For David Fagan, Bernie Bee’s, the new Italian ice shop he’s opening next door to the Grand Theatre on Mission Street, is a passion project many years in the making.
He once followed the family trade and opened his own print brokerage business, but eventually he had a child, and started realizing that his heart wasn’t quite in it anymore. And then he started thinking about his hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“When I go back, we have kind of the staples: if it’s summertime, of course you have Italian ice. And you have hoagies and you have cheesesteaks,” said Fagan, a nearly 20-year Dolores Park resident. “So I guess I just wanted to bring some of the flavor, some of the foods that I miss, out here.”
It’s not just the flavors that are reminiscent of the East Coast: In Philly, Italian ice goes by “water ice,” Fagan says, using in the Pennsylvanian pronunciation wou-ter.
Five years ago, Fagan bought a Cushman Truckster and decided to start selling scoops out of the back. But renting a commercial kitchen space to make the dessert, and getting the right permits from the city and health department, proved too costly and difficult. A few times, Fagan just made the stuff at home and stationed himself on the corner by Dolores Park during big events to make a few hundred bucks in an afternoon.
Two years ago, he signed a lease on the tiny unit on Mission Street, and today he’s got his own space built out, with all four sinks required by the health department. On a Monday morning he can be found in the storefront by the old Grand Theatre, juicing a sack of lemons and tinkering with his recipes.
“In the Italian ice world,” Fagan tells me, “lemon is sort of like vanilla in ice cream,” meaning people will judge you by it, so you have to get it right. His 10-year-old son is the taste tester, and rates the products.
“In the old days, when I was younger, Italian ice was pretty much water, flavor, sugar,” Fagan said. He’s going for something a little tastier, “a little bit more than cold, flavored water.”
He seems in no rush to open Bernie Bee’s. First, he’d rather get things just right.
“I think I’ve been saying I’ll be open in a month or two for a year,” he says. He hopes the soft opening will happen this weekend, but he keeps finding more things to prepare: this week it’s all the right cup sizes, maybe a table by the serving window, and to set up his Square payment system.
His new freezer has space for 12 flavors, which he concocts by combining fruit, natural flavors and colors, and, of course, sugar.
Fagan wants the place to serve quality ingredients, without becoming unapproachably fancy or expensive like other “boutique” ice cream shops in the neighborhood. He plans to keep the prices affordable: around $2 for kids, maybe $3 for a regular-sized cup.
The taped-up signage on the small Mission Street window follows suit in its simplicity: little cartoon cups say “Italian Ices” and “Hielo Italiano,” and the wall surrounding features a bright mural of flowers and a skateboarding skeleton.
“My main clientele [is] going to be the community; it’s going to be the people who live here and walk by here,” he said. If he ends up hiring help, he also expects it’ll be from within the community.
Aside from his son’s palate, though, Fagan is used to going it alone, and didn’t have much help getting the new place together. Once a jewelry shop, the store’s “use” had to be changed; that meant lining the walls and ceilings and even breaking the ground and digging trenches himself for plumbers to install new piping.
Bernie Bee’s is located at 2669 Mission St.