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Dip into Florida kitsch

A Twistee Treat's retro look may attract folks, but it's the ice cream that hooks them.

Published July 28, 2006

In its heyday in the mid 1980s, the Twistee Treat Corp. was doing well enough to attempt an unsuccessful $84.5-million acquisition of ice cream novelty maker Carvel Corp.

At the time, the New York Times described Twistee Treat as "a tiny Florida company with a chain of ice cream cone-shaped outlets." Carvel sold to Investcorp three years later, and soon after the Twistee Treat Corp. seemed to fade or, in the words of critics, "melted away."

But even though the corporation, based in Fort Myers, didn't deliver the profits hoped for by investors and franchise owners, having filed for bankruptcy in 1990, its legacy remains in the form of fiberglass roadside ice cream cones that still dot communities around the country, inspire Web sites devoted to their nostalgic faade and draw baby boomers eager for a summer treat reminiscent of a simpler time.

"It's a beachy, Florida thing. It reminds people of the old days, family vacations," said Dore Herman who has owned a Twistee Treat shop on Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach for two years.

There are three of the cone-shaped shops in Pinellas County. The other two are in Seminole and Kenneth City.

Herman, who also owns Larry's Ice Cream & Gelatos just up the street from the Twistee Treat, said the two businesses do not compete with one another because the Twistee Treat is unique and attracts people who stop for soft ice cream and a fix of retro.

Herman said customers and passers-by often stop in and offer to buy the building or inquire as to where they can get one.

"It's amazing. People will stand outside in the rain to look at it and buy cones. I think it's because the ice cream cone draws them in because it's old-fashioned. It's like a throwback to the 1950s or something," Herman said.

Which is what the original designers of the Twistee Treat shape had in mind.

Meant to be reminiscent of kitschy Florida tourist havens of a bygone era, the cone-shaped buildings were originally manufactured in the 1980s. The movable structures are made of fiberglass and are about 28 feet tall and 20 feet wide.

At the time of the bankruptcy, franchise owners were given free rein to do as they wished with the cone-shaped buildings. Some kept the name Twistee Treat; others opted to rename.

"When they went out of business, they let everybody keep what they already had, so everybody could just go do their thing. Nobody owns the name. Basically, anyone can open up an ice cream-shaped unit and call it 'Twistee Treat,' " said Jonathan McAuley, co-owner of a Twistee Treat on Seminole Boulevard.

McAuley and his wife, Cecelia Minor, bought the shop about 16 months ago.

"About once a month people come by say, 'Hey, this is so cool' and offer to buy it," McAuley said.

But he isn't interested in selling. McAuley and Minor have carved out a niche and have a steady year-round flow of regular customers who live nearby. The fact that they cater to dogs helps.

"We sell bacon and peanut butter-flavored ice cream for dogs and we use real bacon, by the way." McAuley said.

He has some customers who stop in to purchase ice cream treats for their dogs without getting any for themselves.

"I was a little concerned at first about serving dogs here, but we've had no problem with the dogs hanging out at the picnic tables and enjoying their ice cream. They're great."

McAuley and Minor employ a few former workers from the now-closed Orange Blossom Grove next door to the Twistee Treat and also inherited some of the citrus store's former ice cream-loving customers.

A third Twistee Treat on the corner of 54th Avenue N and 58th Street N in Kenneth City has been closed for a while and at one point was for sale.

"The guy who owned the Twistee Treat in Kenneth City has been trying to sell his Twistee Treat on eBay for a while. He was asking $35,000 for the building and the contents," McAuley said.

But the Kenneth City shop, which is enclosed to allow indoor seating, has new tenants who plan to open in about a month.

The new name will be "The Daily Scoop," according to documents filed with the city clerk.

Although the Twistee Treat company doesn't exist as it did in the 1990s, an April 2006 Securities and Exchange Commission filing listed 21 Twistee Treats in Florida, including McAuley and Minor's shop.

"But right now, everyone is really doing their own thing. Some serve three flavors; we have over 100. Others serve hot dogs and sandwiches. And everyone has painted the buildings whatever color they want."

Although McAuley and Minor have made some changes to the business since they purchased it, they say they cannot imagine changing the name.

"Why call it anything but Twistee Treat?" McAuley said

"That says it all."

[Last modified July 27, 2006, 23:11:45]

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