There are some rites of summer that never change. The eternal recurrence of mosquito bites, the smell of cooking pavement on city streets, the adhesive peel of the small of your back from boiling leather car seats. For four generations, Grand Rapid’s Jersey Junction has been such a rite. An immutable local landmark and nostalgia-ridden favorite specializing in the most summertime of delicacies: ice cream.
Tucked between the restaurants and shops running the length of walking paths along Gaslight Village’s main strip, Jersey Junction’s candied red and white facade sits brimming with expectancy and the promise of quenching your inner child with the same architecture of whimsy that makes Main Street, USA or family fun centers such a childhood draw. Inside is no different; tracing the perimeter of the shop is a model train set rounding what can only be described as a dental hygienist’s nightmare of candy jars and buckets of general store goodies as well as photos and kitsch accrued from decades of servicing a loyal contingent of summer sweet-seekers. But, of course, the piece-de-resistance of the ensemble is the ice cream counter. Twenty-eight separate containers sit chilled under the icy froth of the glass display, waiting to be chosen and savored in the cold, with the creamy, ecstatic manner inimitable to a good scoop of ice cream on a balmy summer’s day.
Mid-morning a few weeks ago, I stopped by Jersey Junction to speak with manager Elias Olivarez about the shop’s history and daily mechanics. I stumbled in as he was prepping for the day while his kids corralled around the parlor, and it was obvious from the start that there was something hereditary about Jersey Junction’s success and appeal. “We’re going on fifty years next year, we’re into the fourth generation of families running this place. We’ve got grandparents and great grandparents bringing in their kids here. And that’s what we want, a product that is so good that they will remember it and come back, five, ten, twenty years from now with their kids.”
And there is not much arguing with the product that is being put out. Jersey Junction exclusively serves Michigan’s own Rolex of ice creams – Hudsonville. “They make great stuff. They’re local and they put an emphasis on their brand loyalty and pride in the product they put out. They’re passionate about what they do. From our standpoint that’s what we look for and that’s a key reason why we wanted to partner with them.” You can get a taste of several Hudsonville flavors throughout any given day at Jersey Junction. The rotating selection of flavors can yield up to forty different varieties, including sherbets, sorbets, yogurts, and non-fat, low-sugar options. But despite the variety, when asked about their most popular offering, there wasn’t much pause, “Cake batter seems to be everyone’s favorite flavor.”
As I said before, there is something exuded by Jersey Junction that just draws in a community of people. I got a distinct sense of what it was in the firmament of the small ice cream parlor that kept the shop so vital after nearly a half century of business. When I ask Elias about what he thought made Jersey Junction such a special locale he explained, “A place like this is made up of a lot of little pieces, that’s what it is and it becomes one whole that you hold in your memory. That’s how it was for me. I’ve been coming here since before I was one. My mom worked here back in the sixties for the original owner and she brought me here and I’ve always loved what it was. A family, community place, and it just held onto that charm.”
During the course of the interview, Elias’ daughter Milena crawled up onto her father’s lap. It was early in the morning and she was being shy, but before I left, I wanted to ask her what is was like to be part of the family business. It was tough getting anything out of her, (a truth I chalk up to my novice skills as an investigative journalist) but despite that silence, I appreciated the pattern of Jersey Junction’s success replaying itself through the generations. It was abundantly clear by the early morning preparations the family was undertaking before I arrived that the legacy of Jersey Junction, and the memories and experiences carried through the summer months manning the parlor, are sure to preserve exactly what it is that makes Jersey Junction the landmark it is.
Remember folks, stay friendly and like Jersey junction on their facebook page.
–Chris Dier-Scalise, Feature Writer
Exciting news people, The Awesome Mitten is giving away a $10 gift card to Jersey. Just come up with an idea for a creative, ice cream-centric dessert and post your idea on our facebook page or tweet at us by THURSDAY, JULY 26. The most creative idea wins!