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Millvale has a double dip of ice crram parlor nostalgia

Thursday, October 05, 2000

By Jennifer Kissel

Millvale has a double dip of ice cream parlor nostalgia

If you go ...

Steedle's, 1149 Evergreen Ave., Millvale, is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, closed holidays. Call 412-821-9850.

Yetter's, 504 Grant St., Millvale, is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays and holidays. Call 412-821-1387.


Something about a chrome-banded, spinning stool attracts a kid like a magnet -- especially if that stool brings him eye to eye with the cherry atop a chocolate fudge sundae.

These days, it's hard to find an ice cream store that doesn't force you to stand in a parking lot hurrying to finish your cone before the exhaust of passing cars melts it into a puddle, or brave a blustery wind that makes you wonder where your fingers stop and your ice cream begins.

And spinning stools? Just a childhood memory -- except in places like Millvale, where you'll find not just one but two authentic, old-fashioned ice cream parlors that make their own frozen and chocolate confections and still invite kids (and kids at heart) inside to sit and spin.

Regis Steedle Candies, on Evergreen Avenue at one end of town, and Yetter's Home Made Ice Cream and Candies, on Grant Street at the other end, have between them about 20 spinning stools and 115 years of dedication to making homemade ice cream and candy. In this little slice of ice cream heaven, the two places are a couple of yards short of a mile apart.

"Kids have to walk by and spin these stools -- it's like a law," says Arlene Yetter Carr, 57, who owns Yetter's with her husband, Ed Carr, 58.

In a small town such as Millvale, where it seems as if a populace of 4,331 could barely support even one ice cream shop, the two places enjoy "friendly competition," says Arlene. Their family names plus a dedication to all homemade sweets keep them on par with the town's other frozen treat vendors -- Crazy Cones (a soft-serve joint), Hardee's (it serves Hershey's hard ice cream) and Rita's Italian Ices, (technically in Bauerstown, serving flavored, shaved ice).

True "homemade" ice cream and candy are expensive to make.

"But we're established," Arlene says. "If we [Steedle's and Yetter's] were both starting out now, I don't know we'd make it."

While homemade ice cream holds Yetter's through the summer, she's quick to point out that homemade candy keeps the business churning. Millvale and nearby Etna residents might stop in for a cooling cone, but people from as far away as Alaska, Iceland and Japan receive and order chocolates year round. Easter candy sales "pays the bills for the year," Arlene says.

Across town, Rege Steedle feels a little more chill from Hardee's and Rita's, just yards away in either direction. But store manager Mary "Lou" Kotomski, 50, of Shaler, says "a lot of our customers say that when they want ice cream, this is where they come -- even during winter."

Like Yetter's, Steedle's ships its candy all over the world, including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and even to countries known for great chocolate, such as Germany.

The candy business helps because ice cream sales drop dramatically from summer to winter, according to the International Dairy Food Association. Typically the best sales are in July (167,166,000 gallons of regular ice cream, low-fat ice cream, sherbet, water ices and frozen yogurt produced in 1998) and the lowest are in November (96,861,000 for the frozen products the same year).

Old-fashioned favorites

Steedle's and Yetter's have a long, intertwined history -- so intertwined that some people think they are one store, says Rege Steedle, 45, owner of Steedle's.

Sixty-five years ago, Steedle's uncle Albert Yetter opened an ice cream shop -- the first Yetter's, now Steedle's -- in an odd, triangular building that was a butcher shop at the turn of the century.

About 15 years later, Albert's brother, Elmer Yetter, opened his own ice cream store at the opposite side of town. No hard feelings, just a mutual love for good ice cream and chocolate.

Rege Steedle grew up in Uncle Albert's store, falling asleep upstairs to the gentle knocks and hums of ice cream and candy churns. Steedle learned the trade early, packing candy at age 4 ("That was last year, I think," he jokes) and watching his uncle churn cream and sugar into mounds of frozen bliss. By 1973, when Steedle was 18, his uncle's health was failing, and he knew his uncle wanted the store to remain open. "I said, 'Give me a stab at it,' " recalls Steedle.

Twenty-seven years later, he's still churning.

Steedle has kept everything virtually the same, from the molded tin ceiling and blue spinning stools to the blue and white, hand-painted, wooden signs advertising floats, sundaes, sodas and ice cream flavors.

"I like the old-fashioned stuff -- and so do the people," he says.

A chocolate-display case graces the corner entrance, a deli case provides a quick lunch, and Steedle recently added a hot foods menu, listing fries, chicken tenders and onion rings.

But it's the homemade ice cream and candy that brings people in, even when there's as much frost on the pumpkin outside as there is on the freezer doors inside. Steedle says he'll never compromise on quality.

"Everything -- everything -- is made here. Otherwise, I wouldn't put my name on it."

Only his own

Steedle says Hershey's approached him to put a free freezer in his store if he'd sell their product, but he refused. "It wouldn't be mine."

When it's hot, Steedle makes ice cream up to four times a week, in the same room with the same freezers he watched his uncle use, in 7- to 8-gallon batches. For quality control, he makes about 16 flavors of ice cream, three hard yogurts and occasionally a popular sherbet such as lime or grapefruit. Seven kinds of cones, including homemade waffle cones, chocolate chip cones and even apple pie a la mode cones, provide the crunch beneath the cream.

Steedle also has an antique ice-crushing machine and six syrups for Hawaiian ice balls.

Seasonal ice cream flavors, such as peach in summer and pumpkin in fall, get short but celebrated runs. "Rege just brought back peach, and everyone is freaking," says Sue Dayton, an employee from Millvale. "One lady is in here every other day for a half-gallon of peach. She says she's giving it to her neighbors, but we're beginning to wonder."

Because of its popularity, they're selling peach into the fall.

Steedle uses only cream with 14 percent butterfat, "the highest you can get in Pennsylvania," he says.

He winces at the thought of using a cheaper, thinner cream or -- heaven forbid -- milk. "A high butterfat gives the ice cream bulk and body.If you take ice cream outside in the heat and it melts all over your arm in a few seconds, then it's not good ice cream."

Although Steedle says he's experimented with unusual flavors, "I won't sell it if I don't like it." Vanilla and chocolate are his most popular flavors, but white house, chocolate peanut butter and chocolate marshmallow are in the running. His most unusual flavor is pineapple coconut -- a not-too-sweet combination of light pineapple flavor and finely shredded coconut in a vanilla base.

Special touches

About three summers ago, Rita's Italian Ices moved in 200 yards away. Some customers were drawn away by the promise of low-fat treats. Steedle countered the competition with a new (but old-fashioned-looking) red and yellow mural, painted by area mural painter Pepe Buylla. "We have die-hards who come in for their ice balls in the middle of winter," Sue Dayton says. "And some people go other places, but then they come back for ours."

Dayton, 35, worked for Steedle from ages 13 to 18, and returned about a year ago to work part time. No wonder she came back -- the place feels comfortable. Maybe it's because Lou Kotomski, a 20-year Steedle's employee, makes your banana split just the way you like it.

"Lou's sandwiches and banana splits are unbelievable," says Joe Mace, 71, of Millvale. "Lou does something different. Like when she puts the whipped cream on, she puts the whipped cream on -- all the way across the top."

"That's the way the old soda jerks were taught," says Kotomski.

To keep a family atmosphere, Steedle hires teen-age girls and motherly figures like Kotomski. "Lou's a fixture," he says.

Steedle keeps his maintenance work in the family, crediting brother Ken with keeping his ancient refrigeration systems up to the task.

At 45, Steedle talks of opening another store, with the same old-fashioned look, in another area of the city. He has separated himself from the store a bit -- he moved from upstairs above the store to the house next door, about 4 feet away. Just far enough that he can get away, but close enough to hear the machines churning and the stools spinning.

Crosstown cousins

Arlene and Ed Carr, though nearing the age when many people look forward to retiring and buying a little house in the country, are doing the opposite. Yetter's is calling them closer. Between churning ice cream and dipping chocolates, Ed is renovating some of the building space so he and Arlene can move from Shaler and live on-site.

Like Steedle, Arlene is at home in the store that her dad, Elmer Yetter, opened 50 years ago. By age 9, she was dispensing penny candy to neighborhood kids who trooped in under the red-and-white awning during school lunch breaks.

As a teen, she soda jerked, but while she surely learned the intricacies of making ice cream by spending so many hours in the store with her parents, she had little desire to own the place. And she didn't think Ed did either. Arlene jokes that he got dragged into the business because "He was in love!"

In reality, he had a hard time finding a job after Air Force service. "My dad said, 'Don't worry, you can always teach him to make ice cream and candy,' " she remembers. "I thought, 'You're kidding. There's no way I want to be involved.' "

Carr did find a job with Pepsi-Cola Co., but when Arlene's dad died, Ed began coming around the store to help her dad's friend, Ray Imhoff, dip chocolate and make ice cream.

The stuff must get into your blood. By 1976, the Carrs bought the store from Arlene's mom. Carr left Pepsi, but Arlene says she wasn't worried. "I knew we'd make it -- I lived through one generation. Once it's yours, you have a completely different attitude," she says, showing tiny burn scars on her arms from handling hot peanut brittle.

While Arlene greets customers, Ed churns -- twice on a busy week, in 5-gallon batches. The Carrs have added some "fancier" flavors such as amaretto cherry and lemon custard, which they buy from an ice cream organization. Their board boasts 13 ice creams, five hard yogurts (they tried soft frozen yogurt but it was a bust) and 21 flavors of Hawaiian shaved ice.

Fourteen percent butterfat is the unbreakable rule at Yetter's, too. "It's real ice cream," says Arlene.

Vanilla tops the flavor favorites, says Ed, with kids asking for flavors such as chocolate marshmallow. Arlene admits to being caught enjoying a cone at Baskin-Robbins or Bruster's, but she knows her store draws customers with its authentic, old-fashioned flair combined with some modern touches.

A few years back, newer, fast food-style booths replaced the original leather-covered booths and chrome coat hooks.

"When families come in, the kids want to sit at the counter," says Arlene, gesturing to the 10 red vinyl stools and patting the bright yellow, 20-foot countertop. Everything is original, including the cupboards and antique soda fountain. Behind the fountain is an original red and white wooden Yetter's sign, hand-painted many years ago by Millvale resident Bob Lanesky, who also painted Steedle's in-house signs.

For the children

Kids come in twice, even three times a day, for candy, ice cream, maybe a sandwich, but likely as often to see Arlene. Diane Hollinger recently brought her niece and nephew, Alexis and Chad Weldon, 11 and 8, two days in a row, once for penny candy, once for ice cream. "Having the kids around is a good excuse to get ice cream," she admits, laughing. Her husband, Dave Hollinger, 41, grew up down the street from Yetter's and visited often as a child.

While outside business and candy sales keep places like Steedle's and Yetter's alive, hometown people give them life. Although Arlene says the shop couldn't depend strictly on residents, "the people of Millvale keep us going all year."

As evidenced by the smear of chocolate marshmallow on Chad Weldon's chin, a good ice cream cone (or a peanut butter meltaway) is all that's needed to keep those customers coming back.

Well, almost all, says Alexis Weldon, twirling around on her seat. "I like these stools that spin."

Jennifer Kissel is a Reserve free-lance writer who believes that eating 14 percent butterfat ice cream is good for body and soul.

Related Recipes:

Lou's Banana Split
Egg Cream

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