Moorhead Tastee Freeze

Customers lined up at noon Sunday for the reopening of the Tastee Freez. The staff had spent six days working day and night to clean, repair and restock the 57-year-old soft-serve ice cream shop.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The co-owner of Moorhead’s Tastee Freez had just gotten her two toddlers to sleep and turned off the lights when her phone rang. At 1:30 in the morning, that’s never good news.

“You’d better come down here,” the Moorhead police officer told Jess Malvin. A passerby on 19th Street South had noticed damage and flagged him down. He told Jess, “There’s been some damage. You’d better come down.”

And so began a story of heartbreak for the young owners of the venerable local landmark – a horror story that would quickly turn to hope, headed for a heartwarming happy ending: As of this Tuesday, a whopping 655 well-wishers had donated more than $28,000 toward the small business’s recovery through a GoFundMe campaign launched by a faithful fan.

In the wee hours of Tuesday, July 14, vandals did more than break into the little ice cream shop at 419 19th St. S. They did their best to destroy it.

In the time between when the last employee locked up at 10:10 p.m. and that police alert three hours later, still-unidentified hoodlums destroyed almost everything inside the 60-year-old shop. They broke the plate-glass windows. They assaulted the compressor that powers the refrigeration units packed with ice cream mix, meat and produce. They smashed through a wall to wreck a toilet. They tore down a paper-towel dispenser. They wrecked everything they could see, splashing cherry sundae topping everywhere like bloody splatter and then using a mallet – the one staffers employ to pulverize candy to top sundaes – to shatter the glass jar of sprinkles.

Not only that. They climbed onto the flat roof of the little old cone cafė and tried to pull it off the walls. When that didn’t quite work, they moved to the storage addition and ripped off its shingles.

At first investigators treated the assault on the Tastee Freez as a robbery, but it was not; indeed, a tip jar full of cash was left untouched on the counter. Instead, the worst human-wrought damage in recent Moorhead history appears to be pure, senseless meanness.

“It feels very, very personal,” Jess says. She and partner Jess Berdi bought the business from longtime operator Duane Elofson three years ago, after working there since they were teens. Back then, they twirled curly-topped cones for the children who are treating their own kids to Tastee cones today.

“This was always my dream. But when I got home after seeing the wreckage, I told my husband Andy, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore. Does this community even want us to be here?’”

But after the news of the attack on the Tastee Freez hit the local airwaves that morning, the tale takes a dramatic turn for the better.

One who was horrified to hear about it was longtime customer Jenna Kahly. “I was dropping my three kids off with Grandma when she blurted out, ‘Have you heard?’” Jenna reports. “She knows that place is very special to me and my family. I just had to do something.”

By 10:30 that morning, Jenna had set up a GoFundMe account to help the small business survive the devastation. “They’ve already had a long list of blows in the last year,” she explains. “I couldn’t let this be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

And Moorheaders, old and new, responded. By the end of the first day, the account had swelled to thousands of dollars. As of this writing a week later, nearly $30,000 has been raised toward GoFundMe’s goal of $35,000. Hundreds – some past customers, some simply well-wishers – have tossed gifts into the kitty, from $5 or $10 to many who have given hundreds. “The amount of support and love from individuals, families, even businesses has been overwhelming,” Jenna says. “It’s such a special place for my own family, and for so many others.”

The destruction inside the Tastee Freez was only the latest blow to the seasonal business. Wickedly cold weather in 2019 delayed the opening of the two new owners’ first full season; as a strictly seasonal business, the ice cream shop is virtually uninsulated. Construction of the 20/21st Street railroad underpass tangled, confused and sometimes blocked access to their shop from Southeast Main Avenue, turning what had been a visible high-traffic location into something of a scavenger hunt.

They had to replace the aged ice cream machine for the 2020 season. Underpass construction was supposed to wrap up by year’s end. Even the weather seemed to be on track. “We thought we were finally good to go in March. This was going to be our first great year,” Jess recalls.

They opened March 1. Then came COVID. After two and one-half weeks open, they had to close. Even after the shut-down was eased in April, the challenges continued. The lights were flickering when the staff returned, heralding urgent electrical repairs – costly but essential. Built in 1963, the little bare-bones building sadly lacked electrical capacity for all the equipment it needs today; the owners put rewiring on their wish list. The city announced that road construction wouldn’t be complete until 2021.

“Finally, May came. Yes, we could open,” she remembers “but taking pre-orders only.” To limit viral transmission, payment in paper money and coins was ruled out – a hardship for what had always been a mostly cash business. Jess recruited a nephew to help drag their heavy outdoor tables farther apart. “I’m not as strong as I used to be. Or maybe the tables got heavier,” she jokes. She resumed her regular schedule, splitting her time between her full-time day job as administrative assistant for the city of Dilworth, then taking over at the Tastee Freez after co-owner Jess Berdi wraps up her day shift.

What next? The CO2 tank on the Coke dispenser exploded. (“Thankfully, our employees evacuated safely,” she says.) After the city’s annual fireworks extravaganza was moved from nearby Nemzek Field to the edge of town, the Fourth of July – normally their biggest day of the summer – was a bust.

Finally, cue the dramatic crisis … that terrible call from the cops after midnight a week ago.

Now, Jess’s first doubts and despair have faded. She’s even able to look on the bright side: “At least clean-up wasn’t as bad as it could have been. We just threw everything out.” She adds, “And we’ve learned a lot. One thing … we were woefully, woefully under-insured.”

Yet she still calls the Tastee Freez her dream. She has worked in this spot since 2002, her partner (“the other Jess”) since 1999. “It’s a fun business. We’re always here for each other. I call this my Tastee Freez family.”

And the warm relationship, Moorhead has shown, extends far beyond the two windows through which the staff hand out dip cones and sundaes, chili cheese dogs and fries. “The concern and support started pouring in as soon as the story hit the news at 5:30 a.m.,” Jess remembers. “When I got home for dinner that night, I told my husband, ‘They love us!’

“This community’s kindness just humbles me. It means so much, especially now, when I understand people are struggling in their own lives and overwhelmed with their own problems. Yet they’re encouraging us and supporting us and telling us how much the Tastee Freez means to them.

“All this love! It reminds me of why I fell in love with this business in the first place.”

The Tastee Freez reopened at noon Sunday, July 19. Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.

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