Ube (purple yam) and macapuno (sweet coconut). Photo courtesy of larryleenyc.

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It’s a beautiful, sunny day in San Francisco, and for once the crowd huddled outside of Mitchell’s doesn’t appear in immediate danger of hypothermia. The ice cream fanaticism displayed by Mitchell’s patrons is ardent, and usually conducted in willful ignorance of seasonality. The crowd will huddle, waiting for their numbers to be called, day or night, rain or shine, sleet or hail, September or January. The children in the crowd dance around with each other, both to stay warm and as an attention-getting device. One can be forgiven for suspecting that this is the same group of people, still in formation, who were here when the shop opened in 1953.

“My grandfather used to bring me here when I was a kid,” says one customer, a sweet-faced guy eating a bowl of cantaloupe ice cream on a bench outside. “He always got the ube ice cream.” Next  to him, a curly-headed baby leans forward and experimentally tongues a double scoop of avocado and lucuma that the woman carrying him is holding. Judging from the relative quantities of different colors of ice cream blob on the baby, avocado is coming out ahead.

Ube is the Tagalog word for a brilliantly violet-colored yam that grows in the Philippines. Lucuma is the most popular ice cream flavor in Peru. It tastes like butterscotch and burnt caramel, and also like paradise. The avocado ice cream is made with a varietal that is specific to the Philippines; Mitchell’s reserves a shipment of it months in advance. It tastes like an avocado crossbred with a cloud.

And then there’s the guava. And the langka. And the macapuno, which Thai restaurants buy in bulk and serve with fried bananas. And the Italian fig. The ice cream adventurings of Bi-Rite and Humphry Slocombe have brought San Francisco a certain degree of notoriety, but Mitchell’s experimentation precedes theirs by decades. It began in the early ’60s, when an enterprising fruit broker suggested they try a mango flavor. “The Mission was changing,” says Linda Mitchell. “There were lots of Latinos and Filipinos moving in the neighborhood.” Today, at Mitchell’s, mango outsells vanilla. And it is not advisable to get Linda Mitchell started on competitors who use powdered lucuma instead of frozen.

In the late 1800s, the Mitchells owned a dairy farm at the intersection of 29th and Noe, but the farm was long gone by the time the family got into the ice cream business. Mitchell’s remains a small-time operation — they’ve turned down every franchise offer. Linda Mitchell’s brother is in charge of production, and her father, who cofounded the business with her uncle, still comes to work four days a week. Some employees have been around for as long as 20 years. Among the lessons learned: You can’t tell if someone will be a good scooper just by looking at them. “We’ve had the tiniest girls turn out to be ironmen,” says Mitchell, “and the strongest guys who’ve developed wrist problems in no time.”

Who would have thought, of all the things the Mission used to make — pants, mayonnaise, Wonderbread — a small ice cream-maker could outlast them all? (A few blocks away, a small ravioli-maker, Lucca, has managed to do the same.) But despite the success of the family business, Linda Mitchell never had any intention of working there. She went into banking.

“When you’re an audit manager,” she says, “no one is ever glad to see you. I would get on an elevator and people would look at me and say, ‘Oh shit. The auditor’s coming.’”

Now the angst involves beautiful weather. On average they crank out 550 gallons a day during the summer, but during a run of warm weather they just can’t keep up. “We only have so much space to make ice cream, and some of them take as many as three employees to make,” Mitchell says. “That’s just the way it is. We begin to run out.”

“But then,” she says, smiling, “the fog comes in and saves us.”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. I stopped going to Mitchell’s when I realized my favorite ice cream there had artificial coloring in it. Has that changed?

  2. Good question. They buy their base from Foster, which has a higher butterfat level than the Straus base. I’m not sure if they’ve thought of switching to Straus or Three Twins – it’s worth following up on.

  3. Good article, thanks. Heather, did you inquire about milk or ice cream base sourcing? The Straus article two weeks ago gave Mitchell’s another (well-deserved) media hit but stayed away from their sourcing practices. I would be interested to know if they are shifting to anything in the direction of more sustainable.