At first glance, a place like Sno Gourmet Shaved Ice might seem like a one-off gimmick. But its owner, George Rubio, has made it his life's work to build the store into what it is today.
While at the University of Texas in Austin, Rubio met a third-generation shaved ice maker from New Orleans. He was caught off guard by his product, which was unlike the crunchier snow cone he'd expected.
"I thought it was something I could bring to Dallas and Mexican-ize with my own natural flavors," he says.
So in 2004, Rubio and his sister opened a store off Greenville and Park Lane. But business was slow, and they were having trouble stirring up interest.
"It was in this weird, creepy little building," he says. "When we moved, people told us they'd heard of us but passed by after they saw that building."
While visiting Doc's Food Store next door, he noticed they had space available, so he subleased it and set up shop. He started out at the front, but as the store was remodeled he got pushed to the back corner of the store.
Each move set Rubio back a bit, and later customers would tell him they didn't know where he'd gone. Rubio spent six years in the convenience store, all the while saving up to someday put down money on his own place.
"I had to build up the business almost entirely through word-of-mouth," he says. "I couldn't even put up signs because it wasn't my store."
Rubio capitalized on the word-of-mouth traffic by crafting his signature natural syrup flavors. He came up with the idea after a cousin visited from Mexico and made a cucumber limeade with leftover syrup. Rubio ended up adding it to the menu, and the demand surprised him.
"They were a big hit," he says. "Originally I was just going to make a natural flavor of the week, but I had to start making them regular options."
When he was still small-time, Rubio would spend five hours making his natural syrups. Without an industrial blender, he had to run several kitchen blenders at a time to stock his shop.
The difference between Rubio's shaved ice and a snow cone is the texture. Large ice blocks are fed into a machine that looks like a medieval torture device and soft, powdery snow comes out.
"It's more like a snowball," he said. "It's all fluffy instead of crunchy, and it melts in your mouth."
A big reason people keep coming back, though, is Rubio's warm presence as an owner. Britney McDowell, a longtime regular, walked in and Rubio greeted her by name. He asked about her life and if she wanted the usual.
"He remembered my order the first time I came here," she says. "He really creates that small-town feeling, which is hard to find in a bigger city like Dallas."
In a few weeks, he'll be opening a second store in the Dallas Farmer's Market following the success of the first location. Rubio said the reason he initially got into the business was to work hard through the summer, then take winter off.
"When I started out, I definitely had to work hard all day, every day," he says. "But now that things have picked up, I think I'm going to finally get that vacation time this winter."
Sno Gourmet Shaved Ice, 7814 Meadow Road
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.