Greg Garrison didn't expect to be accosted in his ice cream shop. But in 2008, just a couple of months after he and his wife, Ashley Garrison, bought the business, that's what happened.
The Hop Ice Cream Café is an unlikely setting for confrontation, bedecked with murals of dancing animals and strewn with toddler toys. Yet the customer was incensed.
“[She] just walked in the place like, 'I can't believe this is The Hop,” Greg recalls. “'I can't believe what The Hop has become.'”
The woman loosed some choice words, and then turned and left without trying the ice cream.
But Greg didn't take the criticism to heart. The previous owners had just moved the decades-old business from an historic, art-deco building to a strip mall. Greg knew it would take time for his customers to adjust to the new setting and the new owners. “People were really attached to the old Hop,” he says. “Most times when things change, people have a hard time dealing with it, especially people who have been coming to the same place since they were really little.”
Granted, Greg isn't the sort to get discouraged. Most days, he's working in the dining room of The Hop with his infant son, Finn, in his lap. He greets customers while he does paperwork. As he talks about the early days of his ice cream career, an employee drops an armful of equipment. Greg just laughs.
He and Ashley aren't seasoned entrepreneurs — They bought The Hop a few years after they finished college at UNC Asheville. The business was in bad shape. In fact it “almost died,” Greg says. But they couldn't ignore its potential. “We just saw the glimmer of what it could be,” Ashley says. “We were just so passionate about making it a certain way. We knew we would do whatever it took to make it successful.”
This month, the Garrisons celebrate 5 years at The Hop. In that time, they've turned the business around. In 2010, they opened a second location in West Asheville, expanded into wholesale and evolved into a community event space. They regularly host nonprofit benefits and sometimes hand out free ice cream to students at their alma mater.
Plus, they’ve successfully preserved the legacy of an Asheville icon: The Hop turns 35 this month. In that time, the business has inspired its owners to take risks for the sweet life. For its customers, it's paid witness to innumerable first dates, birthday parties and family gatherings.
How will the Garrisons celebrate the big year? With more ice cream, of course. On Thursday, Aug. 15, kiddie scoops are free at the Merrimon Avenue location. Plus, they've got big plans for future growth. “As far as expansion, our wholesale has more than doubled in the last year,” Ashley says. “We're providing other ice cream shops with ice cream.” Look for the Hop brand around Asheville and in Knoxville and Johnson City.
Scooping since ‘78
When The Hop opened in 1978, there weren't many ice cream shops in Asheville — or much of anything else, for that matter.
“It was the first time I'd ever been to an ice cream place other than Lord's Drug Store,” says Cyrus Glance, who was 12 years old when The Hop opened. “It was a little small shop, and I think it might have had a juke box in there and the black and white tile floors with the chrome tables and chairs.”
The original owners, Fred Chernomas and Steve Balicky, discovered Asheville by accident. Chernomas was en route to visit his parents in Miami, but when he passed through town he “fell in love with the place,” according to a 1979 Citizen-Times article.
Chernomas sold his home in Long Island and left his teaching job at the State University of New York. He moved to Asheville with his wife and children and opened the shop in 1978 with ice cream from Biltmore Dairy.
The business was one of just a few of places in north Asheville that kids like Glance could visit on their own, Glance recalls. “My grandfather, when I painted his house one summer, would give me money and tell me to take my girl out for some ice cream,” he says. “So we'd go to the park — Weaver Park — and sit by the creek and eat our ice cream.”
As the years passed, the business grew. The drive-thru — a converted service bay — became one of its hallmarks, along with its neon sign and art deco stylings.
A decade after it opened, The Hop was an essential part of growing up in north Asheville, Josh Pozner recalls. “In elementary school, it used to be something that my parents would take me to,” he says. “Then it developed into something my friends and I would walk to. … When I got my car, all my friends would go there, and I would drop by and take dates there.”
One of Pozner's first jobs was at The Hop. He worked there when he was in high school under former owners Kelly and Rusty Bell (who, like the Garrisons, were newlyweds).
Flavor of love
Today, Pozner, 26, works as a raft guide, among other occupations, and he recommends the shop to visitors from afar. He's something of an authority on the Hop's flavors. He usually goes there about once a week. “I have people asking me all the time about what there is to eat in Asheville,” he says. “I think The Hop's done a really good job of challenging what is ice cream.” Cranberry gorgonzola, spinach raspberry swirl, carrot kale and coconut with cocoa nibs are some of his favorites.
The Garrisons brought flavor experimentation to the business. Ashley started working there in 2003 while she was finished a biology degree at UNC Asheville. At the time, she hoped to become a veterinarian.
After she graduated, she worked two jobs: one at The Hop, the other at a veterinary clinic. The ice cream store won out.
“I loved it: It was fast-paced and working with the public,” Ashley says. “I started making ice cream pretty quick after I started working at the store, and I loved doing that. I've been making ice cream for almost 10 years now.”
When the Garrisons bought the business in 2008, Ashley didn't waste any time trying new recipes. “From the day we took over the business, we started branching out on flavors,” she says. “Pretty much nothing is off limits.”
For the most part, the experimental flavors, such as Chinese five spice and Lusty Monk Mustard, turn out pretty well, Ashley says, although there were a couple of awkward combinations early on.
“Elvis was probably my biggest flop: peanut butter, banana and bacon,” Ashley says. “I feel like I could do it now, and it would be awesome, but at the time when I first started experimenting, I had a lot to learn. … People were skeptical.”
Today, people expect to raise their eyebrows — that's part of the fun, Greg explains. “Now, people are skeptical, but they trust us.,” he says.
Greg's ice cream of choice is blueberry kale. Ashley prefers "Southern Comfort," which features bourbon-braised peaches, for its backstory as much as its flavor.
“We were on vacation in San Francisco sitting in this tiny little restaurant in Little Italy,” Greg recalls. “We were talking about coming up with a new flavor that was peach oriented because it was getting ready to be peach season. … It was the most romantic dinner we had while in San Francisco. We had this intimate conversation about this new ice cream flavor we were going to make, which is probably indicative of how we feel about the business.”
Portrait by Max Cooper. Archival image courtesy of State Historic Preservation Office, NC Department of Cultural Resources. Photographer credit, Mary Jo Brezny, 1979.