I regret to inform you that I am going to write about the Ice Cream Imbroglio.
It brings me no joy to do this — but then, since controversy erupted on social media over the change in ownership of the east Madison building previously occupied by Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, there has been no joy in Mississippi Mud Pie-ville. For the mighty Chocolate Shoppe has struck out.
Or, depending on your perspective, the mighty Chocolate Shoppe has been pushed out.
This is a story about two small businesses — one based in Madison, the other in Lodi. It’s a story about swiftly-drawn conclusions and social media mobs. It’s a story about the passion of Madisonians. And it’s a story about gentrification.
It all started last Wednesday, when the Chocolate Shoppe alerted the public via Facebook that it had been “forced to close” its location on the corner of Atwood Avenue and Jackson Street “for the remainder of the 2019 season” (though it sounds now like that might not be the case). The building the shop rented had been sold to new owners, the post explained, and the building’s new owners had locked the doors.
Or maybe the story all started a year ago, when the building’s previous owners, Teresa Pullara-Ouabel and Rachid Ouabel, notified Dave Deadman, the second-generation Chocolate Shoppe CEO, that they planned to sell the building — he would have right of first refusal for the sale — and that his lease would terminate on Sept. 30, 2019. Maybe it was when Deadman opted not to purchase the 354-square-foot space, which was assessed by the city at $58,000 and priced for sale at nearly $160,000.
Or maybe it was when Zach and Casey Davenport, owners of The Merrimac Scoop (an ice cream shop), D-Port Properties (a real estate business) and Best Buds LLC (a landscaping/lawn care business), offered to buy the building on Aug. 8, or when they closed on the sale on Oct. 1.
It also could have been when the terms of the Chocolate Shoppe’s lease came into dispute. Deadman argues a lease he signed in 2013 is still valid, telling Cap Times food editor Lindsay Christians he has an “evergreen lease” that allows him to rent year-to-year in perpetuity for $600 a month. He says the Ouabels’ termination of the lease last year was invalid. The Davenports tell Christians the Ouabels took the proper steps and, through their letter, established a “year-to-year tenancy.”
More likely, it started sometime within the last decade, when everything in Madison started trending up — employment, population, construction, real estate values, demand for a cute little neighborhood ice cream shop — you get the picture. Overall real estate values in Madison increased by 6.4% this year (commercial real estate values went up 6.5%). The median rent in Madison increased 23% over the most recent five-year period for which Census data is available. Over that period, home values in the Atwood area increased by 16.4%, outpacing the citywide average of 10.7% and inflation of 12.1%.
Whenever it started, it reached a boiling point — or perhaps, a melting point — last week.
When people learned the Davenports planned to open their own ice cream shop in the building (they’d hoped to sell Chocolate Shoppe ice cream, as they do in Lodi, but odds don’t seem great on that working out), some threatened to boycott the new business.
Some accused the Chocolate Shoppe owners of being disingenuous, since they’d passed up the opportunity to buy the building when they had the chance and were now upset with the people who did buy it. Some started leaving negative comments on the Merrimac Scoop’s Facebook page.
Others rightly wondered how the building’s new owners expected to succeed after alienating many of their new neighbors. Some people became amateur legal experts. Lots of people got emotional.
Much of this happened before any news outlet had reported the story with any of the context needed to understand the entire picture. Too many people were ready to latch onto a cause with picket signs and pitchforks; too few cared to take a moment to consider that perhaps there are no heroes in this story, that perhaps this whole thing is just a big mess, and that change is often upsetting.
The Chocolate Shoppe makes good ice cream. There are other places in the Madison area that also make good ice cream, and we should not forget them — like Schoepp’s and Babcock Hall and Sassy Cow and Michael’s Frozen Custard (which I know is not technically ice cream, but what, am I not going to include Michael’s?).
I think we can all be supportive of good ice cream and the places that sell it. I think we can also all be supportive of what the Chocolate Shoppe — which, including the Atwood location, has six locally owned shops and sells its ice cream in 22 states — has done in the Schenck-Atwood neighborhood. By all accounts, the company is a strong community partner, and all you have to do is drive past the shop on a sort-of-warm day to see how popular it is with families.
The thing is that the near east side is gentrifying. In fact, it has already gentrified.
I would love to buy a home on the near east side! I cannot afford a home near this ice cream shop. There is a really cute house for sale right now, less than 300 feet from the ice cream shop. It is listed at $375,000 for 1,394 square feet.
An analysis released by the city in August identified Madison’s Capitol Square and Atwood areas as being “in late stages of gentrification and displacement.” That the building’s new owners thought it was worth $160,000 (for 354 square feet!) is both an indication of the demand for ice cream and an illustration of the trends identified by that analysis.
It is deeply heartening to see a community rally around a local business it holds dear. It is deeply frustrating to see people’s better angels lose out to baseless attacks before a clear picture of a dispute has emerged. And while this is a story about an ice cream dispute, that trend is not unique to ice cream disputes.
The good news is that, late last Friday, the Chocolate Shoppe announced that a deal had been struck — although some details were still “up in the air” — for them to reopen the shop.
The bad news is that this will not be the last time an unpopular business decision will provoke a social media mob. And it will not be the last time the effects of gentrification lead to discomfort, frustration and worse among Madisonians — especially if we, as a city, don’t do more to offset the negative byproducts of growth.
Next time, let’s try to be more thoughtful, less quick to judge and more interested in understanding. Think about channeling your anger about ice cream into ways to improve your neighborhood. Learn more about what city officials are doing to try to balance the city’s growth with efforts to maintain affordability. We’re on a Rocky Road as we navigate our community’s growth, but if we stay focused on the big picture, the payoff will be sweet for all of us.
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