Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Delayed by – of all things – the cold, The Freez will sell its first ice cream cones of the season this weekend.
“Normally we shoot for March 1, but my partner Jess Verdi and I decided to hold off until now. This month has been just too cold,” proprietor Jess Malvin reports. “It just wasn’t worth the risk.”
But at 11 a.m. Saturday, the order window will open at little ice cream shop at 419 19th St. S., to the applause of the neighborhood that’s supported it for more than 60 years and its fans from all over Moorhead, Dilworth and the surrounding area.
That moment launches Jess’s 22nd year at what was originally known as the Tastee Freez, and her sixth as an owner of what’s evolved into simply The Freez. She was just 15 when she twirled her first ice cream cone under the watchful eye of the late Duane Elofson, who bought the business in 1992 and ultimately sold it upon his retirement in 2019.
This week, Jess and her trusty crew of mostly long-time employees have been busy making the treats that customers have been waiting for since they closed for the season in October. The menu of homemade favorites includes Bonnie Bars in chocolate, cherry, butterscotch and blue raspberry shells; Barrel Bars loaded with chocolate and peanuts; TF Bars (Jess’s personal favorite), chocolate-dipped ice cream sandwiches on a stick; Malties; chocolate-chip ice cream sandwiches; the near-legendary Monkey Tails (frozen chocolate-dipper bananas); and the late Duane’s favorite, chocolate-robed Cheesecake-on-a-Stick.
As they put together the fresh inventory for their kick-off, the Freez team – Jess calls them her “Freez family” – will be closer than ever. The seasonal ice cream spot, built some 60 years ago, is barely insulated; sharing body warmth will be a good thing, given the month’s unseasonal temperatures.
Owning the ice cream shop has been Jess’s passion since her first teen years taking orders at the window. But the five years since “the Jesses” closed the deal have been anything but smooth sailing. Their first full season, 2019, suffered weather much like 2023’s, delaying their much-anticipated opening.
Then came 2020, “our year from hell,” as she puts it. The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered their first weeks of operation, with the tiny kitchen area precluding the concept of social distancing. Construction of the 20-21st Street underpass on Southeast Main tangled traffic for a second summer, making access iffy. A new location for the July 4 fireworks moved those dependably hungry, thirsty crowds more than a mile more distant.
Just 10 days later, midnight vandals literally tore the shop to pieces, breaking windows, destroying equipment and ripping the shingles off the roof – causing some $70,000 in damage. Next, the CO2 tank that powers the soft drink machine exploded. And finally, in a crowning blow, the Tastee Freez corporation organization pulled the store’s franchise, in part because their site precludes adding the drive-through the company demanded.
“But for every bad thing that happened, something good came out of it,” Jess remembers. The community stepped up to help, contributing much of the cost to repair the vandalism through a Gofundme campaign. And through the summers of 2021 and 2022, families continued to pull up in cars, on bikes and on foot to order cheeseburgers and chicken strips to go with their cones, malts and Monkey Tails. Teens lined up after baseball practice, and weekend lake-goers dodged the construction zone to pick up Sunday suppers.
“I’ve watched these kids grow up and, maybe, come back with kids of their own,” she muses. “I really enjoy working the window and staying in touch with them.” Indeed, she has been known to use her owner’s prerogative to escort an occasional youngster behind the scenes to get a glimpse of how her ice cream cone is made.
Opening for the season, however, has been tougher this year. In past years, Jess has deftly juggled her time at the Freez with caring for 3-year-old Zeke and 6-year-old Zoey, along with her full-time job as administrative assistant for the city of Dilworth. But she and her husband Andy, who teaches freshman English and directs plays at DGF High School, learned last fall that little Zeke has a rare genetic condition called 22Q11 deletion syndrome; they have added a seemingly endless round of visits to medical specialists to their already-frenetic schedule.
Yet ice cream, it seems, is in Jess Malvin’s blood. “I love interacting with our employees. I genuinely care about them and want to make this the best experience I can for them.
“And I love the people who come up to the window,” she asserts. “When you hand a cone to a little kid and his eyes light up … well, there’s just nothing in the world quite like it.
“I even like to add ice cream to my coffee. I guess it’s just in my veins.”
Beginning Saturday, The Freez will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 9 Sundays, and from 4 to 9 Tuesdays through Fridays. The shop is always closed on Mondays.