A downtown tradition
Ice cream – a passion of many that provides not only a delightfully creamy treat but also an added unwanted couple of pounds. Though unhealthy, many can’t resist the deliciousness that ice cream provides.
The first ice cream parlor in America was established in 1776 and Columbia’s downtown ice cream shop, Sparky’s, has come a long way since then. Today, many more flavors and choices make for an even more exciting trip for ice cream lovers.
This local shop that is loved by many is only a small representation of what makes Columbia so comfortable. Inside, many workers spend their days making, selling, promoting and devouring the delicious homemade flavors of desire that so many people consider to be a trademark of this town.
Elizabeth Hughes, a Sparky’s employee, sits at the counter with her head in her hands, awaiting the next customer to come by and satisfy their cravings with a smooth fruity scoop or dark, rich cone.
Her stained apron, tattooed arms and wide smile welcome you into the store letting you know that when you leave, you’ll be happier than when you came in. Her kind nature and welcoming eyes are a direct indication that Sparky’s is as good as everyone makes it seem. Add her personality to a red bull shake, banana split or waffle cone full of sticky blueberry muffin ice cream, your day is complete.
An ice cream artist
Hughes has grown up in Columbia and is well aware of the extraordinary experience Sparky’s gives your taste buds. Most of her time is spent downtown at Sparky’s or her second job at Ingredient or just anywhere around Ninth Street hanging out with friends.
Elizabeth has worked at Sparky’s for roughly four months, enjoying just about every minute.
“It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had,” Hughes said. “I get to hang out and eat ice cream, it’s not that bad. And the people that work here are pretty awesome.”
There are many positive aspects to working at an ice cream shop, one of which being the obvious – ice cream galore – however, Hughes’ decision for Sparky’s is pretty present and clear.
“A lot of my friends work here,” Hughes said. “That’s pretty much the main reason. The environment is my favorite part. Being here is pretty relaxed and it’s just easy to be at work.”
The environment is pretty relaxed. Sitting in a corner observing a lazy fall afternoon, one can see that it’s going to be a slow day. Customers occasionally drop in for a bowl of raspberry sorbet or a waffle cone full of upside down peanut butter brownie.
A typical day in the life of an ice cream maker is pretty much the same as any other job, with the exception of being able to make delicious ice cream.
“I’m an ice cream maker,” Hughes said. “ I come in and open and get everything set up. I make ice cream and in between I help customers and keep the shop in tact and stocked.”
According to Hughes, making ice cream is actually a lot easier than it might sound. All it takes is to mix a couple of ingredients together and suddenly you have the delicious delicacy of chai-flavored ice cream ready to be served.
“The only secret really is that it’s a lot easier than it looks,” she said. “Ice cream is surprisingly simple and really fun but there are some complexities. There are just a couple little tricks to get everything right. We make it all here, so if you see a flavor and you wonder how it tastes, it probably tastes just like it sounds.”
There are some downsides to working in such a gooey environment.
“Ice cream is messy,” Hughes said. “We end up mopping a lot. As much that ends up on kid’s faces also ends up on the floor, but that’s just a part of the job.”
Though she only works two days a week at Sparky’s, she holds down another job just down the street.
“I also work at Ingredient,” Hughes said. “I live downtown and I have a permanent schedule here so I pretty much know when I’m going to work and it’s pretty flexible.”
Downtown seems to consume the life of Hughes’.
“I hang out downtown a lot,” Hughes said. “I usually either go to Ragtag or Shakespeare’s. Most of my friends work downtown as well.”
Admiration from peers
Hughes’ coworkers are pretty fond of her as well. Augustine Accurso and Ratko Radojcic have both only known Hughes for the short amount of time that she has worked at Sparky’s but they already have a pretty positive attitude toward her.
“She’s a very good worker,” Accurso said. “She listens to authority really well, which is really important. She does her job, knows what she needs to do, gets it done and does it well.”
When it comes to describing Hughes as a person and coworker, both feel the same.
“I would say she’s a really sweet girl,” Radojcic said. “She’s funny and generous.”
“She’s sweet and has an easygoing temperament,” Accurso said. “She’s enjoyable, pleasant and creative. I like that about her.”
It took a while for Radojcic to get to know Elizabeth well enough to feel that she’s such a good person. Not only attitudes dictate the way you feel about someone, but also so does the environment and the area in which you meet.
“Most of the shift it’s only like two people working,” Radojcic said. “So all the interactions is a lot more personal and easier to get to know people. You work with the same people week in and week out. I don’t think there are necessarily those types of traits that come out as a whole in the store. It kind of comes down more to the relationships that you have with who you work with.”
Occasionally, Sparky’s receives a couple of customers who are looking for more than ice cream.
“At night we get a lot of homeless that come in and try to talk to us,” Hughes said. “They tried to take out our trash once, in hopes of getting tips, but they usually leave us alone.”
Other late night customers sometimes can’t seem to leave on their own. When you stick around late enough to watch them close, you understand.
“We’re open pretty late so drunk people come in sometimes,” Hughes said. “We stopped letting them come in if we’re closed so that they don’t pass out in the bathroom – that’s happened before.”
Sparky’s is known for its multiple flavors that are out of the ordinary for the ice cream industry, such as carrot cake, lavender and honey, and jalapeno chocolate. Even with many to choose from, Hughes has her favorites.
“It changes because we don’t have the same stuff all the time,” she said. “My two favorites of the ones we usually have are chai or peppermint chip.”
There are always a select couple flavors that customers enjoy more than the rest.
“I’d say that the cookies ‘n cream or the cake batter are the most popular,” Hughes said.
Rain or shine
Sparky’s sees customers throughout the whole year.
“It obviously slows down in the winter but in the summer there isn’t a whole lot of downtime,” Hughes said.
No matter the weather, you can bet you’ll see Elizabeth with her short blonde hair and tattoos sitting at the counter awaiting a new customer to serve.