Michael Weal and his family have been dishing up soft-serve ice cream to the residents of Howard County, Md. since 1984.
Melanie Tresnak is only 18 years old, but she's already got some serious skills when it comes to ice cream.
"After many years, I can master three cones at once," she says.
Tresnak is a worker at Ellicott City, Md.'s Soft Stuff. She demonstrated the three-cone technique on a recent Friday afternoon, swirling two orders of chocolate and vanilla twist and holding them both with one hand, while making a third cone with her other hand.
Michael Weal has seen lots of kids master this skill over the years. He and his family have been running Soft Stuff since the early 1980s, after his dad visited Rehoboth Beach, Dela., and had something of a revelation.
"He said, 'I was talking to this old guy who had this little hole-in-the-wall soft ice cream stand, and he said, 'You ought to do something like that in Howard County, because there's nothing like that," Weal says.
The Weals attached a carryout ice cream stand to the Forest Motel, which the family had been running since the late '60s. They built a long wooden walkway to add to the boardwalk ambiance. But they decided to part company with their beach brethren in one significant way: The taste of their ice cream.
"The difference is we wanted it to be better quality ice cream than what the beach sells," Weal says.
The key to that is more milk fat, which makes ice cream taste richer, and it's been a big hit at Soft Stuff.
For the past three decades, people have swarmed to the stand—located on the side of busy Route 40—for banana splits, chocolate-dipped cones, and ice cream sandwiches known as "Soft Stuffers."
But what's interesting, Weal says, is that the routine has become about more than just soft-serve.
"All of a sudden, it was, 'Wow, we can sit at the picnic tables, we can sit in the grass, we can bring the kids, we can bring the dogs.' And I think it became... a place for groups of young people or families to come and sit on the back of their truck or SUV or at a table, and spend a half an hour or so," says Weal.
You can still do that at Soft Stuff, but most of the grassy spots here no longer exist. The Forest Motel, its in-ground pool, the diner next door--they're now all gone. This fall, after Soft Stuff closes for the season, a team of developers will break ground on a mixed-use development here. It will include apartments, a chain restaurant, a spa where you can get massages and pedicures, and a new Soft Stuff. It'll be a sit-down ice cream parlor with amenities the old place didn't have, like bathrooms.
"We want people to know that we're going to be the same place," says Weal. "And it may be a little different atmosphere... it won't be necessarily sitting under the trees, but we're going to have enough open space people can sit there, or sit at the tables, or walk around. So I think it's going to work. I don't think people will say, 'I'm not going to go there anymore because I can't sit at a picnic table.'"
Ron and Mary Tallent of Woodstock, Md. were among those who came out to Soft Stuff on a recent Saturday night to beat the heat. As they ate sundaes and laughed with friends, they recalled the early years of their visits here in the early 1990s.
"It was just so delightful to come here on a Sunday afternoon in particular especially, and other families sitting here, the picnic tables, by the pool, and the coolness," says Mary Tallent. "It was just so non-modern and commercial."
Non-modern is increasingly hard to find in this once-rural corner of the Maryland suburbs. But Michael Weal says even though the new Soft Stuff will look different, he's hoping it will become a community-gathering place, and he's working hard to open in time for next year's ice cream season.
"Hopefully, we get a good winter, and they can keep building all year, and then we should be ready to go in the spring," he says.
Ready to go—with the same creamy swirls of soft-serve that transport customers to a place and time when life was a bit slower, simpler, and, above all else, sweeter.
[Music: "Ice Cream Song" by The Dynamics from First Landing]
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