Fifteen years ago, Paul Tamburello organized a Fourth of July parade through Denver’s Highland neighborhood. A year later, he opened the iconic location of his Little Man Ice Cream company on 16th Street. Both have become Independence Day traditions. This year, kids flooded streets on their way to sticky, cold treats. We hung out inside the Little Man milk jug for the morning rush – after parade participants got soaked by a Denver Fire truck and danced through the northside.
Three workers, led by manager Victoria Huber, whirled around the small space as customers waited in the hot sun. Two scoops of strawberry, one coconut almond fudge, a cone of banana pudding, please.
Huber said the line wasn’t the longest she’s seen in the two years she’s worked here, but it was different in another way.
“Today was all locals, so that was really cool,” she said after the sugar surge died down. “It’s a different vibe. And all the kids knowing there’s a slide in the back and running straight to the back. And, ‘I want the sugar cone,’ and just knowing which one was which. It just felt really good.”
It’s been a tough few years in the food industry. A lot of local eateries shut down for good during the pandemic. But Little Man, Director of Marketing and Community Engagement Basha Cohen told us, has continued to grow. The chain opened a new spot at University Boulevard and Hampden Avenue on July 4th this year. Customer love helped them survive, she said.
So did a pandemic-era pivot. The company moved to take-out early in 2020 and never looked back.
“50 percent of our revenue (at our West Colfax “factory” location) comes from grab-and-go, and I think it’s a direct result of COVD,” she told us.
Cohen said they’ve also managed to avoid Great Resignation staffing shortages, thanks to a “family” corporate feel that makes people want to stick around.
Ethan Cha, in between carving scoops for customers, said he’s been grateful for those vibes when he’s at work. He talked to us through an N-95 mask he donned; he just came back from an international trip and wanted to play it safe.
“I love working at little man, because I live two blocks away, it’s convenient, nice. And at one of my old jobs, they berated me for wearing masks in the workplace,” he told us. “I feel supported here.”
Huber, too, said she’s been enjoying the sticky ice cream life since she stopped working in bars, which she said can be a “toxic environment.”
“A lot of problems in the booze industry are solved with booze, so I preferred to solve it with ice cream instead,” she said.
Last year, as wildfire smoke poured over the city, her bosses gave her team the option to shut down for the day.
“Our team was like, ‘No we want to work and we’re ok,'” she remembered, adding the chewy air didn’t stop customers from forming a long line, either.
As the morning rush chilled out, her team took deep breaths and dipped their faces in front of a huge fan. The evening’s tourist rush was only a few hours away.
Update: This story was updated to reflect that Little Man’s grab-and-go revenue is just for their West Colfax location.