By Lincoln Anderson
The city is baking in a brutal heat wave with no end in site. But on Avenue A a cold war is flaring. Oh yes, it’s an icy war — or a war of ices, if you prefer.
In one corner, or rather, near one corner, is the East Village’s perennial provider of summer refreshment, Ray’s Candy Store. In the other corner, or rather near the other corner, is the new upstart, NYC ICY.
Until last year, NYC ICY was on Avenue B. But five weeks ago, owners Jonathan and Suzie Leeds opened a pop-up sidewalk store on the east side of Avenue A near Seventh St. — diagonally across from neighborhood institution Ray’s Candy Store, owned by Ray Alvarez.
Winters are particularly tough for Ray, a.k.a. Asghar Ghahraman. But the summers are when he does his best business, dishing out cooling cones and cups of soft-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt. This past winter, with the recession and struggling to make his rent, he was on the brink of losing his business. But the neighborhood rallied around him, with fundraisers and loyal customers donating dollars when they bought their Belgian fries and Obama burgers, helping him tide it over till the warm season. Ray weathered the winter, but just when he thought he could catch a breather, the arrival of the icy newcomer came as chilling news.
A few weeks ago, Ray admitted to The Villager that NYC ICY had taken half his business, and that he planned to respond by buying an ices-making machine of his own. Maybe he had been hiding the truth, because last Sunday afternoon, he said the situation was even worse.
“She took 98 percent of my customers,” he stated. “Every summer, I had to order ice cream every day. This year, once a week — that means she took away business.”
Making good on his word, Ray, 77, did recently buy a machine to make ices, plus new coolers to store them in. In the process, though, he burned through more than half of his big Social Security payout that he received last month, after having been stiffed by the feds for years. Call it a calculated gamble, but Ray — who jumped ship from the Iranian navy to find his American dream — hasn’t lasted on Avenue since 1974 by playing it safe.
So last Saturday evening, he was offering customers samples of his first batch of ices, which, he noted proudly, he made for a total of just $25. There was healthy pomegranate, tangy lemon, sweet coconut and zingy pineapple. His ices are all natural — no chemicals, no stabilizers. And the price was right: just $1 for two scoops. He hopes to add a tiramisu ice soon, but is having difficulty finding the flavor.
“Give me an icy!” a voice called from outside Ray’s window. “You got cherry?”
“I give you something better than cherry!” Ray answered heartily, scooping into the pomegranate bucket. “This one going to make you young!”
Two loyal customers, Nick Peat and Barry Kushelowitz, sampled the pomegranate and were blown away by the new frosty flavored treat. Philip, another longtime Ray’s regular, found one delectable while sharing some classic Brian Eno tunes on his iPhone.
To move his point of purchase to the pavement, Ray had hoped to get a young guy named John to sell the ices in front of his store starting the next day. But, in a temporary setback to Ray, John later told him he had another job.
Meanwhile, over at NYC ICY last Sunday, Suzie Leeds was doing a brisk business in the withering heat.
“Competition is always good,” she said, though adding, “I didn’t even know we were fighting. I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, obviously.”
Actually, Leeds said she wasn’t aware Ray was now selling ices until The Villager told her.
Leeds, who grew up in the Bronx and is originally from Korea, explained that she got interested in icies when her son Noah was found to be lactose intolerant at age 4. They started making icies for him then, and it just snowballed, or “iceballed.” Today, they manufacture 300 flavors at a Brooklyn location. They plan to launch a Web site soon and will deliver 100 flavors in Manhattan and Brooklyn and also ship all over the country. Bat Burger, a 24-hour hamburger place in Williamsburg, will also be featuring NYC ICY.
She eagerly offered sample spoonful after sample spoonful of her exotic icy creations: lemon-basil, spicy Mexican hot cocoa, Thai iced tea, lychee, apricot-ginger… . The flavors, the spoons, just kept coming.
She also has a triple lemon-icy iced tea drink.
“It’s like crack,” she boasted.
“What we do is not brain surgery,” she explained. “We use the best ingredients.” She even has vegan offerings.
NYC ICY has been voted “best ice” by myriad magazines and newspapers, she said, whipping out a binder of clippings.
“Our press kit is a monster,” she gushed.
Ray’s business has always been dog friendly; he tells a story about how once his store was empty except for five “customers” at his counter, and they were all dogs.
Leeds cares about local canines, too. Saying she’s concerned about the welfare of woofers that live with the young punks in the park, she always leaves a bowl of water by her chalkboard of the day’s flavors. In fact, she says she’s currently whipping up a new product — a “dog icy” — still in the experimental stages.
“We’re probably going to make it chicken-broth based, or meat based — and some bits of meat,” she explained, adding that it will be designed so as not to give dogs the runs.
Told of Leeds’ new frozen dog dessert, Ray — who was working one of his marathon weekend shifts — paused a second to soak it in, then tipped his cap to her.
“Oh — she’s a good businesswoman,” he said, clearly impressed.
Luckily for Ray, Leeds and her icy juggernaut will only have the Avenue A space until Halloween, after which the landlord will take it back over. Next season, she hopes to open five pop-up NYC ICY stores around the city.
“Tell him, I’m sorry — I didn’t know we were at war, because we’re not mean,” Leeds reiterated.
“I’m not at war with her,” Ray agreed, though adding pointedly, “She came 36 years too late.”
Also, Ray noted, his strength is his rock-bottom prices. He said that’s why an ice cream shop nearby on St. Mark’s Place from “Down Under” went under.
“This guy around the corner, used to be Australian ice cream, he couldn’t compete,” he stated. Leeds’ price for a small, two-scooper is $2 more than Ray’s.
Leeds said what Ray should do next spring is just buy her ices. But he said her stuff is too expensive and that he’s made up his mind and that’s it. And so, the icy cold war (that is not a war) continues… .
Leeds did say she loves Ray’s Belgian fries, though, and was recently reading about how he couldn’t cook them anymore until he got a fire-protection system installed.
In fact, there’s good news for Ray on the fries front. Last Saturday night first saw him fearing that a contractor he had cut a deal with to install an Ansul system hood and chimney for his deep fryer had skipped out with $3,500 — half the cost of the project — that Ray had given him upfront. Ray’s managing agent, Barbara Chupa, has been insisting he get the hood.
But, before he sampled a pomegranate ice, Peat — who helped Ray recently get a three-year lease signed — assured him that the contractor would be starting work Wednesday and that Ray would be back in business frying by Sunday or Monday.
It’s a good thing, because, as Ray said, “A lot of people, they are screaming — they want fries.”