Old timers in St. Louis and Kansas City talk sometimes about Velvet Freeze, a St. Louis-based chain of ice cream stores. One Velvet Freeze ice cream store remains in the north St. Louis suburb of Jennings, and a few other reminders of the chain remain around St. Louis and Kansas City, but it’s mostly a memory now. Here’s a look back at Velvet Freeze history.
Velvet Freeze history
Velvet Freeze was founded by Jacob Martin and Alexander and Oscar Grosberg in 1932. They registered the business name in 1935. The Grosbergs emigrated from Poland as kids. Martin emigrated from Russia.
Martin retired in 1964 at the age of 75. His 1983 obituary said when he retired, Velvet Freeze had 250 locations and four manufacturing plants.
After the founding families sold out, the firm went through a series of owners. Velvet Freeze’s parent company for much of the 1970s and 1980s was Adams Dairy Company. As late as 1973 it was a publicly traded company, sold as an over the counter stock.
Velvet Freeze operated its main plant and corporate headquarters at 3230 Gravois in St. Louis, along the later alignment of Route 66. Velvet Freeze bought the building on Gravois in 1946, after having operated there for several years. It also had a factory in Kansas City at 31st Street and Gillham Road. Its old Velvet Freeze painted sign is still faintly visible.
The Velvet Freeze chain was a combination of corporate-owned stores and franchises. There were 50 locations in St. Louis, 20 locations in Kansas City, and the chain had some presence in Illinois reaching as far as Chicago. The menu boasted 40 flavors of ice cream. The stores offered counter service, and, later, also sold hand-packed ice cream to take home.
Tom Spitzer, the company’s former president in the late 1970s, ended up owning the River City Rascals independent minor league baseball team. Tom and Jerry Spitzer and Dan Pepper owned Adams Dairy Company, which they purchased from E. C. Adams Jr. in 1978.
The McGuinness Era
In 1986, John McGuinness, another former executive who had run the chain for a couple of years in the 1970s, and his wife Barbara, bought Velvet Freeze from Daniel Pepper. The purchase price was never disclosed, and Pepper’s only comment was that the chain wasn’t in bankruptcy.
The chain wasn’t bankrupt but it was clearly in trouble. The Kansas City factory closed in 1985. In 1986, 30 stores remained in St. Louis. The company-owned stores all closed in 1986 and 1987. The St. Louis factory and headquarters closed about a year later, in 1986, and what remained of the company outsourced ice cream production to Pevely Dairy.
McGuinness expressed disappointment that the chain was dying and expressed a desire to save it, and he looked to franchising as the way to do it. By 1987, Velvet Freeze was down to 15 stores, all of them franchises. Attempts to sell the former corporate locations to franchisees were largely unsuccessful, and one by one, the franchises closed.
The old St. Louis headquarters burned in 1988. After the fire, someone discovered the old recipes in a wooden box and returned them to McGuinness. The factory was demolished and there is now an Auto Zone on the site.
Over time, Velvet Freeze dwindled down to a small family-owned business. During the late 1980s, it wasn’t hard to find a classified ad in the Post-Dispatch advertising a Velvet Freeze franchise for sale, or being liquidated. By 1999, the only stores left in the St. Louis area were in Jennings, Hazelwood, Troy, and Baden.
The McGuinness family still operates a single location, store #58, at 7355 W Florissant, in Jennings, a northern suburb of St. Louis. A few holdout stores in the Peoria, Illinois area survived until around 2010, but their relationship to McGuinness is unclear. Velvet Freeze didn’t go away quickly like Central Hardware, another St. Louis-based giant of old. But it’s sad that what remains is a tiny shadow of what it once was.
John McGuinness died Dec. 3, 2019 at the age of 86.
Selected Velvet Freeze locations and their eventual fates
Many St. Louisans have fond memories of Velvet Freeze and the locations near where they grew up. Piecing together information about specific locations is difficult because the chain didn’t advertise a lot. Frequently the only indication I can find regarding a location is help wanted ads, or in a couple of cases, accounts of a robbery.
Here’s what I was able to find out about some of them.
Webster Groves Velvet Freeze
The Webster Groves location was at 117 W Lockwood. After the Velvet Freeze closed for good, the venerable Webster Records, a Webster Groves institution since 1953, moved into the location in 1990. Webster Records stayed there until 2012 when it closed.
Kirkwood Velvet Freeze
The Kirkwood location was at 200 N Kirkwood Rd, at the intersection of Kirkwood Road and Jefferson in downtown Kirkwood. The location closed for a time in the 1980s, but was open again by 1989. It closed around 1994. After the location closed for good it housed Petra, a middle eastern restaurant, from 2012 to 2015, and now is Club Taco, an upscale fast-casual taco restaurant.
Affton Velvet Freeze
Velvet Freeze had a location in Affton at 9301 Gravois, the intersection of Gravois and Weber. The store closed around 1987. Today a MetroPCS phone store operates at that address. The fiberglass ice cream cone that once stood outside that location, built in 1942, was moved in front of Mesnier elementary school in Affton at 6930 Weber Rd in 1992. The school is a little more than a mile from the old storefront.
Delmar Loop Velvet Freeze
When the Delmar Loop went into decline in the 1960s, Velvet Freeze was one of the holdouts, operating a store at 6380 Delmar until around 1969. The location housed many businesses in the decades since but ironically is once again an ice cream shop, home to Ben and Jerry’s.
Concord Village Velvet Freeze
The Concord Village location, at 11427 Concord Village Ave., had been the Josse Ice Creamery from 1946 to 1959. Today, the old Concord Village Velvet Freeze is the Concord Grill, a locally owned restaurant with 50 different types of hamburgers on its menu. It was still operating as a Velvet Freeze at least until 1975, when a Concord Village resident robbed the store, taking about $50. It was rezoned in 1976, so the Velvet Freeze may have closed then. Another possibility is 1983, as a July 1983 classified ad offered the building for rent at a rate of $813 a month. In the 1980s, it housed at least two different BBQ restaurants, two different construction contractors, and an arcade before Concord Grill opened in 1989.
Maplewood Velvet Freeze
The Maplewood Velvet Freeze location, at 2101 S Big Bend Blvd, survived at least until 1982 because it was robbed in January of that year. Mr Wizard’s Frozen Custard opened at the location sometime in the mid 1980s and remains open today.
Westport Velvet Freeze
One Kansas City-area Velvet Freeze resided at 1624 Westport Road in the 1940s. A skin care shop resides there now. It was a popular destination for neighborhood kids to ride their bikes.
Why Velvet Freeze declined
I think it’s notable that Velvet Freeze hit difficult financial times in the mid 1980s. Demographics shifted dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, and the old Velvet Freeze model didn’t work anymore. Velvet Freeze had 50 locations in St. Louis, distributed in old inner-ring suburbs and city neighborhoods, often within walking or biking distance for most of its customer base. Families would go together, but kids would also ride their bikes there. It was hyper-local. The location at 8336 Halls Ferry was even in a large mixed-use building, with businesses on the first floor and two floors of apartments.
Shifting St. Louis demographics
St. Louis City had a population of 821,960 in 1930, just before Velvet Freeze opened its first location. The population continued to grow into the 1950s. But it declined to 622,236 by 1970 and kept getting worse. St. Louis City had a population of 452,804 in 1980, and 396,685 in 1990.
Growth in the suburbs exploded in the timeframe Velvet Freeze started to decline. St. Louis County, which is a separate entity from St. Louis City, had a population of 211,593 in 1930. In 1950, it was half the size of the city, and in 1960, its populations were nearly equal. In 1970, the county had a population of 951,353, and 993,529 in 1990.
St. Charles County’s population boomed from 92,954 in 1970 to 144,107 in 1980 to 214,434 in 1990. Jefferson County’s population showed a similar pattern, growing from 105,909 in 1970 to 146,183 in 1980 to 172,396 in 1990.
Looking at the list of 16 surviving locations from a March 15, 1987 ad, seven were inner-city locations in neighborhoods experiencing steep population declines. The only location in a commercial district that’s 100% occupied today was the lone metro-east location in Belleville. Six locations were in north St. Louis suburbs that, much like the city of St. Louis, were experiencing demographic shifts in the late 1980s.
Only six of the locations from 1987 have occupants today: the surviving Velvet Freeze location in Jennings, the Affton location, the Mehlville location, the Belleville location, the South Florissant location and the North Lindbergh location.
The death of the local hangout
The old Velvet Freeze model didn’t work in the outer ring. The subdivision where I lived in the late 1980s and 1990s was a series of concentric rings tightly packed with prefrabricated single-family homes. According to Google Maps, it took 6 minutes to drive to what was then the nearest grocery store. But I remember it taking longer.
Being a local hangout was a key part of Velvet Freeze’s business model. That didn’t work in places that don’t have local hangouts. Locations that served areas people were moving away from struggled as they served increasingly smaller local populations.
What we lost
From an economics point of view, large corporations are efficient. Having large chains like Dairy Queen and Baskin-Robbins serve every city means one corporate office with one HR department and other corporate necessities can serve the whole country. It means low overhead and bigger profits.
But it also means fewer jobs. Unemployment rates are relatively low right now, but employment rates aren’t the only thing to look at. Middle-class wages have been declining since the early 1970s. Both political parties blame each other, but if there was more competition for those workers, wages would have to keep pace with inflation.
But culturally speaking, we lost something too. What do ice cream joints have to do with culture? Regional chains are rare these days. When I travel to other cities in the Midwest, I see the same chains everywhere. What distinguishes St. Louis from Indianapolis these days? St. Louis loves baseball and Indianapolis loves basketball, but both cities eat and drink all the same stuff and shop in all the same stores. And the overwhelming majority of the chains are owned by corporations headquartered somewhere other than one of those two cities.
With out-of-state corporations, we also lose civic-mindedness. When Velvet Freeze was thriving, it sponsored civic events like ice cream socials at the Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Corporations tend to support civic causes in and near their headquarter cities.
We can turn back. But I don’t think we want to.