With little advertising or innovation, It’s-It remains a local favorite. Go behind the scenes with the owner of the Bay’s iconic ice cream company.
“Good morning, It’s-It ice cream.”
I’m sitting in the waiting area of a nondescript office building in Burlingame listening to staff answer the phone, but it feels like I’ve gained entry to Willy Wonka’s inner sanctum.
I’m waiting to meet with Charles Shamieh, the president of It’s-It, whose iconic dark chocolate-dipped oatmeal-cookie ice cream sandwiches I have been eating my entire life. On the walls hang black-and-white photographs of Playland at the Beach, the San Francisco beachside amusement park and birthplace of the original It’s-It ice cream stand.
There’s a certain kind of magic attached to It’s-It sandwiches, which have endured over nearly a century of business in the Bay Area. Brides and grooms serve them instead of wedding cakes. People transform into giant sandwiches for Halloween (including at the San Francisco Chronicle, where reporters spent a week building a giant mint It’s-It costume last month). And year in and year out, we debate and rank our favorite flavors.
Though the company has evolved over the years with some new flavors and products, there’s a strict adherence to doing things the way they’ve always been done, since the late 1960s when Shamieh would ride his bike to Playland at Ocean Beach to grab a vanilla It’s-It.
“If you had an It’s-It last week, last month, next week, it will be the same exact thing,” Shamieh said.
Shamieh, who was born in Jerusalem, left Palestine for the United States in 1964 to study electrical engineering at the University of San Francisco. His family owned a pizza and ice cream joint at the time, where customers would come in asking for It’s-It ice cream sandwiches.
After Playland was razed to make way for condos in 1972 (shades of 2018?), the Shamieh family bought It’s-It from owner George Whitney. They quickly expanded to their current location in Burlingame, where a closed-to-the-public factory now churns out 100,000 It’s-Its every day. A new factory shop there remains the only location where you can get all seven It’s-It flavors in one place. (Standing outside the shop before my interview with Shamieh, someone asks if I want my picture taken, and I almost say yes.)
We sat down with Shamieh to ask about the history of the iconic Bay Area ice cream sandwich, how it’s made (involving a seemingly magical machine called “the chocolate enrober”) and his all-time favorite flavor.
(This interview has been edited and condensed lightly for length and clarity.)
Was there a specific point in time when the demand for It’s-It took off?
It blew up right away the first year because a lot of people over the years had been exposed by Playland. We used to do a number of fairs … you’d get a grandpa with a grandson, say[ing], “My daddy used to take me when I was your age to buy an It’s-It.” Over the years it has had a lot of customers, a lot of history. We started expanding right away into the Los Angeles market. We’re in a number of states now west of the Rockies — Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii — but our main hub basically is the San Francisco Bay Area.
Do you know where the name came from?
It’s really hard to exactly know. It was started by George Whitney down by the beach in 1928. The most logical story is that he was dabbling with ice cream and cookies and all that. When he put the combination of cookies, ice cream and chocolate — that’s a great combination. [Maybe he said,] “It’s it; that’s it!”
When did you first go beyond the classic vanilla ice cream and add new flavors?
Vanilla was for the first two, three years. Then mint came next and chocolate. For almost 20, 25 years we had just vanilla, mint and chocolate. The big problem with ice cream in general in the freezers [at stores] — you have little shelf space. If you come up with 10 flavors, you’re not going to have 10 flavors at any store. After that we had strawberry, pumpkin for the holidays and the green tea.
What’s the process for developing a new flavor?
The process is to start with the same basic mix. The mix that makes the ice cream does not change. Then you start dabbling with certain flavoring. Chocolate and cappuccino, we don’t do flavoring. We actually use cocoa powder for the chocolate, and coffee we use granulated coffee from Colombia. … It’s got to be something that has an appeal and has a good volume. There’s a possibility we’ll make on a smaller scale some other flavors — maybe a mango flavor or blueberry flavor — but it will be on a more limited basis.
Do you feel a pressure to modernize and evolve or do you feel like people just want the product that’s been around for 90 years?
We will keep the nostalgia. We don’t advertise much. We advertise in the most effective way for us, which is in-store demos. We want people to taste the product. Although it’s been around since 1928, this is the Bay Area … people are coming all the time so there are a lot of people who have never heard of It’s-It.
What’s your favorite flavor?
If you really want to taste the quality I think you should always have the vanilla. … I [also] love cappuccino. (Vanilla is also the company’s best-selling flavor.)
What’s the process for assembling an It’s-It?
We have what’s called a freezing tunnel. The ice cream stays there about half an hour. You have a cookie that drops on a stainless steel plate, moves about a foot and a half and the ice cream is cut on top of it … then it moves another foot and a half, two feet and another cookie [drops] on top. [A machine] taps it down so it’s always the same height. That unit goes through a freezing tunnel that’s kept at about 40, 50 degrees below zero. The unit stays about 28 to 30 minutes in there. It comes in soft; the ice cream is soft, like almost soft serve. When it comes out it’s hard as a rock. Then it gets [dipped in chocolate]. It’s called a chocolate enrober, which is a continuous pump that runs chocolate from the top and the bottom. From there it goes into a cooling tunnel, because you want to have the chocolate cool. From there it goes into the packaging machine and then into the freezer.
Why don’t you offer tours or allow anyone in the factory?
We don’t have the right facilities. First, the health inspectors will not allow you to do that. … there’s a lot of running water, machinery. Most places that do that have enough space that people will be walking around. You have to be completely dressed with a hair net, the shoes, all that. Had we had a bigger place here … we’re tied the way it is.
What do you think It’s-It means to the Bay Area today?
It’s part of the history and tradition of San Francisco. We have the Golden Gate Bridge. We have the cable cars. We have It’s-It. Of course, the sourdough, too, and the crab, but a lot of people love the city and they love something that comes out of the city. We’re proud that we kept an icon — kept it alive.
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