Metairie native Steven Bel started working at Sal’s Sno-Balls when he was just 8 years old. That was back in 1978, when the venerable stand served sno-balls in paper cups and customers scooped them up with wooden spoons. Since then, some nuances of the business have changed, and so has Bel’s role at Sal’s Sno-Balls, which he now owns. But the original recipes and the methods that founder Sal Talluto set in place from the start in 1960 remain the same and anchor the shop’s popularity still.
That is a familiar balance at sno-ball stands around the New Orleans area. They’re steeped in tradition, but they also have proven adaptable to change as the years and the generations have rolled by. That’s opened the door to new flavors, new family traditions and even the occasional food truck collaboration.
For instance, while the classic flavors are the best-sellers at Sal’s, plenty of newer combinations have joined the menu. They have names like Batman, Joker and Robin, and they come with backstories that often offer more than meets the eye.
“Our flavors are all from the ‘60s,” Bel said. “Batman [and Joker are] from the comic book. Our Robin is named after [Sal’s] first granddaughter. We have a purple Dawn named after his last granddaughter.”
Bel has also continued using the same “soft” ice for years. This too is not as straightforward as it might seem. The temperature of ice can profoundly effect the texture and density of the finished sno-ball, he explained. Bel hauls up to 3,000 pounds of ice to the shop every other morning and keeps it at 28 degrees in order to get the fluffy texture he’s after. His sno-balls need just the right texture, he said, for the syrup to seep all the way through.
“One of the things that makes us different is that we do everything old school,” Bel said. “[We use] 300-pound block ice that’s from an ice plant. There are maybe one or two other people in the city that do that.”
Rainy day innovations
Plum Street Sno-balls keeps many of its traditions, including flavors and methods, but also adds to the old. Manager Jennie Roberts said when rainy days put a damper on demand, she has a chance to experiment with new flavors. Not all will make the cut (cookies and cream was one memorable example), but with 82 flavors the stand’s shelves are packed with possibilities. Combinations like strawberry shortcake and orchid cream vanilla, strawberry and pineapple, and mango and kiwi are particularly popular. The homemade condensed milk topping is a specialty of the shop.
For as many traditions as a sno-ball stand may preserve, loyal customers also pour their own particular traditions into these neighborhood favorites, giving them a life of their own for local families.
“The way New Orleans is, you go to your local neighborhood sno-ball stand, so a lot of our customers are from here,” said Roberts. “[It’s] really nice to see the generations of family coming back. We have this family that comes in from Atlanta every year and this is the first place that they stop before they even go home.”
Vintage gear, new flavors
For Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, continuing the family’s 76-year tradition means creating new artisanal flavors and hosting new events. That’s why Hansen’s Sno-Bliz has a menu of new “Fancy Flavors,” like sweetpea, satsuma and honey lavender. Owner Ashley Hansen Springate spends about three hours making all of the flavors fresh daily.
Customers can find a special bananas Foster sno-ball with freshly sautéed banana toppings only on Wednesdays. Springate and her staff test out new “flavors of the week” on Friday, and bring in food trucks like Taceaux Loceaux or Mamita’s Hot Tamales to serve savory items to the crowd that invariably forms outside its door. This has led to new collaborations.
“With the Taceaux Loceaux people, we call it snoceaux loceaux in Louisiana style,” Springate said. “So for snoceaux loceaux, we always do a special flavor of the week. That can vary from freshly-juiced blood orange to all-natural mint to all kinds of things. We just try different things to see what people’s reactions are to them.”
Though Hansen’s has plenty of new flavors, the shop is still known especially for its ice-shaving machine itself, which the late Ernest Hansen, Springate’s grandfather, built by hand.
“His original machine was built in 1934, and then the machine that we use today was built in 1939,” Springate said. “It still shaves ice as finely as the day it was built.”