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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Off the street: Family-run shaved-ice truck to open store

<p dir="ltr">Linda Smith hands Kalani Breen, 11, a shaved ice cup in exchange for $3.50. Breen ordered a cherry-and-cotton-candy shaved ice with marshmallow topping, one of Charlie's sweeter dessert options.</p>

Linda Smith hands Kalani Breen, 11, a shaved ice cup in exchange for $3.50. Breen ordered a cherry-and-cotton-candy shaved ice with marshmallow topping, one of Charlie's sweeter dessert options.

The hum of a generator isn’t loud enough to drown out the sound of snowball fights on summer days at a Save-A-Lot parking lot in Gainesville.

Linda Smith keeps the balls of homemade shaved ice lined up by the serving window inside Charlie’s Snow Shack food truck, just in case any new customers need to cool off.

Her son, Charlie Smith, owns the business, but Linda is the face of the shack. Customers call her “Momma,” and she considers them friends.

When Charlie started the small stand five years ago, the two would take turns spinning handmade signs on the corner of Northwest 13th Street to attract customers.

Charlie Smith, a Santa Fe College graduate, said he and his mom vowed in the summer heat of a strip mall parking lot to open a store that sold shaved ice to Gainesville year-round.

“That was in April of 2012,” Charlie Smith said. “Our goal was that by year five, we would have a location. We open one at the end of the month, so I guess we’re here.

***

From 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Linda Smith moves about the bright orange truck, stationed in the parking lot of multiple retail stores at 2649 NW 13th St.

From inside a large, white cooler, she grabs round blocks of ice and places them into a green machine.

As a foot pedal below turns the blocks to slivers, Linda rotates plastic foam cups beneath the freezing flow. An ex-bartender, she flips the bottles upside-down with ease, filling the cups with flavor and color.

“People think it’s so easy to shave the ice but it’s not,” she said. “We make our own ice, we make our own sugar water — we’re the only ones that do marshmallow and condensed milk. We have regular customers that have been following us from day one.”

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From left to right, Malachi Breen, 12, and Kalani Breen, 11, order two shaved ices from Linda Smith at the truck window. Smith said her busiest hours are from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., when Alachua County schools get out for the day.

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Kandis Patrick, a housing manager at Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, said she fell in love with the shack’s sweet treats from the first time she tried one.

Now she visits at least four days a week, she said.

“I remember the first time I went,” Patrick said. “I was walking into one of the stores and Miss Linda told me to come on over and try them out. I got one taste and I’ve been going ever since.”

Long, frustrating days at the hospital are eased by the Smiths’ hospitality — and wedding-cake flavored shaved ice with condensed milk, she said.

“No matter how busy they are, the minute she sees me it’s always, ‘Hey, Kandis,’ and my snow cone is half-done.” Patrick said. “I’ll follow them wherever they go.”

***

Every morning, Smith follows his instincts.

From his home in Jacksonville to Gainesville, he commutes 2 hours to help run the business.

It was in Jacksonville about eight years ago that he first saw a shaved-ice stand, he said.

Always an entrepreneur, he said after traveling and serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for five years, he dabbled in different businesses until he found the idea he wanted to grow.

“I thought, ‘Man, what a great idea,’” Smith said. “So I decided if I saved up some money that’s the next business venture that I want to start.”

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Linda Smith squirts the "Blue Hawaiian" flavor onto a cup of shaved ice. All of the flavors are homemade from concentrates and sugar water, and many have influences from the beaches of Hawaii that Charlie visits once a year.

After moving to Gainesville and attending Santa Fe College from 2008 to 2012, he soon realized the college town was a prime market for opening a stand of his own.

And so once he saved up the $9,000 he needed, he bought his first truck.

His wife, Kariane, was hired as an attorney in Jacksonville, but Smith decided the shaved-ice demand was greater in Gainesville.

Now Smith commutes four hours round-trip.

He said a long-distance marriage is hard, but his military experience prepared him for it.

“Right now we’re in the building phases,” he said. “I’m building this business and she’s building her career, so we just meet in the middle. It sucks sometimes, but it works out.”

***

Smith said branching out into the community was an important step he’s taken in the past few years to grow his business.

From driving his truck to High Dive’s monthly food truck rally to attending little-league football games, Smith said word of mouth has proved to be the Snow Shack’s most important marketing tool.

“I think the best thing over all this time has just been meeting people,” Smith said. “You meet so many from different walks of life, people who are down on their luck and don’t have anything, and sometimes we can make their day by just giving them free shaved ice. At the kids’ games, we get to watch them grow up and become little superstars — it all makes it worth it.”

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Charlie Smith holds a piece of wood as he looks at the countertop-in-progress at the new store. Smith has built most of the new place himself, from the counters to the picture frames on the wall.

This year, after experiencing a bump in sales, Smith said he made enough revenue to start searching for the perfect place to house their permanent location, at 12 NW Seventh Ave.

On Seventh Avenue, the rent is cheap, and local businesses thrive, he said. While he and his mother wait for the finishing touches on their new space to be completed, Charlie is reminded of when he first started.

“It was so hard in the beginning,” he said. “I didn’t do any research. I just did it. We learn as we go. I’m just glad it’s still fun.”

He said he wants this to be the small business he sticks with.

“Who knows, maybe one day we’ll grow so much I can open one in Jacksonville and be with my wife,” Smith said. “That would be nice.”

Linda Smith hands Kalani Breen, 11, a shaved ice cup in exchange for $3.50. Breen ordered a cherry-and-cotton-candy shaved ice with marshmallow topping, one of Charlie's sweeter dessert options.

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