By Courtney Duke
Fredericksburg, Va., is famous for two things: Civil War battlefields and Carl’s frozen custard.
The store, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, has a loyal following despite selling just three flavors. In an era of bacon-flavored ice cream, Carl’s succeeds with just three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.
Carl Sponseller started working in the frozen custard business in the 1930s with Beck’s Frozen Custard in Washington, D.C. He realized that the majority of his customers were travelling from the South. Seeing a demand for a new location in that area, Carl moved to Fredericksburg and started his own business out of an abandoned gas station in 1947.
Today, his nieces Ramona Settle and Christina McCann and his nephew Daniel Sponseller own and operate the stand. Following traditions started by their uncle, they close for hunting season every year, accept cash only and offer just three flavors. Still, even on a snowy day, a line of customers wraps around the block to buy a frozen custard. What’s the secret ingredient to Carl’s success?
Carl’s custard stands out because of the ice cream freezers
“The one thing that really makes Carl’s different is the equipment,” said Settle. “We use water-based Electro-Freeze machines from the 1940s. There are only nine of these machines left in the world. We have six: three in working order and three for parts. The machines don’t pump as much air into the mix [known as overrun], making it heavier and so creamy that any toppings would slide right off.”
Because the machines are so rare, the owners have to make repairs themselves. The biggest problem, Settle said, is replacing the freezer’s blades. In the age of mass production, not many companies are willing to spend time and effort working from a custom mold for such a small order. The owners order the blades from a shop outside of Virginia. It can take up to eight months to make a blade, so Carl’s keeps two sets for each machine in stock at all times.
Carl’s buys a two-month supply of unflavored custard from a processor in St. Louis and then flavors it with its own secret mixes. The mixes are made fresh onsite every morning.
Rainy days and strawberries
Prices at Carl’s range from $2 for cones and cups to $4 for shake and malts. Chocolate is the top-selling cone flavor, but strawberry mysteriously sells best on rainy days, Settle said.
Carl’s gained fame when it was featured 20 years ago in a PBS television show titled “An Ice Cream Story.” It’s been mentioned on CBS, the Today Show, USA Today and the Boston Globe. Whenever he mentioned Virginia, Today Show weatherman Al Roker would encourage people to go to Carl’s.
Today, the retro appeal of the neon-lit storefront might be attracting customers. Then again, it could be the flavors and the value that keep them coming back.
Courtney Duke is a junior majoring in communications at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg.