From Abidjan, Ivory Coast to Elon, North Carolina, the story of how Smitty’s Ice Cream came to be from a large African City to a small college town
By Matt Holzapfel
There are 5,189 miles between Elon, North Carolina, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The time difference is 4 hours, and Abidjan has a population of 4.7 million, about 4.69 million more people than there are in the town of Elon. But man, do they both love their ice cream.
In 2001, Amy Nakhle was living in Abidjan with her family when she realized that it was time for a change. “There had been a coup d’état (a seizure of governmental power by a strong military or political group) in 1999 and the economy was falling apart,” began Nakhle. “The political situation in the country was falling apart, and we knew we needed to get out.” For reference, “The 1999 Ivorian coup d’état” happened on December 24, 1999. It was the first coup d’état in Ivory Coast since the country gained its independence in 1960, and led to the deposition of President Henri Konan Bédié.
“When I called my family and told them we were going to be moving back to North Carolina, my husband was Lebanese and had never lived in the U.S., the next day my sister and her husband called me and said well ‘what’re you doing? We hear you’re coming home, what’re your plans?’ and we said we didn’t have any plans,” Amy explained. “We had just made the decision, and so Tom (her brother-in-law at the time) says ‘you know we’ve been thinking about this, we’ve always wanted to open an ice cream store, would you be interested in partnering with us?’ And it was kind of a no-brainer.” Smitty’s first opened their doors in 2002, less than a year after Amy and her husband had decided to move back to the United States, with a location in Burlington, North Carolina.
“We loved ice cream,” said Nakhle. “We always frequented the little ice cream store that was in our neighborhood when we were living in Abidjan and we had always been in business for ourselves, so it made sense to sort of stay entrepreneurial and self-employed and so we jumped on the ice cream Dreamwagon and that was it!”
Five weeks after landing in North Carolina, Amy and her brother-in-law opened up the first Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream shop on South Church Street, only seven minutes from Elon’s campus. It wasn’t until 2012, however, that Smitty’s finally made its way just down the road to Elon University. “Elon had actually pursued us about bringing Smitty’s to downtown Elon,” recalled Nakhle. “The university wanted to raise the profile of the commercial center here and all small towns want to have an ice cream store in them, it was a good fit.” According to an article in The Guardian, scientists have found that a spoonful of ice cream lights up the same pleasure center in the brain as winning money or listening to your favorite music. It’s official, ice cream and small towns are a winning combination.
“Everybody Loves Ice Cream!”
It’s no secret that college students love to eat, and it’s no secret that tons of people love ice cream. What Amy Nakhle and her family had to count on, though, was those two things coming together in perfect harmony to make Smitty’s work on Elon’s campus. Well, they did. Five years later and Smitty’s’ Elon location is still going strong.
What do the students think, though? Sophomore Amy Rauch has actually met Ms. Nakhle before and says that all of their interactions have been positive. “I work for H.O.P.E. and we go in and get the monthly donations from her,” said Rauch. “All the interactions that I’ve had with her have been positive, she’s super nice.” H.O.P.E. stands for Helping Other People Eat and was formed in 2014 by Elon student Jensen Roll with the goal of fighting hunger by providing sustainable financial support to local food pantries. Local shops and restaurants can become “HOPE certified” and collect donations from their customers that will go to Allied Churches of Alamance County (ACAC). ACAC provides those in need with access to their food pantry and hot meals every Monday through Friday. Rauch says she has been to Smitty’s about five times in the last year and that it’s great that they’re partnered with H.O.P.E. “It really shows that they support the Elon community.”
When asked if he had any interactions with the owner of Smitty’s, Sophomore Benton Ashe replied “Not that I can say. It’s not Smitty J, is it?” Despite this, Ashe still thinks that Smitty’s has had a positive impact on campus. “I think it offers a good treat for college students, especially after you just get your pizza from Pandora’s. I really should go eat there more.”
Both Rauch and Ashe said that Smitty’s Brown Sugar Oatmeal ice cream is their favorite flavor. “I’ve never seen it anywhere else besides Smitty’s,” added Rauch.
“The Official Ice Cream of Elon University”
Even before Smitty’s opened their Elon location, they were already the Official Ice Cream of Elon University and had been at all the football and basketball games at Elon since 2003. “We had a good student base already, the students were already coming to the store, they liked what we did,” said Nakhle. “We’re local, we’re family, and very community-based. We crunched the numbers and it looked like it was something that would make sense.”
Despite being the official ice cream of Elon and wanting to open an actual store up on campus, there just wasn’t space for it at the time. Nakhle and her family had to wait patiently for quite a while. “We had to really wait for a spot to open up, it was on our radar for probably a couple of years before something actually came through. As soon as there was an opportunity we grabbed it,” she went on. “We found out the John McDonald was going to be working on this building and was looking for tenants, probably a year and a half before they actually started working on the building. President Lambert had held a meeting or two with business leaders in the area to try and drum up some interest in moving into downtown Elon a few years before that so it came on our radar at that time.” The aforementioned John McDonald is a co-owner of EDG Properties, LLC who played a leading role in the development and construction of Park Place at Elon apartments, as well as the Elon Town Center, which houses the Barnes & Noble at Elon University, Pandora’s Pies, Smitty’s Ice Cream, and offices for The Pendulum (Elon’s campus newspaper) and Guy Carpenter, a business management consultant.
“Peter and Jeff, who were the owners of the Fat Frogg, were thinking that they wanted to take the entire space, and so we sat down with them and convinced them that it would be a really great idea to partner together to do this even though we are separate entities, we’d share space. They agreed with us that it made sense to sort of carry the burden, it’s always a risk anytime you open a new business and so to share that risk a little bit appealed to them. We take up so little space so it just made a lot of sense.” Elon graduates Jeff MacKenzie and Peter Ustach are the owners of The Fat Frogg and Pandora’s Pies. The combination of Pandora’s and Smitty’s seems to go hand-in-hand very easily and has been beneficial to both Nakhle and Jeff and Peter.
“It’s a good place to get dessert after a meal so they kind of bring each other business,” said Amy Rauch about the Pandora’s-Smitty’s combination. “I don’t think Smitty’s could support itself very well in the winter without Pandora’s there to keep bringing in business.” “Yes, I think it does because after you get your pizza you gotta treat yourself to dessert!” added Benton Ashe. “What better way than to stop and get a small thing of ice cream from Smitty’s?”
“We Love the Students, We Love the Staff and Faculty, and I Think They Love Us Back”
When you do business in a small college town, you have no choice but to cater to the students and faculty that live at or near Elon. They’re your number one customers, they’re your go-to, they’re old faithful. That being said, the lack of other customers emphasizes how important it is for small businesses like Smitty’s and Pandora’s to build strong relationships with those members of the Elon community.
“It’s been one of the most positive experiences we’ve ever had as a small business,” said Nakhle when asked about the experiences of interacting with the Elon community since 2012. “The Elon community is incredibly welcoming and warm, and we love being here, we love the students, we love the staff and faculty, and I think they love us back, so it’s really important to us that we have good relationships with our customer base and I think we work hard to nurture that.”
Both Rauch and Ashe agreed that Smitty’s has the power to bring people together and that that is one of the most important things about them being here on campus. “People want to have a good time and treat themselves,” said Benton. “Smitty’s is a good place to do both of those things.”
“There’s always people sitting outside of Smitty’s eating ice cream,” said Rauch.
“Night and Day”
Smitty’s currently has two locations, on in Graham on North Main Street, and one in Elon on North Williamson Avenue. While both stores sell the ice cream, Nakhle says they couldn’t be more different.
“It’s night and day,” she said, laughing when asked what differences she notices between the two locations. “There’s definitely lots of good energy here (referring to the Elon location in which we were sitting), Graham has good energy as well it’s just of a different sort. There is very different diversity between the two locations. Graham is much more community based, as in people from Alamance County having grown up here, been raised here, have deep roots here, that small town feel, and just a more diverse customer base that we have over there.”
It’s no surprise that Nakhle has noticed the diverse range of customers who come to her store in Graham. The city of Graham is home to about 15,000 people, 73% of which are white. The rest are a diverse mix of Black (22%), Hispanic (10%), Asian American (0.73%), Native American, Native Hawaiian or other. The median age in Graham is about 34 years old and 24% of the population is under 18.
“Elon is much more youthful, strong energy and lots of vibrancy. Graham is a slower location than Elon is depending on the time of year,” explained Nakhle. “Ice cream loves summer, right? But Elon’s gone in the summer so we have different seasons practically, which is not a bad thing. When Elon is slower we can concentrate more on Graham which is a much faster-paced environment at that point, and when Elon comes back into session again we’re heading into fall over there in Graham and so things slow down there when things pick up here. They complement each other really well.”
Even despite the emptiness of Elon when the students are gone, Smitty’s still stays open during the summer months. “We’re open year-round,” Nakhle said proudly. “We are still trying to get our regular Alamance County base to come and enjoy downtown Elon, we really push hard for that, it’s difficult when parking is difficult, though. Especially when you have older clientele and it’s harder for them to walk distances and they’re more reluctant to do that.”
She also added that during the summertime, downtown Elon and all of its local businesses tends to see a spike in the number of members of the local community who come out. While the people who live in Elon seem to enjoy ice cream just as much as everyone else, Amy and her fellow local business owners would love to see even more people walking around town in the summer, and they still want to continue to raise the profile of downtown Elon.
“We want Elon to become a destination for Alamance County and for the region around us in general,” she said. “We think there’s so much to offer here, this is a little cultural gem in Alamance County and for a big part of it, it’s not discovered. It’s really amazing all the stuff that Elon offers and to me, that should draw people from 60 miles away to come down here to Elon. It’s a little bit an island unto itself.”
“I think the more walkable Elon becomes, the more it’ll draw the community,” said Nakhle when asked about Elon’s plans to expand the town in the near future. “Especially as they move in the direction of cycling more, walking more, wanting to reduce their carbon footprint in general, I think that’s going to put Elon on the map.”
“I’ve Watched It Grow…”
When Amy Nakhle left the U.S. for Abidjan in 1988, she and her husband only came back to visit family for short periods of time until they returned for good in 2002. She said that the amount of growth Elon had experienced during that time, both while she was here to witness and while she was away, was incredible. “Over that period of time we would come back in to visit but I never really realized the extent of growth that Elon had gone through, but it was interesting because every time we flew back in to visit family we would be like ‘oh there’s a new building over there or there’s new signage over there’ and it’s still getting bigger. I think there’s still a lot more to be done here, it’s exciting.”
When it comes to the Elon students, Amy and the other Smitty’s employees love to see and to talk to anyone that comes in or even walks by. “Even when they’re not out customers it’s great to interact with them, it’s just a very feel good place. There’s always good energy here, there’s always something happening.”
Elon students also make up a good portion of the staff at Smitty’s, and Nakhle says that they’re all top-notch employees.
“I thoroughly enjoy working with our students, my one complaint is that they’re never available! Elon engages them so much that they don’t have enough time to work, and that’s not a bad complaint to have,” Amy said, laughing. “That’s the kind of employee we want, the one who wants to be engaged and who wants to reach out and get involved.
“I’ve Worn Every Hat in my Business”
When I came into Smitty’s to talk to Amy, she had been working behind the counter, serving ice cream. It was about 4 p.m. and her shift must have just ended, as she came over to me and introduced herself. “You know I have worked for 15 years in my stores, behind the counter, I’ve worn every hat in my business. From making the ice cream to being the accountant and I am pulling away from that now,” she said. “We are opening a third location in downtown Burlington this Summer and I will no longer be working back behind my counter. I’ll continue to do community outreach to raise a profile of Smitty’s and to work with other business in this area to create a community of involvement, but I won’t be back behind my counter, I think I’ve got one more week and then I’m done, but I’ll still be around.”
That week has since passed and Amy has given up her scooper for some checkbooks and extra time to work with other businesses in the area to broaden the reach of the community. “I’ll miss it, honestly it’s fun, it really is. Ice cream is a happy business and when people walk in they’re coming in for a treat and they’re almost always happy. Who doesn’t want to be around that vibe?”
I asked if she had a favorite memory from her time at Smitty’s, “when we turned 10 years old we had a huge celebration and gave away free ice cream,” she answered. “I remember coming down and seeing the line of people coming out our doors, they couldn’t even be inside the store anymore it was so big. It went all the way down the front of the building and all the way down to the stop sign here and just seeing that kind of love was really moving.”
“We turn 15 this year so we’re probably going to do something pretty big again,” said Nakhle fondly as “Space Oddity” by David Bowie played softly in the background of Pandora’s. We haven’t made any decisions yet about what that’s going to look like but we’ll definitely note in some way.” That anniversary is April 9, so Elon students and staff this year will be lucky enough to be on campus when the big event happens, whatever it may be. Free ice cream? Fuhgeddaboudit as Robert De Niro would say.
“That Was Very Tough for Everyone, Especially Small Businesses”
The financial crisis of 2008 is considered by many to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The housing market crashed, global economies took nosedives everywhere, and small business struggled to stay afloat.
For Smitty’s, it was a particularly tough time, the toughest, in fact, that Amy can remember. “At the time, we had a contract with UNC-Chapel Hill, were their official ice cream from 2006 to 2014. If we did not have that contract, we may not have made it through that period of time,” Nakhle explained. “That was very tough for everyone, especially small businesses. Ice cream is not something that’s essential, it’s not your bread and butter (literally) and it’s an expense that’s easily dispensed with, so I’d say that was probably our biggest challenge was just getting through that period of time.” Despite the hard times, Smitty’s did make it and has been able to get back on their feet and is now doing much better economically.
As for future challenges? Opening a third location came to Amy’s mind. “This upcoming challenge, to have three locations and to balance that out I think will be the biggest future challenge,” she said. “I’m excited about it, really excited about it and I think that it will be great for Smitty’s and we’re really hoping that with us moving into the downtown (Burlington) area it will really open the eyes of other businesses to the potential that’s in downtown Burlington. It’s becoming a magnet but it’s not yet there so we’re hoping that us being there will help to push it over.”
“You know it’s very complimentary,” responded Nakhle when asked how sharing a space with Pandora’s affected business for Smitty’s. “They’re a meal time, they’re savory so people here they’re busy at lunchtime and at dinner time. Ice cream is not something you consume for a meal generally, so when they’re really, really busy, we really don’t have many customers coming in at that time anyway. When it’s their downtime, that’s when we have all of our customers coming in, so you know the 4 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock times, it works out great.”
Pizza and ice cream might be one of, if not the, greatest combinations ever, and that’s what makes Smitty’s and Pandora’s work so well together. “We generally are able to stay out of each other’s way, and that works out really well. Peter and Jeff are wonderful to work with the staffs get along really well, there’s a lot of cooperation and I think everyone is very pleased and very happy.
“There Really Are No Mistakes When It Comes to Ice Cream”
To end our interview, I asked Amy if there were any stories or thoughts or moments that she thought embodied her or Smitty’s and that she wanted to end with. “There really are no mistakes when it comes to ice cream,” she laughed. “What I would think of as a mistake was when I mistakenly picked up mint extract instead of strawberry extract and it turned out to be a new twist on a flavor that had previously been undiscovered.”
What started as a “mistake” actually ended up being a new flavor discovery that has been sold at Smitty’s a few times since the incident. “One time I was making strawberry ice cream, and citric acid is something sort of pops, it’s a vitamin C basically, it sort of pops fruity flavors inside ice cream and other foods, and I mistakenly picked up the peppermint flavoring instead while making strawberry ice cream,” Nakhle recalled. “I ended up having this minty strawberry, and I tasted it and I was like ‘oh no, something wrong has happened here’ and a friend came into the store and she was like ‘well just rename it something else and see what happens’. We came up with the name Strawberry Fresca and we put it out into the dipping cabinet and by golly if it didn’t sell completely, it took a little bit of time to sell but it sold out completely. I even had a friend email me and say that they wanted to know if they could purchase a half-gallon of it the next time I make it. There are no mistakes, there are just new inventions.”
“I don’t sell it now, there have been other things that we’ve done too that were more of experiments, not necessarily mistakes, trying different flavors and so forth. There have been things that didn’t work out quite as well as we thought they might work out,” she said. “One time we made a Maple Bacon Bourbon flavor and it ended up being so heavy on the bacon that it was practically, well I thought it was practically inedible, but it sold! We brought it over here to Elon and by golly if it didn’t get all eaten. I guess it’s just a matter of your preferences too.”
“We’ve had such fun, it has been such a fun ride, and I can’t think of anything that I would do differently, and that’s a good thing, I feel good about that “
While she won’t be working behind the counter anymore, Amy will always keep visiting her stores, and she loves interacting with the students, faculty, and families that live and work in Elon. Smitty’s is open from 11:30 A.M. to 11 P.M. Monday through Saturday and 12 P.M. to 10 P.M. on Sundays. So, what’re you waiting for? Go buy some ice cream!