Amid the afternoon rush, George Rubio zooms about behind the counter of his store. Between his tangle of curly brown hair and blazing yellow Brazil jersey, he stands out from his small army of high-school-age employees. "Are you ordering something? Our line's building," the cashier tells me while eyeing the swell of customers. There's no time for debating. Rubio and company are frenetically orchestrating a symphony of ice machines and syrup bottles and I need to choose a flavor, stat.
As syrups get sluiced over the tops of freshly-mounded ice shavings and orders are shouted from one employee to the next -- "small natural mango, large cotton candy" -- I inquire as to whether or not Rubio has time to sit down for an interview. It's not about the time, as it turns out, but the game. Rubio, small business owner and snowball-making extraordinaire, knows where his priorities lie. World Cup first, interviews second.
When he's finally able to sit, he tells me how his store, George Rubio's Snowballs, came to fruition. It all began during his time as an undergrad at the University of Texas.
"My roommate was always going out for snow cones with his girlfriend. Finally I went with them," Rubio says. But the contents of his Styrofoam cup that evening far surpassed his preconceived notions of what a snow cone could be. Instead of the pellet-like ice drowned in caustic, saccharine liquid of dubious origin that has plagued childhood summers for time immemorial, Rubio found soft ice shavings proportionally married with good-quality syrup. For Rubio, this was no novelty frozen treat. It was a revelation. "That snow cone really blew me away. It was crazy."
Rubio became a regular at the shop, peppering his orders with questions about startup costs, ice-makers and area suppliers. The family that ran the shop were third-generation snow cone makers from New Orleans (where they refer to snow cones as snowballs), and they were reticent to give Rubio the answers he was looking for. "So I had to develop a friendship with them," Rubio says.
For Rubio, that friendship eventually solidified into the realization that he could open his own shop after graduating. Rubio's half-shaved ideas earned him a reputation. "Everybody knew," Rubio says. "They'd say, 'Oh yeah, that guy wants to do snow cones.' It was one of those weird things. I guess I was weird for talking about it out loud."
Not without a practicality-streak, however, Rubio says he "decided to go the law school route, just in case the whole snow cone thing didn't pan out."
Law degree in tow, Rubio set up shop on Greenville Avenue with his sister. "Because of my student loans I couldn't get a small business loan. So I had to nickel and dime it for a long time." A brisk first year begot an abysmally slow second year. Rubio needed cheaper rent and fast, so when a storefront became available he packed up the ol' ice-shaver and hightailed it to a retail space which he would share with Doc's Food Store, a quickie-mart located off North Central Expressway.
"It was not ideal but it saved money. And I figured as long as I had a good product it didn't matter how sketchy the store was." As it turned out, Rubio was right: snowballs trump sketchy. Business doubled every year, he says, but Rubio was still struggling to keep up: "I hadn't bought shoes in six years. I told my one employee at the time that I wasn't going to be able to do it anymore. I said, 'I've got a law degree. I've got debt. Everybody's calling me crazy.'"
The employee encouraged Rubio to hold out for one more year, to which he reluctantly agreed. "And that was the year it really took off. And then the next year it got even bigger. And the year after that I got my own shop."
Rubio didn't move far -- his shop is next door to Doc's. Round, diner-style tables and red pleather chairs provide room for customers to sit and linger with their snowballs while a line crawls to the door. Word, it seems, has spread. And for good reason.
While Rubio offers a full array of traditional, artificial syrups for his patrons who are accustomed to sour grapes and blue coconuts, it is his selection of natural flavors that sets his snowballs apart. The first natural flavor Rubio introduced was cucumber-lime. The result of a botched syrup experiment and a creative cousin, cucumber-lime became so popular that Rubio decided to try making other natural flavors. His repertoire soon expanded to included pineapple, tamarind, mango, cantaloupe, (non-blue) coconut and blackberry, to name a few.
Each natural flavor tastes like its namesake fruit. Thanks to Jolly Rancher reimaginings of what watermelon tastes like, your tongue may be taken aback by the lightness of flavor of Rubio's watermelon snowball.
On the other end of the natural flavor spectrum is tamarind. Tamarind is a sour, pod-like fruit that enjoys a healthy rotation in South Asian and Mexican cuisines, but has yet to develop a following among most Westerners. Which is a shame: When combined with copious amounts of sugar, tamarind takes on notes of prune, Coca-Cola and cigars.
For the past decade, Rubio has labored to keep his business from, well, snowballing. He has forgone buying new shoes and withstood the scrutiny of family and friends in order to do so. He has commanded blocks of ice to surrender to the levers and cranks of ice-shaving machines and macerated fruits into the wee hours of the night, all because he wanted to bring the snowballs of Austin, by way of Mexico, to Dallas. Rubio continues to expand his business, too. He's currentl experimenting with frozen yogurt flavors including coconut and mango, which he intends to use to make "stuffed snowballs."
Think of it, Dallas: the promise of froyo tucked inside a snow cone. Surely this is one man's vision we can all get behind.
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