San Francisco – EverydayInsider! (TM) Trip 12B

Today, I am continuing on our 49 Mile Scenic Drive stop at Russian Hill in San Francisco. Read the first part at: Russian Hill, San Francisco.

Union Street is a famous, trendy street in this neighborhood. My father bought a restaurant for one of my mother’s cousins there long ago, so I used to work in the area on week-ends (we don’t own the restaurant anymore). However, even the trendy streets are now being hit by the financial recession, so be prepared that some stores you have read about may no longer be there. It’s that way all over the world, now.

Other charming restaurants and small businesses still cluster on leafy Hyde Street between Jackson and Union Streets, and check out Polk Street which is crowded with unusual boutiques, antique shops, trendy restaurants and night spots.

The center of Russian Hill is accessible by the famed Hyde-Powell cable car and two Muni buses, the 41 (weekday rush hour only) and the 45. The 19 runs along Polk Street, stopping frequently from Ghirardelli Square to the Tenderloin (a famed red-light district, at least in the past).

My favorite store in the Russian Hill neighborhood is the tiny Swensen’s Ice Cream Store — it is the beginning of what has become a world-wide franchise of more than 300 stores. However, it is only recently that the original store became part of the conglomerate as Mr. Swensen did not not sell it as part of the deal; they only obtained it after his death.

Swensen’s is the original American Ice Cream which went beyond the 3 traditional flavors of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

It was Earle Swensen, the son of a Norwegian brick mason, a cook making ice cream on a Navy troop ship in the South Pacific during World War II, who made the revolution to exotic and inspired flavors. All told, he created about 180 flavors – each distinctly unique and delicious!

After the war, back in San Francisco, he became a Deputy City Assessor. He noticed when a small store became vacant on Russian Hill. He started his empire there in 1948 with $750.

Realizing he needed more capital, he borrowed an additional $5000. Swensen then listened to his customers and started creating ice cream per their requests. He increased the butterfat content to 14%, which was unusual at that time. His reasoning was that many people smoked or had cocktails before dinner – they needed the extra butterfat to enjoy the flavor because their taste buds were not as sharp.

He would sometimes wake up his wife Nora Mae in the middle of the night because Adam’s Apple or Caramel Cashew was too exciting to keep to himself. That passion remained with him until his death at 83.

Earle Swensen is the father of the concept of exotic ice-cream and even though there are other ice-cream chains in San Francisco now, it is important to go try his, as it is his legacy, and still thoroughly delicious.

My personal favorites while growing up on the SF peninsula, (when Earle either owned satellite stores there or they were his first franchisees), were Chocolate Mint, followed by French Vanilla, Bordeaux Cherry, Swiss Orange Chocolate and Lemon Chiffon Custard (recently retired by the corporation). My sisters loved Coconut-Pineapple. Have any them on a sugar cone and get the scoop dipped in chocolate. A single, generous scoop is enough!

His part of the Russian Hill neighborhood in the 1950s was mostly Italian and his was the first store people know about, anywhere, that just sold ice-cream. Previous to that, ice-cream along with many other desserts, were sold at soda fountains, diners etc.

At Halloween, Swensen gave out small children’s-sized cones with orange sherbet and chocolate ice cream. He was always interested in being part of the neighborhood. Earle Swensen began franchising the ice-cream store in the 1960s with the idea that each owner could operate their own store.

By 1976 he was grossing over $20 million a year. Earle sold the chain in the early 1980s but kept the original store on Russian Hill as his own and operated it until 1994.

Today, in this original store, they only take cash! 1 scoop costs about $3.20 and child-size is available. The store is also literally just to buy the ice-cream, take it out to eat it as you wander the neighborhood!

The original store is still on the famed Hyde-Powell cable-car route and the #41 and #45 MUNI buses stop right out side the door. It is handicap accessible, with help from the staff due to a slight difference in the floor height and sidewalk pavement.

Earle Swensen will always be America’s, “Ice Cream Man”. Try his first, before the others; he’s the one who inspired them!

1999 Hyde St (at Union St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Neighborhoods: Russian Hill, Nob Hill
(415) 775-6818
Swensen’s Ice Cream Corporation

More on Russian Hills fabled restaurants tomorrow.

Part 1: San Francisco Everyday Insider

San Francisco Archive

©2010 mystic at Travel Vacation Review

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