Chilling out in National City

Locals and out-of-towners have long known that ice cream at Niederfrank's is a unique treat.

Niederfrank’s Ice Cream on A Avenue in National City has been serving up all-natural ice cream for more than 60 years, and not much has changed in that time.

The company brags on its Web site that Niederfrank’s treats are made with the most “inefficient, outdated and expensive process” available, three adjectives that don’t normally appear in marketing material. But that’s kind of the point.

Co-owner Mary Ellen Faught, who bought the store from Dave and Betty Allen in 1995 with partner Patti Finnegan, said part of the purchase agreement included a promise not to change anything about how Niederfrank’s operates. Most of the recipes, she said, are more than 50 years old, and the ice cream machine that still churns out gallons of frozen confections every day has been operating for about 100 years.

When Faught purchased the shop, the previous owners were on the verge of shutting the doors. It was hard to find someone willing to carry on the labor-intensive tradition, she said.

“No one wanted to do all this without changing everything. You know, they wanted to take out the strawberries and put in the (artificial) flavoring … so I made a promise that I wouldn’t change anything,” Faught said. She even signed a contract to that effect.

Everything at Niederfrank’s is still as it was when Elmer Niederfrank opened his doors in 1948. The waffle cones are still made by hand, and every flavoring-from the coconut to the black walnut-comes from a natural source. The raisins in the rum raisin are still soaked in rum one batch at a time.

Faught said that authenticity can actually throw some people off. Oddly enough, many customers are so used to artificial flavors that they don’t recognize the real thing when they taste it.

“They’re so used to the chemicals … they don’t think the real strawberry tastes like strawberry. It’s amazing,” Faught said.

The colors of the various ice cream flavors can also be unfamiliar when not enhanced by dyes and other additives. Niederfrank’s black licorice sports a brownish rather than a black color, because it’s made with actual licorice root.

Faught said she often has to coax customers into tasting the product so they can get past their first instinct.

Recipes and flavors are one thing, but Niederfrank’s also uses old-fashioned equipment, from a century-old ice cream machine to a 1940s era freezer. The walk-in style unit is built directly into the wall of the building and lined with nearly a foot of natural cork insulation.

Faught said the relic actually performs better than the more modern freezer they installed a few years ago. When the shop lost power a while back, the modern device thawed out within a few hours, but the cork insulation on the original model kept temperatures constant for several days.

“Everything doesn’t always get better with technology,” Faught said.

Over the years Niederfrank’s has become a community hub for occasions of all types, from marriage proposals-and actual weddings-to after-school gatherings and even post-funeral receptions. Faught said they often get visits from couples who shared their first date in the shop as teenagers and adults reliving a childhood tradition.

But the shop still has drawing power, even for those with no connection to its past. Jonathan Gerodias from Chula Vista and National City resident Laura Lai Gamboa said they weren’t regulars as kids, but had recently discovered the store through a more modern avenue-the online review site

Gerodias said he had been to Niederfrank’s a few times when he was a kid, but after revisiting the store with his girlfriend Lai, it has become a newfound tradition.

“Normally when we have guests from out of town we take them here,” said Gerodias. He said the flavors are unlike anything else around.

National City resident Alicia Garcia also stopped in for a cone on a Friday afternoon.

“I just came out of the doctor and I said ‘I deserve this,'” Garcia said, laughing. She said she’d been coming to Niederfrank’s since she was a little girl and the memories are what keep her coming back.

That kind of a strong neighborhood tradition can make people wary of change, Faught said. When she first began working the counter in 1995, there were some strange looks from customers not accustomed to a new face. Faught said she thinks she’s been doing a good job upholding the tradition.

“So far, I think they’ve been happy with us,” she said.

Chilling out in National City