There’s nothing quite like discovering the perfect treat where you least expect it.
In an old cinderblock shed on U.S. 29, beside a dreary parking lot once occupied by U-Haul trailers, University City residents can now find cool and classy New Orleans-style “snoballs,” just in time to beat the July heat.
The place is called “Pelican Snoballs.” Inside the shed – the exterior of which has been transformed by an exuberant paint job in pink, turquoise and blue – Gregg Fatool and Tina Sassaman serve more than 100 flavors of “snoballs,” a sweet and colorful shaved ice concoction from Louisiana that’s the perfect antidote to summertime’s high temperatures and low motivation.
Snoballs have been, well, snowballing in popularity across the U.S. for the past couple of years. These frozen delights aren’t gravelly snow cones from the county fair. Julia Moskin, writing in The New York Times, explains:
“A snoball is to a snow cone as Warren Beatty is to Shirley MacLaine : closely related, but prettier, smoother and infinitely cooler.”
Around the world, there are plenty of related treats, in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. In Hawaii it is called “shave ice.” President Obama, Hawaiian by birth and brought up in Honolulu, is a shave ice fan. The Christian Science Monitor has suggested that his choice of shave ice flavor may even predict his political strategy: If the President orders “sour lemonade,” what might that mean for his relationship with the GOP?
At the Pelican, the favorites are sweet cherry, blue raspberry or both combined to create a “superhero.” That’s just for starters. The store also has fruit flavors such as mango and watermelon, classics such as pink lemonade and cotton candy, and a few not listed yet, such as cappuccino and caramel popcorn.
“We even have a couple of flavors people want to try but never order, like dill pickle and toothpaste,” Fatool said.
When I visited the stand’s location on North Tryon just beyond the Walmart, cars were waiting in the lot before the Pelican opened at noon June 26. The place was still humming that same day at its 10 p.m. closing time.
Vision and imagination have transformed this once-bleak urban space at a minimum cost. There’s an informal collection of picnic tables, colorful sun umbrellas and patio chairs, a chess board and a beanbag toss game set up on the lawn. It’s a friendly, down-to-earth sort of place that feels like summer vacation.
Of course, the main attraction is the snoballs. Fatool works the shaving machine, getting the texture right and scooping the ice into a graceful snoball. UNC Charlotte engineering major Dylan Stultz selects from a rainbow array of wine-bottle-sized glass containers grouped on a countertop and splashes the ice with the right flavors. All the while, the vivacious, well-organized Sassaman is taking and serving up orders without missing a beat.
“We’ve had 40 people lined up, but I’ve met the nicest people here,” Fatool said. “And we’re getting pretty good at moving them through.”
As soon as the stand opened, a gaggle of kids tumbled out of their SUV and rushed eagerly up to the order window as Mom called instructions from the driver’s seat: “Hey, don’t order for Johnny. Let him order for himself!”
They were joined in short order by a couple of UNCC students taking a study break, an executive in a suit and tie (don’t worry, a sign reassures, the flavors are colorful but they don’t stain) and an IT worker with a blue knit logo shirt.
The Pelican is the kind of place where people chat in line.
“Let me tell you, these guys get it right!” the IT guy announced. “Last week, I was in a little Louisiana town not far from New Orleans, and I had me a snoball. When I have one of these snoballs right here, why, I could be standing right back there again.”
It’s a high compliment. Adrien Johnson, founder of the Pelican Snoball chain, is from Raleigh, but his wife is from New Orleans.
“She made him do it exactly like they do in Louisiana, so it is authentic New Orleans style.” Fatool said.
For Fatool, this marks a new beginning. He attended N.C. State University on a wrestling scholarship, then settled in the Raleigh area. After 30 years as a big rig driver for Domino’s, he was ready for a change. When Johnson asked him open a Pelican location in Charlotte, Fatool jumped at the chance, enlisting Sassaman plus his entire family to help set up the new enterprise.
It’s been a big job, with 12-hour days seven days a week. Fatool would like to explore his new city but has been too busy to see much in Charlotte. That’s likely to continue until October, when the Pelican closes for the winter (the stand is seasonal; he plans to re-open in April).
New York transplant Adanica Rodriguez is grateful for Fatool’s dedication. She’s a snoball fan, and now her friends are fans, too.
“This is new for Charlotte,” Rodriguez said with a big smile as she scooted behind the wheel of her car, carrying a rainbow of different snoballs to share back at work.
Fatool has added a flavor named in honor of the Carolina Panthers and would be very happy to see anyone from the team drop by. (He mentioned Jon Beason by name.) “Snoballs will be on the house,” Fatool said.
Will Pelican get any special orders or distinguished visitors during the coming Democratic National Convention? It might not be a bad idea to stock up on coconut, mango and a few other Hawaiian faves and to hide the sour stuff.
On the other hand, whatever Beason or President Obama decides to do, the Pelican is there for the rest of us throughout the long, hot University City summer.