Imagine doing what you loved as a kid for a living. Imagine having your whole family join you.
- Posted on May 27, 2016
Rhonda dipped a chip into the guacamole we were sharing, her eyes never leaving mine. This was only our second date, definitely still in the getting-to-know-each-other phase, yet already I sensed a connection between us. She was super cute. Easy to talk to. But could I really trust my feelings?
I mean, look what happened the last time I thought everything was going great. I was married then, with four kids—three daughters and a son. My star was rising career-wise.
Customer service and sales came naturally to me, and at just 29, I was the manager of a Target department store in the greater Houston area. I had a strong work ethic, instilled in me by my parents. I put in long hours, proud that I could provide well for my family.
Then came a total shocker: My wife said she wanted a divorce. “You’re not married to me, you’re married to your job,” she said. “And our kids...they need you to be there for them. They need a father.”
I didn’t get it. The kids knew they could count on me, didn’t they? I did things with them. I tried to show them what was important in life. Sometimes I even took them to work with me. Monica, our second child, turned out to be a lot like me, a natural salesperson. Once I’d found her telling a woman shopping in the shoe department that the sandals she was looking at would go perfectly with her outfit.
My wife and I split up. Some guys like the bachelor lifestyle. I was miserable. I’d get off work, come home to my bare-bones apartment, nuke something for dinner, then halfheartedly play guitar and stare at the empty walls until it was time to go to sleep.
I threw myself into my job even more and got promoted to regional manager. That meant moving an hour and a half away from Houston. A couple of years of that, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to be closer to my kids.
I left retail and landed a job in Houston doing maintenance for an oil company. I had zero experience in the industry, but the hiring manager liked my attitude, energy and people skills.
Now, five years after the divorce, I felt stuck, like my get-up-and-go got up and went. All I’d done was trade one grind for another. I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for my new job. I barely saw my kids—every other weekend at best. My oldest, Sunset, was a junior in high school. Soon she’d be off to college and I would lose any chance of building a meaningful relationship with her.
Actually I worried that I’d blown it with her, with all my kids. Even when I did have time off, they didn’t seem very excited about spending it with me. What was I supposed to be doing with my life? I’d started going to church for the first time in ages, searching for direction. I liked the minister, the people, but I hadn’t found the answer I was looking for.
Instead I had found myself daydreaming about what I loved to do as a kid. The summer I was eight, my mother gave my younger brother Albert and me a handheld ice shaver—a Gilchrist No. 78. “Your dad and I can’t afford to give you an allowance,” she said. “But I thought you could make money selling snow cones, like I did when I was your age.”
She took us to the store and bought a giant block of ice for ten dollars and three kinds of syrup—banana, cherry and grape. Albert and I set up a table outside our house and taped a sign to it: Snow Cones, 75 Cents. Scraping the Gilchrist against the ice with all my strength, I could fill a cup with ice shavings—the kind that melt in your mouth—in about two minutes.
At first our only customers were a couple of our friends. By the next week, though, word had spread, and there were kids coming from all over the neighborhood, lining up for shaved ice. It was hard work—our arms ached from all the scraping—but worth it. Everyone, even the cool teenagers, hung out on our front steps, laughing, cutting up, sticking out their syrup-stained tongues.
I loved that feeling of connecting with people, of being part of something bigger than myself.
“God gave you a gift for making folks happy,” Mom told me. “I’m proud of you for working for your own money. But money isn’t everything. In the end, what matters is your family.”
Of course. But what struck me was that to make it in this world you need money. And to make money, you need to work hard, harder than the next guy. By my teens, I was selling shaved ice after school and on weekends. I’d pull in as much as a hundred dollars on a summer Saturday. Still that wasn’t enough. When I was 15, my parents asked me to get a job with a steady paycheck. They needed my help with our family’s bills.
So I put away the Gilchrist No. 78 and got hired as a cashier at a Popeyes chicken restaurant. I worked there through high school graduation, learning a lot about the food-service business. Then I moved into retail. I married at 22, started a family and worked my way up through the ranks at Target.
But where had that gotten me? By the summer of 2011, I was at a dead end. Marriage over. Disconnected from my kids. Working crazy hours at an unfulfilling job. The one positive thing to come out of it was meeting Rhonda. She was an executive assistant at the oil company, divorced, with a teenage daughter. They’d moved from Washington, D.C., to Houston hoping to make a fresh start.
Now I looked into Rhonda’s eyes, feeling warmed by her gaze. Maybe that’s why we clicked. I didn’t have to struggle to explain what I was going through. She understood.
She leaned across the table. “If you could do anything, Alexx, what would it be?”
The words just popped out of my mouth. “Shaved ice. I’d love to have my own shaved-ice stand again.”
I’d been thinking about that a lot lately, but I hadn’t told a soul. I mean, the idea was off the wall, right?
Rhonda probably thought so. Her mouth was half-open, as if she was about to laugh but caught herself.
I was trying to find a way to change the subject when she spoke. “So why don’t you do it?” she said. “I’ll help. We’ll do it together.”
We? I blinked. Was this woman for real?
“There’s a lot to consider,” I said. “It’s not something to rush into.”
“Then let’s start planning.”
I’d been researching the idea, looking on the internet for advice, business plans. But no matter how I ran the numbers, it never penciled out. I had to support my kids. I was afraid of the risk.
“The first thing is location,” I said. “We’d have to set up shop someplace where there’s a lot of foot traffic.”
“Why be stuck in one spot? Why not go where people are?” Rhonda said, her hands fluttering excitedly. “School carnivals, soccer tournaments, community festivals. You could have four or five trailers, different teams.”
I’d never thought of that. I’d need employees, supplies, trailers. But if there were more customers and no rent to pay on a store.... I asked Rhonda for a pen and did some calculations on a napkin. “It just might work!” I said.
Rhonda and I got serious after that. Not about wedding plans but about our business plan. Our dates were at street fairs and rodeos, where we checked out the competition. Walking hand in hand with her, sharing a shaved ice and talking about how we could make the flavor fresher, I fell hard for Rhonda.
I wasn’t the only one. suddenly my kids wanted to spend more weekends with me and Rhonda, helping with our market research. They hit it off with Rhonda’s daughter, Alexandra, too.
All of us would hang out at my apartment, tossing around ideas. We decided on a name: Just Chill Out. Sunset designed a logo on her iPad. Monica came up with the uniform—T-shirts in a bright, cheerful lime green. My 11-yearold, Brandon, helped me test different types of ice.
The winner? Round cocktail cubes. We voted on which syrups and ice shaver to buy. Our choice was the Snowie 3000, capable of making a cone every three seconds. A big upgrade from the old Gilchrist No. 78.
“This is fun, Dad,” my 13-year-old, Alison, said one night. “Like we’re a family again.” I felt it too. A sense of connection I hadn’t felt in years, of being part of something bigger than myself. And it went beyond family.
Now I could see how the pieces were all coming together. My parents’ work ethic. My mom’s gift of the Gilchrist No. 78. My years in food service and retail teaching me how to create the ideal customer experience. Meeting Rhonda, whose ideas and enthusiasm fired me up again. Creating a business that my kids could be a part of. God had seen to every detail.
That’s why before our very first gig— a community festival one Saturday in the summer of 2014—I asked everyone, including Albert, his son, my brother Michael and my sister Virginia, who were all pitching in, to gather in the driveway. We held hands and bowed our heads. “Thank you, Lord, for everything you’ve given us,” I said. “For bringing our families together in this business. For showing us that through you, all things are possible.”
We came in for a giant group hug. I kissed Rhonda. “Thank you for believing in me,” I said. “With your brains and my energy, we make a great team.”
We had a blast at that festival. The kids worked every shift, greeting customers, making shaved ice, running the cash register. They did me proud, as proud as my mom must have felt watching Albert and me with our snow-cone stand.
Within three months we had enough bookings that I left the oil company to run Just Chill Out full-time. We bought more trailers and ice shavers. Now we have five teams, with our daughters as crew leaders. Rhonda and I finally made wedding plans and got married. Last year we welcomed the newest member of our crew, little Emily Elizabeth. See what I mean about everything—and everyone—coming together?
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