the store every day for long hours. Her favorite ice cream was pistachio with the cone dipped in chocolate. Marilyn loved the Sticky Chewy Chocolate. Both Marilyn and Pat remember that parking in the neighborhood was just as bad then as it is today. When we think back to the 1950s, we think it must have been easier to find a place to park, but Pat says no one had garages – this was before the houses were raised and garages added. Both women eventually moved to the suburbs – that is, the Sunset District.

Earle Swensen began franchising in the 1960s with the idea that each owner could operate his own store, and by 1976 he was grossing over $20 million a year. He sold the chain in the early 1980s but kept the original store. Swensen lived until the age of 83. The company has had several acquisitions, became a publicly owned inter-national company, and had some downturns due to competition from the rise of premium ice cream and yogurt brands in supermarkets. They added a line of low-fat frozen yogurts for the calorie conscious, but have kept flavors like Sticky Chewy Chocolate – still being scooped at the flagship store at Hyde and Union.

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, 4/2/73 and 10/22/76 Interviews with Marilyn Berger and Pat Stone

Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library

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People boarding a cable car on Hyde Street in 1949, around the time Earle Swensen opened his first shop.

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