In the Line of Duty
My ice cream jones is daily, relentless, and unrelated to the weather. My girlfriend, on the other hand, needs the temperature to hit 70 before she’ll even consider a cone. Earlier this summer, we were granted a few hot San Francisco evenings (mythical like a double rainbow), so naturally I steered a dinner date straight to Humphry Slocombe.
It’s Monday, and we’re dining at El Delfin on 24th Street, strategically close to my objective. The weather is summery, we’ve blazed through our spicy shrimp, and ice cream is the obvious next step. It’s possible (though unlikely) that I won’t even be the one to suggest it. When we ask for the check, it’s 8:50, 10 minutes before Humphry Slocombe closing time. No worries: our uptight East Coast punctuality is in remission. Right before 9, we stroll toward Harrison.
As per usual, Humphry Slocombe’s line stretches out the door and down the block. We queue up behind two goateed dudes with shiny domes, drinking from paper-bagged tall boys. When someone says Limp Bizkit, I picture these guys. As we shamelessly eavesdrop on their beery gossip, we barely notice the young ponytailed guy nearby, desperately trying to get our attention.
“It’s 9:02,” he says quietly.
“You guys can get in line, but no one else.”
It takes a minute to process that this skinny kid in cutoffs (let’s call him Tom) is wearing an ice cream–spattered Humphry Slocombe T-shirt. Suddenly, we get it: this is the scooper/bouncer, and his job is to shut down the line. Tom looks like he’d be more comfortable nesting in a yurt or teaching crafts at summer camp, but he is tonight’s bad cop. Line bouncer is a nightly role at Humphry Slocombe, a task that rotates among the scoopers.
The first latecomer is a bookish chap in a bike helmet who seems to think he’s being razzed: “Dude, you cannot be serious.” Tom seems like the type of guy who might yank your chain a bit, before chuckling sheepishly and tucking his hair behind his ears. Tonight, though, he’s not messing around. “I’m sorry, man, we’ve gotta shut down sometime. I want to go home!”
I spent years working in a hyper-busy ice cream parlor myself, and I know this feeling all too well. It’s late, you’re sticky and exhausted, and you’re looking for the quickest route to a cold beer and a shower. I have no experience with Tom’s role, though. My former employer closed at midnight, and by then the lines were typically short enough to be contained inside. At closing time, we’d simply shut the door and put up the closed sign. It’s a lot harder to negotiate with a sign than with a soft-faced, easygoing kid.
“C’mon, we drove all the way down from Napa!” a couple of newcomers plead. Tom’s will is eroding. We can tell, and so can the Limp Bizkit guys. They watch intently while downing their beer, making predictions for when he’ll cave. And sure enough, within minutes a Hawaiian-shirted couple replaces us at the line’s end. “How’d you get by the gatekeeper?” I ask them. “We straight-up begged!” they laugh.
To evade the increasing hordes, Tom asks if anyone in line wants to hear the flavor choices. Soon he is in a happy place, performing yogi stretches and trilling both the top-selling mainstays (Secret Breakfast, Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee) and his personal favorites (Green Tea–Black Sesame, Milk Chocolate Passion Fruit). Then Tom is jarred back to reality by the increasingly rowdy guys in front of us. They call out, “Hey, why didn’t you let our friends in the other night? They were flying back to Madrid but you guys said all the scoops had been washed!” Tom shrugs and looks around helplessly. He knows why the rules are in place. He just hates playing the heavy.
But good luck trying your sob story with most of Humphry Slocombe’s scoop squadron, exhausted after eight hours on their feet and more than hardened to your whine. There’s a good chance they’ve heard the spiel before.
“I’d love to give ice cream to each and every person who wants it,” says general manager Emily Atkinson. “But at some point, it’s just like, ‘Our hours are no secret. We’ve been working all day. Have a little sympathy.’” Emily was the shop’s first employee, and she’s heard all the excuses: flight leaving the next morning, emergency ice cream for a pregnant wife, even people who use their children as ammo. “That’s tough, when people tell you it’s their kid’s birthday, and the kid’s just staring at you with big eyes,” she admits. “You kind of have to get stoic.”
When Humphry Slocombe opened in 2008, co-owners Sean Vahey and Jake Godby were the only scoopers. They didn’t mind staying open well into the night, because profits were their paychecks, and their sweat was the equity. But once the shop’s profile blew up, locally and nationally, they needed employees in the trenches. Humphry Slocombe has been written up in The New York Times, featured multiple times on the Food Network, and was recently voted the most popular ice cream shop in America by the blog Local-icious. Without a plan to deal with the seemingly endless lines, their scoopers would be working all night. The line bouncer scheme, adapted from a similar plan used by Bi-Rite Creamery, seemed to be the best option. “Nobody likes to be the bad guy,” says Sean. “We don’t kick anyone out once they’re in the shop eating, but we have to draw the line somewhere.”
For some, that line is murkier than for others. At one point Tom tells a customer he’ll let her in line if she agrees to take over his bouncing duties for a bit. “It’s a social experiment!” hoots someone nearby. The customer glumly agrees to the gambit (it’s her only ticket in), and Tom hands her a Humphry Slocombe sandwich board to hold up. If it’s possible, she looks more miserable than he did.
Later, as my ladyfriend and I finally get our cones, the server notices Tom letting a group of pretty girls into line. “Hey!” she yells out the door. “How about you get in here and start scooping!” Faced with this alternative, Tom gets serious. We see him cross his arms, shake his head, and send a few more ice cream lovers home.
Humphry Slocombe’s scoop bouncers have heard it all before, so you’ll have to dig deep into your creative reserves to get in that line. Like the kid peeling off his shirt to impress the Studio 54 bouncers, we suggest you bring your A-game. Or a suitcase full of cash.
They Have Heard It All Before:
● Most common: “I’m leaving town in the morning.” (Sean’s response: “Why’d you wait until now to visit?”)
● “My wife is pregnant.”
● “I’m pregnant.”
● “We drive the whole family up to the city, and our grandma is going to make the drive home miserable if we don’t get ice cream.”
● “I just got fired today.” (Also, replace “fired” with “dumped.”)
● “It’s my kid’s birthday” (gestures to sad-eyed kid).
● “My boyfriend/mother/roommate is sick at home.”
● “I really need this date to go well.”
● Abject begging
● Offers of bribery: money, phone numbers, and often weed, according to Jake