Keeping a summer treat flowing

Special to SunSpot

Kathy McLane and Vernon Geis couldn't be happier that summer definitely is here.

"We like it hazy, hot and humid," the co-owners of Kavern Snow Syrup said in unison, laughing. They have been making flavorings for snowballs -- long a Baltimore tradition -- for 11 years. The Pasadena-based Kavern is one of the region's largest producers of snowball syrup.

"We are so happy to be back in the hustle and bustle of the business," said McLane, adding that sales are down 30 percent this year because of the long, wet spring.

For the uninitiated, a snowball is a mixture of shaved ice and flavored syrup that is served up in a Styrofoam cup. They are different from snowcones, mostly a Midwestern treat with crushed ice, or Italian water ice -- a scooped Philadelphia concoction, also known as "Italian ice," that dates back to early Chinese society.

Snowballs are a Baltimore summer tradition, as are 90-degree temperatures, trips to the beach and going to camp.

Originating in the mid-1930s, snowballs are made on demand, and Kavern makes theirs with shaved ice to better absorb its one of 80 flavors, McLane said. The company's flavorings range from traditional cherry and grape to such exotic brands as "Harry Potter" -- it tastes like banana bubble gum -- and cotton candy.

Egg custard reigns as Baltimore's favorite, McLane said. Seniors say they like the flavor because it reminds them of growing up when egg custard was a popular homemade dessert. Spearmint also is popular with adults, and children go for the taste of cotton candy.

Kavern even makes a diet brand with a sugar substitute for those watching their calories.

Prices range from 95 cents for a simple shaved ice with syrup to $5 for an extra large snowball layered with chocolate syrup, marshmallows and cream. Marshmallow is the best-selling snowball topping.

Earlier this year, Kavern opened a 7,000-square-foot warehouse in Canton, raising its stable of regional stores to four. The company also provides service to 150 snowball stands in the area.

As temperatures climbed into the 90s one recent afternoon, more than 20 people lined up outside a Kavern store in Pasadena.

"We told them, 'Thank you for coming back,' " McLane said, referring to the many who had stayed away during the recent rains. "This got us out of the blues."

But Kevin Hagner is a loyal Kavern customer. A member of the Annapolis chapter of the Harley Owners Group, a motorcycle club, he has enjoyed the snowballs with his son, Jonathan, since the store first opened.

"I like spearmint, and I believe they make it with real spearmint oil," Hagner said (McLane confirmed that). "There's been a few places that have actually switched their syrup to Kavern [after suggesting they do so]."

That day was just as sweltering as the one in 1992 when Geis first began making snowballs with McLane in a Pasadena strip mall he owned. His partner needed some coaxing. "I didn't know anything about the snowball business," McLane said.

The partners got into syrup making in 1996 after the co-owner of their distributor, Dutch Treat Co., died.

McLane said she and Geis had reservations about the new venture. "We were concerned about being able to do it properly -- and the expense of it," she said.

Kavern Snow Syrup now makes 25,000 gallons of syrup per year as a part of the company's wholesale operation.

"This is a fun business, and I really like that the kids I used to serve are now bringing their kids here," McLane said.

"We're a small business -- and we like that we can offer jobs to local kids," Geis added. "We also get to meet a lot of people."

The snowball business begins in earnest in May and ends Labor Day, although McLane and Geis begin stockpiling supplies in early February.

That suits Renee Madden just fine. She has used Kavern syrup at her stand, Sweet Shivers, outside Kendall Hardware Store in Clarskville, for seven years.

"I really like their flavors," she said. "Last year, I was into margarita and sour lemon. This year, I'm into the Harry Potter flavor."

At the Pasadena store, Kelly Combs and Stephanie Listman, both 17, have worked for Kavern for four and two years, respectively.

Dressed in tie-dye T-shirts -- they conceal spills, they say -- the girls greet customers with broad smiles and pleasant conversations.

'It's awesome," Stephanie said about working for Kavern. "You see so many more people here than you would at another job."

"I love it," Kelly added. "We get to make the syrup, too."

To do that takes patience and time, McLane and Geis said. The key ingredient -- sugar, about five pounds of it -- is mixed in an 80-gallon kettle with water that's been heated to 160 degrees, additives and preservatives. It's stirred for about two and half hours, cooled and then bottled for distribution.

"We're probably one of the only manufacturers [in the country] that uses sugar," Geis said. Using sugar not only tastes better, McLane said, but it mixes better than corn syrup -- enabling the syrup to retain its consistency with the ice.

For those wanting to make snowballs at home, Kavern sells all the essentials -- from spoons to cups to ice-shaving machines.

Kavern's snowballs also have been a part of many festivals, birthday parties and fund-raisers in the region, including the Catonsvile Fireworks festival and Columbia International Day.

Although sales aren't what they had hoped for this year because of the rainy weather, Geis and McLane remain optimistic now that the heat -- literally -- is on.

"Everybody has a $1 for a snowball," they said, also in unison, laughing.

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