Max & Mina's Homemade Kosher Ice Cream

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Posted 07/13/09:
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Article from the NY Times about their booming business as of 2009
June 6, 2009
Kew Gardens Hills Journal
A Shop That Serves Comfort, Cold
Along the stretch of Main Street that wends its way through this largely Orthodox Jewish community in Queens, Bruce Becker’s candy-colored shop stands out among many of the other businesses.

Like many of his neighbors, he sells a kosher product and draws in regular crowds after Sabbath. But while many fellow shopkeepers are feeling the pain of slower sales in the recession, Mr. Becker’s business, Max & Mina’s Ice Cream, recently added eight workers, and he is working the longest hours he has in 12 years.

Mr. Becker, who owns the shop with his brother, Mark, is struggling to keep pace with a growing appetite for ice cream.

Since last August — a month when New Yorkers typically feel sated from a summer of scoops — customers have continued to pour in for comforting flavors like cinnamon babka and strawberry shortcake: Sales are up by 40 percent. Demand jumped by 70 percent for the Beckers’ wholesale business, which supplies Manhattan shops and restaurants that sell ice cream as a main dessert or in the supportive, à la mode role.

“There’s no question people are eating more,” Mr. Becker said as he darted around his shop in a blue pinstripe suit, a navy baseball cap and flip-flops. “This is an affordable comfort food. What kind of a life is it if you’re not eating something good?”

It is a sentiment shared by Melissa Lowinger, 20, a senior at Yeshiva University who visits the shop weekly with her grandparents and her younger brothers. While her family tries to be more cost-conscious during the recession, she has chosen not to sacrifice the mint Oreos that she likes mixed in with her ice cream.

“It’s been a tradition,” she said. “We try to be careful as we can. But ice cream is important, too.”

Max & Mina’s success, however, has not necessarily helped draw shoppers to neighboring businesses. While Kew Gardens Hills may not have been hurt as much as other neighborhoods by the recession, a sandwich shop and two clothing stores have disappeared from Main Street, said Patricia Dolan, president of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association.

She could not recall seeing empty storefronts in the neighborhood for “many years,” she said.

Mr. Becker, who has watched businesses — including a Thai restaurant and a bakery — close in the past year, said he had tried to help his neighbors. He suggested that the owners of one store, Ramat Gan Fruits and Vegetables and Israeli Imports, a market that has served the neighborhood since 1975, draw more customers by playing classical music and offering free samples.

Menashe Israeli, one of the owners, said that while business might have dropped about 20 percent, he did not need Mr. Becker’s advice.

“We help them,” he said, referring to the ice cream shop.

Meanwhile, Mr. Becker said he was receiving more orders from midpriced Manhattan restaurants. Mara Levi, who runs Mara’s Homemade in the East Village with her husband, David, stopped by the shop on a recent Monday morning to pick up two tubs of French vanilla to serve with her homemade peach cobbler and chocolate pecan cake. Ms. Levi said that while customers typically order fewer desserts in the warmer months, she had seen no slowdown this year.

“That’s a lot of à la mode,” she said incredulously, as she added up how much ice cream customers have been eating.

Compared with a year ago, she said, “we’re selling probably double the ice cream.”

Mr. Becker, a consummate food entrepreneur who chats about the investment capital backing cupcake shops and the financial limitations of gelato, has spent the past decade serving locals and promoting his flavors to the rarefied food elite of Manhattan. He found fame and a spot in People magazine’s most eligible bachelor issue along the way.

The shop walls are lined with photographs of celebrity ice cream fans, like the professional wrestler Mick Foley, who enjoyed cupcake ice cream at an event with so much “gusto,” Mr. Becker said, that he was cut off.

Dylan Lauren, who sells the Becker brothers’ ice cream at her Dylan’s Candy Bar shops in Midtown and at Roosevelt Field in Garden City, describes it as a “hippie, Orthodox, New York version of Ben & Jerry.”

These customer relationships, built in better times, seem not to be suffering in the downturn. Unemployed bankers in suits are still taking two buses and a subway for cones. And when the Barbie doll celebrated its 50th anniversary this spring, Ms. Lauren worked with Mr. Becker to blend pink ice cream with black and white cookies, in honor of the doll’s signature swimsuit.

Next door to Max & Mina’s, Suren Kay, manager of the Mr. Computer Doctor shop, said his business had fallen by 30 percent in recent months as more customers enlisted relatives and computer “geeks” to fix their computers. He recently closed a second shop, in Kew Gardens. And, an unrelated Web site that he runs,, has suffered from declining donations, he said.

Still, he said, he would not trade his financial pressures to run an ice cream shop, even as he sees the line spilling from his neighbor’s store on Sundays.

“Everyone has their thing that they do in this world,” Mr. Kay said. “Ice cream is ice cream.”

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