Underpass construction impacts Moorhead businesses

Tastee Freez co-owners Jess Malvin (right) and Jess Verdi (left) say they are overwhelmed by the support of the Fargo-Moorhead community amid construction that makes it difficult to get to the iconic Moorhead ice cream joint. (Photo/ Bryce Haugen)

Bryce Haugen
These days, it’s not easy to get to Tastee Freez. It’s requires orange cones before ice cream cones. But according to the Moorhead mom-and-pop shop’s many loyal customers, the extra effort is well worth it.
Despite the $66 million Main Ave. /20th St. /21st St. underpass construction project, the iconic ice cream joint is open for business. And because of widespread traditional and social media attention, it’s not only surviving, but thriving amid the constant construction.
“The support has been amazing,” said co-owner Jess Malvin. “We always knew we had support from our regulars, but all the support we’ve had lately has been phenomenal. Thank you (Fargo-Moorhead). We appreciate it and are so grateful … (Business) has been a lot better than what we expected with the construction, It’s great that people are still finding a way to get to us.”
At Tastee Freez, it’s all in the name. The shop has served up tasty frozen treats since 1963. It’s currently one of only four original Tastee Freez buildings in the country, with its vintage neon ice cream cone sign and walk-up only service.
Last year, Malvin and the other co-owner, Jess Verdi, bought the shop from Duane “Dr. Freeze” Elofson and his ex-wife Fern Elofson, who had owned it since 1991. They both still help out.
Malvin have been employed at Tastee Freez since 2002 and Verdi since 1999. They both worked part-time through high school, college, then even when they got full-time jobs for some extra cash.
“I tried to move a few times and I ended up coming back,” Verdi said with a smile. “And this is the place I came to.”
Verdi’s favorite menu item is the Boston Shake, a shake with a sundae on top, while Malvin prefers the T&F bar, an ice cream sandwich on a stick dipped in chocolate.
The daily 99 cent specials can’t be beat. On Wednesday, it’s the waffle cone and on Sunday it’s, appropriately, a sundae. And everyday, for a “healthier option,” a frozen banana dipped in chocolate is available for just over a buck. Hamburgers are $2 and cheeseburgers are just 50 cents more.
“We try really hard to keep prices reasonable and affordable,” Malvin said.
Besides construction, weather has posed another challenge for the business, forcing it to open two weeks later than usual. After a slow start, however, a viral social media post produced lines that stretched more than 75 feet to the dug-up Main Avenue.
Realtor Jay Nelson’s April 23 post encouraging local folks to support the establishment attracted 3,300 likes and 2,500 shares.
“You have to want to get to the Moorhead Tastee Freez,” Nelson, who grew up frequenting the shop as a resident of a nearby neighborhood, wrote. “There is no easy or direct route. It’s not an impulse buy at this point, it’s a destination, and a difficult one at that.
“Which is why you should go. To make certain the business survives, if not thrives. To make a statement that the past is important and that we support each other. To treat yourself to a silky smooth soft serve cone. Grab a cone and sit on your car hood. Bring the kids. Bring the neighbors.”
On Tuesday night, Elizabeth Hanson, 28, braved the chilly, windy, drizzly weather for a chocolate ice cream with crunch coating. In town from Duluth to visit her parents, she and her dad dropped by the Tastee Freez just like they had so many times before in her youth.
“I gotta get my ice cream fix while I’m in town,” Hanson said, with the sounds of a backhoe digging the underpass a few hundred feet away.
Bruce Hanson, her father, said he thinks Tastee Freez has the best ice cream in town.
“And being a Moorhead person, we want all the businesses to thrive,” he said.
To get to Tastee Freez, which is open Mondays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 10 a.m. and on Sundays from noon to 10 a.m., customers with a sweet tooth must follow the sign, turning right at Main Avenue and 17th Street South and then left on 4th Avenue at Bennett Park. Then they need to bypass a “closed to through traffic” sign and proceed to the shop, located the intersection of 4th Avenue, 19th Street, and Main Avenue. To exit, head down 19th Street toward Minnesota State University Moorhead. That’s also the way to access the shop from the south.
A new road in front of the business will open later this summer, making it far easier to get there.
Tastee Freez isn’t the only Moorhead business affected by construction.
“It’s been slow,” said a clerk at the Casey’s General Store across from the high school on 21st Street, just beyond the orange “Construction Entrance Only” sign. The employee declined to give her name because she was asked not to talk to the media.
If not for the high school students, the clerk said, it would be even worse.
“They’ve helped us a lot,” she said. “We’d be screwed if it wasn’t for them. Them and the construction workers.”
Next door, Domino’s Pizza is taking the construction in stride, general manager Nick Monroe said.
“It really hasn’t affected our business at all,” he said. “Once it’s all done, it will greatly improve our operations. With up to upwards of 80 trains a day on those tracks, being able to bypass them will save us a lot of time overall.”
At Wags and Whiskers Professional Pet Grooming, “it comes down to customer loyalty,” said manager Marcy Kading.
“There’s not a groomer on every corner like a gas station,” she said. “There’s more choices there, whereas for us there’s not a lot of choices.”
Once people get through the construction once, Kading said, they realize it’s not too big of an inconvenience.
Loyal customers are also helping Bakers Diesel Performance, right across from Tastee Freez on 19th Street, survive, owner Zach Baker said.
“Most of our business is word of mouth anyway,” he said. “But it’s made it hard for my customers to get here, especially when some of them are pulling a trailer.”
In the north side of the same building, Homegrown Hookah has seen a dip of about one-third of business, employee Dustin Ellingson said.
“We’ll probably survive,” he said. “People still make it in here. Customers are just confused.”
The underpass project, which will reconstruct and realign the intersection of SE Main Avenue and 20th St./21st St. to pass under new bridges that will carry the railroad tracks over the streets, continues through next year.
According to the Moorhead city website: “The project will result in improvements to safety and congestion for vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians and emergency services.”

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