On a hot summer day in East St. Louis, you still don’t need more than a dollar and a dime to walk away with an ice cream cone from Mello Freeze.
Soft serve chocolate, vanilla or swirl, take your pick. It’s $1.10.
Some competitors charge twice as much for fancy soft serve, but at Mello Freeze, 1437 Bond Ave., owner Brian Gregory says he’s more concerned about keeping the cost of a family outing low.
Public housing sits next door to the blue and white ice cream shop. In a neighborhood vacated by other businesses, Mello Freeze has stayed put.
“I can imagine people who leave the community don’t realize that there are still parts of their childhood that are still here,” Gregory said. “ Their grade school or high school may not be here, but Mello Freeze is still right here in the same spot.”
Gregory’s father, Vincent, would have wanted it that way.
The East St. Louis businessman worked in the family’s shop until he died in 2012. Known in the neighborhood as “Pops” or “Mr. Vince,” he looked out for children in the community. Now his son is doing the same.
Their ice cream shop is approaching its 45th birthday.
Surviving school closing
When Mello Freeze opened in 1973, East St. Louis had two high schools. Lincoln High at 1211 Bond Ave. wasn’t far from the ice cream shop. East St. Louis High School was a few miles away on the other side of town.
The Gregory family thought the closure of Lincoln High would cause a major slow down. It didn’t.
People continued to support the business, Gregory said, long after the high school closed in 1998. A few years later, when John Robinson Elementary closed, business remained steady.
The shop has never experienced a break-in and it’s never faced the threat of closure, Gregory said.
East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks recently held an event at the ice cream shop to remind the community of its worth.
Twice a month, her office invites the community to join her in patronizing East St. Louis businesses. The mayor is a fan of the shop’s famous crunch cone, a vanilla ice cream cone rolled in peanut brittle pieces and sprinkles.
“This is the best,” Jackson-Hicks told hundreds of Facebook viewers during the event that drew a crowd in June.
The shop has a loyal following now, but things didn’t start that way.
When Gregory’s parents opened in 1973, the shop had 10-cent cones on the menu.
The couple knew ice cream was worth more back then, but they wanted to give the community time to taste the product before changing the price.
Customers eventually fell in love with their soft serve and the business boomed. The shop was so busy that it only for closed one day in 1974 to give Eleanor and Vince enough time to get married.
It reopened the next day with Vince serving soft serve without skipping a beat.
“It didn’t bother me” Eleanor said. “I admired that. Whatever he chose to do in life, I was right there with him.”
The couple built a house in the hills of East St. Louis with profits from the ice cream shop. In the evening, Eleanor would prepare dinner at the house, then carried it to the shop for Vince at night.
Now, it’s her son and younger members of the family closing and opening the shop. A tradition the family hopes to keep alive for generations to come. There’s talk of a second location in the metro-east in the future, but leaving East St. Louis isn’t part of that plan.
Mello Freeze is open from 1 to 9 p.m. seven days a week.