My cell phone reads 8:30 when my friend Lisa and I join the end of the line snaking out the front door of the new Cold Stone Creamery store at the El Cerrito Plaza. The line is the most distinctive feature of the ice cream shop, the latest addition to a franchise that has exploded all over the United States since it opened in Phoenix in 1995.
In front of us, a hyperactive eight-year-old is clambering all over his mother and aunt, darting in occasionally to look at the freezer cases. Behind us, a lone stoner giggles shyly at Lisa's stories. It takes a good 25 minutes for us to reach the threshold, and by then the line of newcomers completely blocks the entrance to the Starbucks next door.
Store number 152 opened about a month ago, and clearly its reputation preceded it. The Cold Stone chain appeals to the American craving for individual attention: You get your choice of around fifteen ice creams, frozen yogurts, and sorbets, and then you get to choose your "Mix-Ins." These sit in clear plastic containers along the cold stone countertops, long slabs of granite covered in frost. Once you place your order, your teen server plops a glob of ice cream on the slab and, with two large metal spoons, chops and kneads it until the Mix-Ins are mixed in.
To keep the line entertained, every time someone puts a dollar in the tip jar the Cold Stone team sings a jingle -- there's a "Coldstones, we're the Coldstones," to the tune of the Flintstones theme, and a "Sound of! Ice Cream! Sound of! Cold Stone!" Army chant. To keep the repertoire varied, sometimes the team gathers together to read the lyrics of a new song off a printed sheet. The crowd chuckles at each song, then returns to patient silence, like the lines at Disneyland.
"What are you getting?" whispers the woman ahead of me as one of the teens works her ice cream.
"Coffee ice cream with Heath bar and caramel," I tell her.
"That's what he's getting!" she exclaims, pointing to her boyfriend, and I feel less like an individual and more like a nameless Ben and Jerry's addict. "I'm getting lemon with blackberries."
Lisa is going for a similarly ambitious combination of chocolate ice cream with raspberries and peaches. I briefly contemplate adding pecan pralines to mine to spice it up, but don't want to overwhelm myself. "Is it worth it?" I ask my neighbor.
"This time it is," she replies, shrugging.
Our teen is particularly chirpy, and tells me she's excited, rather than horrified, about serving long lines of people. She quickly mashes and folds our ice cream, and hands over our bowls at 9:15. I'm quite pleased with my caramel and coffee combination, but Lisa's underwhelmed by extremely mild chocolate ice cream studded with icy, tart canned fruit.
I wave a dollar at the Cold Stone teen. "I'm putting this in the tip jar, but you don't have to sing," I warn her.
"Thanks!" she chirps. We duck out before she has second thoughts.