1823 Metairie Road
Metairie, LA 70005
I’ll eat a cherry on the way home every night. I make a sno-ball and check the ice in the machines and eat it and see, because I sharpen the blades about every two weeks and I’m testing to see how the blade sharpens. – Steven Bel
Steven Bel was 8 years old when he started working at Sal’s Sno-Balls, the neighborhood stand that “Mr. Sal” Talluto opened half a block from Steven’s family home in 1959. Steven met his future wife, Gretchen, there when they were both just 11. By the time he was 17, he had started his own ice-delivery business with Sal’s as one of his clients. At 25, he bought the place. Until recently, Steven worked full-time for Continental Airlines as well as running Sal’s. His sno-ball business increased so drastically after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, however, that he retired from the airline and devoted all of his energies to Sal’s. Steven has several theories for the post-Katrina spike in sno-ball sales. Whatever the reason, he and his employees shave roughly 1,000 pounds of ice daily during sno-ball season (March through October). He drives 30 miles roundtrip every other day to fetch the ice in 300-pound-blocks from Cristina Ice Service in Marrero because, he says, Cristina’s ice is softer than other commercially available ice. And when passed through a New-Orleans-style ice-shaving machine, soft ice produces the lightest—and most readily packed—sno. Steven still uses some of Mr. Sal’s original syrup recipes. Flavors like Joker, Sock-It-To-Me, and Crème de Menthe are relics from his era.
What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Steven Bel – Sal’s Sno-Balls – Metairie, LA
Date: May 3, 2011
Location: Steven’s Bel’s residence - Metairie, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Tuesday, May 3, 2011. I’m in Metairie, Louisiana with Mr. Steven Bel. If I could get you to say your own name and your birth date, we’ll get started?
Steven Bel: My name is Steven Bel. And my birth date is December 13, 1965.
Thanks. Could you tell me in your own words how you make a living?
Right now I am full-time sno-ball operator of Sal’s Sno-Balls. I retired three years ago of 21 years at Continental Airlines. So I used to have two jobs. [Laughs]
What did you do with Continental?
I started out on the ramp, did baggage, turn cleaning, freight, mail for the first 10 years, and then I moved upstairs and did ticket counter, gates. I was employee rep for the city, and then actually the sno-ball stand kind of pushed me into retirement because after [Hurricane] Katrina we had a great increase in business. And it was a whole lot more work. So I retired three years ago, so about two years after Katrina. And those were two rough years because I’d get probably three hours of sleep in the summertime.
Why was there an increase in your business after Katrina?
You know I think there’s several things and this is just my theory. This area didn't flood, so a lot of people had family members, people living with them, and they would just—you know, in the house when you add that many people to it some people just have to get out. And we were open rather quickly after Katrina. We actually were here before people came back. So we actually opened up and served just the military and the police. We just gave sno-balls away. And then as people came back, it was a staple that was taken away, and people came back and you couldn’t get a po-boy. You couldn’t get anything. You were getting MREs and water.
So a lot of people were coming out, and then a lot of people were just hanging out there at night. It was like a meeting place. And then they’d see people that, you know, they had lost connection with. And then so our business increased probably 50-percent after Katrina.
Katrina was August 29-30, 2005. When did y'all reopen?
We were opened 21 days after Katrina. We actually left and the sno-ball machines came with me. They stayed at my cousin’s in Mobile, Alabama, and then we evacuated to Tallahassee and then Fort Myers and Disney World and then came back. We got passes to get back in the city and came across the Causeway, and it took about—I guess about five days to actually clean the sno-ball stand because—we had never evacuated before. And just knew I needed to take the machines because if we had took a direct hit, I didn't think anything was going to be here. And the manufacturers of the sno-ball machines are all local. Sno-Wizard is on River Road, Eisenmann’s is down on St. Claude, which got flooded out and they’re now working with Southern Snow over across the river. So it’s not like, you know, if all the cars are flooded you can get a new car from Detroit. So we got back and all the syrup had fermented. My refrigerators had—the soft-serve ice cream mix; no electricity. It probably got up to 130 degrees in there. The vegetable trays on the bottom were probably halfway full of like a whey. A friend of mine, Jay DeSalvo, helped me clean it and he answered the phone after we were in there about an hour. He answered it, “Sal’s Wine and Cheese Shop.”
I’d like to ask you where you grew up.
I actually grew up in the house next door [to the one] that we are in. This is 133 Helios; I grew up at 135 right down the street—actually one, two, three, four houses away from the sno-ball stand.
So the sno-ball stand was open when you were growing up?
Yes. The history of Sal’s: Mr. Sal Talluto was the man who opened the sno-ball stand. And he had a business on Metairie Road, which is now Regent’s Bank, which is basically cattycornered from the house that was behind the sno-ball stand that he lived in. And it was Sal’s Supermarket. It was opened in I guess the ‘40s or ‘50s. The grocery stores back then he had a delivery route. We have the old books of the addresses in this neighborhood where people would get their groceries delivered and then they’d come pay their bill at the end of the month.
And he had a heart attack in ’58 or ’59. And in the City of New Orleans, when you owned a grocery store you were the butcher. [Laughs] And you know back then you’d get a cow or a half a cow delivered and you’d have to pick this up and cut it up into the meats you would sell. And back then when you had heart attacks, you couldn’t lift anything after that. It put too much strain on you. It’s not like today, the technology we have and medicine, so he was told he wasn’t going to be able to be the butcher anymore.
Before that time there was a sno-ball stand called AJ’s Sno-Balls. It was in the alleyway between the grocery store and one of the stores in the little strip right there. And it was open for several years and it was an older gentleman that had it and he wound up closing it up when he had health issues. And so I think it was in the back of Mr. Sal’s mind that, you know, it was something that he could do. So he opened up in front of the house that he lived in—a sno-ball stand—and called it Sal’s. It was opened in 1960; it was in a small building. The building we have now is actually the second building.
After he opened Sal’s, then the Parish came up with zoning laws and so they wouldn’t let him tear the old building down. So he put it on oil cans, 25-gallon oil cans, lifted it up with a forklift, built the new building and then had to dismantle the old building and bring it out the front door. And in there we still have the round holes in the concrete. They basically put two metal 25- gallon oil cans and the sno-ball stand teetered on it, and they laid the slab and put the cinderblock and put the roof; tore it down, and then beat in the old cans and then filled in those holes with concrete.
So that building was built in 1969. And then how I come into play was, Mr. Sal used to live on Galvez [Street] in New Orleans, and my grandfather, William Rodriguez, lived on Ursulines [Avenue]. And my grandfather had five kids—he had four girls and a boy. And Mr. Sal had two daughters. So they lived around the corner from each other. And then my Aunt Leonie [full name Anita Anne] moved into 136 Helios, and Mr. Sal’s sister used to actually own the 1823 Metairie Avenue, the house that was back there behind the sno-ball stand, which we tore down right before Katrina. And it’s now Fidelity Homestead; we lease that to them.
And so Mr. Sal’s sister was there. He opened a grocery store. The sister moved; he bought the house and moved in with his two daughters. And then my mother and father got married in 1965 and they bought the house next door, which was across from my aunt. I was born in 1965. And Mr. Sal’s daughter—I was born December 13th, and that year Mim, which would be Mr. Sal’s—one of his granddaughters—was born September 9th when [Hurricane] Betsy came through. And so we grew up together and I used to play on the steps probably when I was three or four down there with her and her brother, John. And so in 1973 Mr. Sal passed away, and that year when I was eight, his son-in-law, Johnny App, hired me. I used to get paid to pick up trash in the parking lot. I think I used to get $1 to pick up trash, pick up the cups and the spoons. And back then the spoons were wooden. And I used to actually bring a spoon from my house when I worked there because I didn't like that wood when you eat it on your teeth. [Laughs] I’d bring a spoon and put it in my pocket to eat sno-balls. [Laughs] You know the cups were paper. The straws were paper. We had no plastic. The bottles, the gallons were all old ozone glass—water jugs, which were glass. So things have changed.
So I started there when I was eight and then the next year I filled bottles and worked inside, and then after that I learned how to make sno-balls and wait on customers. And then my wife started working there when she was 11. She used to live next door to one of the granddaughters and she started working there. She actually worked the day shift; we had a day shift and night shift. Mr. Sal had two daughters. One ran the day and one ran the night shift. So I’d work at night; my wife worked in the day.
Tell me your wife’s name for the record.
My wife’s name is Gretchen Bel.
All right, so you started working there when you were very young. But I know from what you told me earlier that you had another career as an adult. So when did this transition happen of you actually owning the sno-ball stand?
So I started when I was eight, and then I worked there all through grammar school and then high school. And then I went to—I was going to the University of New Orleans and that’s when I actually started another job [Laughs]. I started picking up the ice from the icehouse. I guess I must have been 17, something like that. I bought an old—I think I paid $600 for it—an old three-quarter-ton Ford. It was a 1978 truck, and so I had an ice route. I would bring ice to Sal’s and sell it to them. A lot of the schools had summer programs that the Men’s Club would run and they had their own sno-ball stands they made, so I’d deliver to St Catherine’s and St. Angela. I delivered to other sno-ball stands. And then in ’87 I started working for Continental Airlines as a part-time job while I was going to school. And then I did that for 21, almost 22, years before I retired. And the whole time I was delivering the ice, and so I’ve been doing ice since I was 17.
Mr. Sal, let’s see, he passed away in 1973, and then his wife used to live in the house behind the sno-ball stand and the two daughters ran it, Miss Mim and Miss Joey. And then I guess in the late ‘80s Miss Mim had some health issues with her heart, and then Mr. Ronnie had some health issues. And so I kind of did more things—did the scheduling and did different things; picked up supplies. And so then I guess in like 1980, 1990, ’91, they wanted me to take over—you know, purchase the business. So we worked that out and—so purchased it in the spring of 1992. And so that’s how I became the owner of Sal’s.
Do you get Mr. Sal’s family coming to the sno-ball stand still, the younger generations?
We do. Actually, his grandson—Little Mim, who is my age, her son works at Marjoria’s, the drugstore by me, and then Mim’s brother, John, comes by with his kids. So for like St. Patrick’s Day, they come by. And then you know a lot of the family, we still see them come by.
Was the decision to buy the sno-ball stand an easy one for you? Did you anticipate that this is where things were going to head, or was that a surprise?
It was a surprise when they asked me if I wanted to buy it. And I think they wanted it to—you know I’m sure it was a hard decision, being a family business, but I think they wanted it to carry on and stay in business. They didn't want to see it closed up, so I think that’s where their thinking was when they were looking to sell it. So it was a surprise that they wanted to sell it to begin with, and then, no, it was—I didn't think twice about [it]. My thoughts were I didn't want the apartments. You know I was young. And I was in my early 20s and I’m like, I don’t want to be a landlord. I don’t want to have to work on stuff. But it was all one piece of property because the sno-ball stand was built right in front of the house; it was all connected. And so I got used to being a landlord and I wound up buying other property, so I came around.
Can you tell me a little bit about what Mr. Sal was like?
He always had these black glasses on, mustache, you know short Italian man. We’ve been in business 51 years and people come by and they say, “Oh, I want to open a sno-ball stand.” This is great and I always tell people, you know, I made out on the better half of it because Mr. Sal opened that business up and had to build it from the ground up. And he lived in the back. He would walk down those steps, go in the side door, open the business up, and you know for the first couple of years he worked it every day by himself.
He was very friendly; all the customers knew him. I still get people that come back, you know, with their grandkids, and can remember Mr. Sal waiting on them. He was definitely—had a lot of businesses. He had a real estate office; he sold real estate. I have a sign in the back which he made a shelf out of—he sold Carnival supplies when he was closed. He had the grocery store. There was a daycare in the back that they had at one time. There was—you know gambling was accepted widely in this Parish back in that time. He had—these are Keno cards on the side of the building; in the back was 105 Helios, and they would have Keno games there [showing a photograph]. And then there was—in the back part of it they had the poker room, and of course the sheriff, Sheriff Clancy, back then would get a cut of the take from all the gambling in the Parish.
It seems to me that there is a real tradition of Italians having had sno-ball stands. Does that seem true to you?
Um, yeah. You know you had the Ortolanos, who—Mr. George who made the SnoWizard machine. Yeah, it does seem like there was a lot of Italians went into the sno-ball business and several of them had grocery stores that turned into sno-ball stands that went into the sno-ball business after they closed up their grocery store.
Are you Italian?
No, I’m not. I am Irish, French, and English, and Spanish. So no Italian, but I was taught by a lot of Italians—business. Miss Pembo, who I worked with a lot, which is I call her Miss Joey—she’s Mr. Sal’s daughter; and then Miss Ortolano, who just turned 100—I just went to her birthday—I used to go and sit with her husband, Mr. George, at his house. And he is the one who showed me how to basically take apart the machine and put it back together and sharpen the blades and basically do all the maintenance on the sno-ball machines. I do all my own work on them and keep them running.
Mr. Ortolano—he built sno-ball machines, is that right?
Yes, he invented the SnoWizard sno-ball machine. He had a grocery store, and he started with that and then he basically did away with the grocery store and was just in the sno-ball business. And they sold the extract and the machines and basically started people in the business. Mr. Sal bought a used machine from Mr. George. It was a 1939 machine, in 1959, [Laughs] and opened up Sal’s with that and I still have that machine.
Do you still use that machine?
That one I do not use. But the other old—we’ve got some from the ‘60s and yeah, I’ve got a lot of old machines. Probably when Mr. George—probably about two or three years before he died, he had a machine in his backyard and I’d go over there and spend about two hours a day and we’d put it together. And so I worked with him putting the last machine together that he made. And so I still have that one. I use that one.
How many machines do you have?
Uh, I think I have eight or nine of Mr. George’s machines, Ortolano machines.
How many do you use at the stand at one time?
We have three windows that we operate at one time, and then for St. Patrick’s Day when the Irish parade passes on Metairie Road, I bring another one in there and we’ll open four windows.
You were so familiar with the business before you bought it. Was there any big learning curve to owning it? Or, did it just come very naturally because you knew how it ran and you’d already learned everything?
No surprises. [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve been doing it for so long there was no surprises to take it over.
Did you know how to make all of the syrups and everything?
Yeah, I had been doing that since I was little.
Do you have the recipes written down or are they all in your head?
No, they’re written down. [Laughs]
Have you kept all the recipes just like it was before you bought it, or have you changed things, added things?
We’ve used the same recipes. We make the simple syrup with the same recipe that Mr. Sal made it with. We use like probably 95-percent of the extracts. We’ve added some flavors; not many. We’ve added a few flavors over the years. But basically 90-percent of it is exactly the same flavors [as] when Mr. Sal was there. Back then people would mix different flavors to make them move off the shelf quicker. You know we had a Blue Eagle back then, and basically it was blueberry because a lot of people—you had bubblegum, which was blue, and then blueberry. Well the kids really liked bubblegum so he called it Blue Eagle to get more people to buy it.
And then a lot of the named stuff, like Robin, is a mixture, and that’s named after his first granddaughter, which we still have that flavor. Purple Dawn is after his last granddaughter. Joker is a flavor we have, and then we have Batman, and then Sock-It-To-Me is from the old Laugh-In, Rowan & Martin Laugh In. Sock-It-To-Me is a flavor that he makes, and Cherry Sip and Chocolate Mint and Popeye—all those are mixtures that he had come up with.
What is Sock-It-To-Me? What does that taste like?
It’s a mixture of bubblegum and ice cream, and then like Joker is the berry—he mixed berry flavors. There’s blackberry, raspberry, and grape, which is one of our top sellers. It’s a good refreshing flavor.
What are some of the flavors that you’ve added?
We added a lemon ice, which is like the Italian ice. I’m trying to think of what else I added. Lemon ice, and we added diet flavors, which of course he never had back then. [Laughs] We have wedding cake, strawberry, and grape as a diet. And then yellow cake batter would be something new that we’ve added—probably five, six years ago, something like that.
Is that pretty popular, sugar-free flavors?
Um, it is. You know I stayed away from it for a long time. Just never believed in it, and a lot of the stuff that was on the market before—you know, like the saccharin, you’d have to put warning labels up because it causes cancer, and it’s just not what I wanted—a big cancer warning label on the front of our business, so I never fooled with it. And then the supply houses came out with a mixture that you can basically make the simple syrup base without sugar with it. So that came about and that’s kind of what made me go towards the diet, and you know a lot of the kids now are diabetics and stuff. Kids would just come up and get plain ice because they couldn’t have the sugar, so that’s basically why I wanted it. For the kids.
Are there really old-fashioned flavors that have fallen off the menu because people just didn't order them anymore?
Yes, anisette. We used to have anisette. I still have the extract bottle for it at the sno-ball stand in the attic. It’s a licorice flavor. It was a red flavor; it was licorice. We would only sell it on Sundays or Saturday evenings when the older ladies would come from church and they’d stop and get an anisette sno-ball. We would throw more of it away than what we made because it was just such a strong old-time licorice, and if you didn't like that old licorice it was just the most nastiest thing to eat. [Laughs]
Does anybody still ask for it?
Not anymore. I don’t think I’ve had anybody ask for that in 10 years.
What about when you were growing up? What was your flavor?
My flavor. You know when I was little I always would get strawberry, but my flavor is cherry, which I have one every night when I walk home. I have a small cherry sno-ball. And then ice cream flavor would be the other one that I eat. I’ll eat ice cream in the day when I’m in there, but I’ll eat a cherry on the way home every night. I make a sno-ball and check the ice in the machines and eat it and see, because I sharpen the blades about every two weeks and I’m testing to see how the blade sharpens.
Your son is coming up on 11. Is he about to start?
He already started a couple years ago. He helps us make syrup and fill the gallons, and he cleans bottles and yeah. No, he already works. [Laughs] I’m trying to get it in his blood early.
What about the nectar flavor? Do you have any thoughts on that flavor?
It’s an old New Orleans flavor that’s been around for a long time. Actually G&M Fountain Supply, Ernie Brown—he sold the nectar to K&B [drug store] for the nectar cream sodas. They would buy the extract and put it in a squirt bottle and put it in when they’d mix it up at the soda fountain. But nectar is an old flavor and it’s just an old New Orleans flavor. It’s made with evaporated milk. It’s cream flavored. And it just has an old New Orleans taste to it. And a lot of out-of-town people that come don’t buy it, but if you get them to try it they want to know what it’s a mixture of, and it’s hard to explain to them—it’s nectar. [Laughs] But it’s probably in my top 10 sales in flavors, is nectar.
What are others in your top 10 for sales?
My top two are chocolate and strawberry. Then nectar, ice cream; I’m going in my mind down the flavor thing. Bubblegum, cherry, wedding cake, which is a newer flavor which is a popular flavor; spearmint. Probably that’s the top sellers that I have.
When you go about making a new flavor like wedding cake, what do you do? Do you buy an extract called “wedding cake” from a supplier?
The supply houses, in the last 10 to 20 years, are in high gear of making new flavors. You could probably—with the mixtures and stuff, you could easily have 500 flavors. I mean it’s absurd the flavors they’ve got. And I try them, and you know we kind of stick to the old flavors. But every now and then they’ll come up with—you know dreamsicle, that’s a big seller. It’s like the old push-up sticks, the old dreamsicle sticks. That’s a cream flavor.
You mentioned soft-serve ice cream. What do you do with that? Do you serve it in a cone or do you serve it with a sno-ball?
We serve it in the cone, we serve it in cups, and we serve it on top, the middle—they call it “stuffed”—at the bottom [of a sno-ball]; some people get it all three. Dreamsicle is one that’s a good one. They’ll put ice cream in the middle and then kind of eat the top and then mix it in with the ice cream to kind of get that ice cream taste with the dreamsicle like the old push-up sticks. A lot of people get chocolate. They’ll stuff anything, put ice cream, soft-serve ice cream, on any of them.
Did that exist before you bought the business, or did you bring the soft-serve in?
No, we got our first soft-serve machine in 1975 or ’76. So the first couple of years I was there we just had sno-balls, and then we got the soft-serve machine and I actually had that machine and replaced it in 1998--’99, and it lasted about 25 years.
What kind of product has the greatest profit margin?
Just plain ice and syrup?
Just the sno-bal. The ice cream machines are expensive and a new machine would run probably $25,000 to $30,000. It runs off 220 electricity. You know, I pick up the ice. I bring it to the sno-ball stand. It goes in a box. It’s no electricity hooked to it. The sno-ball itself is your highest profit.
There’s no electricity going to your ice box?
No, we used to use the old Coca-Cola boxes that—it was a cooler, and I think at one time we used to plug them in, but then after a while we just used it for insulation. It was an insulated box that they put the Cokes in. They had a slide top or a lift top that flopped open. When we outgrew that, Mr. Pembo made an insulated box made out of wood and galvanized metal. And then the year after I purchased it, that box was coming to the end of its life. I built a new one and it’s made out of one-inch marine plywood. It has the hard blue foam board, insulated, and then it’s a stainless steel insert with a wood top on it. And you could probably bury me in that thing. It holds a lot of weight. You could put 2,400 or 2,600 pounds of ice in it and there’s no electricity hooked to it whatsoever. It’s just a large, basically igloo ice box.
I saw somebody writing on a blog about Sal’s and about the tree stumps.
Yeah, there was a big cypress tree that was in front of the house at the sno-ball stand. And when Mr. Sal built the building we have now, he had to cut down the cypress tree because it was in the footprint of the building. So I don’t know how the whole story went, but he paid somebody to come cut it down and it was a really big tree. And they left two of the logs and they were going to come back for them, and I think the tree was just so big they like—“We got our money; we’re not going back,” is what my guess was. So people started coming to the new building and these logs were out there and they started sitting on them and eating their sno-balls out there, because before that you just walked up and left. There was no place to sit because it was basically a takeout. So he decided, “Well I’ll just leave the logs because people are sitting on them, and then they hang out and people see that—you know, “What’s going on there?”—and then more people stop.
So we still have those two logs. It’s from the cypress tree. They’re out front. And those have been there since 1969. And then we add other logs. I actually got a bunch of logs from Katrina, and a friend of mine has a shipyard on the river, and with the river up high there’s a big cypress log. He called me and they have it hooked and tied up to the river, but the river is coming up to 17 feet, so they have to wait for the river to go down to pull the log out. And so it’s an old cypress log that’s floated down the river, so I’ll get that and cut it and put it out. And the good thing about the log [Laughs] is you spill stuff on it; you know it’s not like you got to go out there and clean them up after. You hose them off.
I wanted to ask you: What is your favorite part about your job?
It’s fun. You know there’s so many favorite parts about it. So many of the customers you get to see over and over again, and you know them. You have, you know, a relationship with them as a customer. It’s a fun business to be in. I’ve worked in the airline industry where everyone has got a complaint. If the weather is bad and the plane doesn’t go, they’re mad at you, you know. I have people that come out and it can be—they’ll stand in six inches of water to get their sno-ball. You know we get a good rain and it floods and they’ll come out and stand in the water to get a sno-ball. It’s a fun business to own and to run and to be in because you just don’t have a lot of problems that a lot of other businesses have. It’s a seasonal business so you know you close up, and I get four months to do whatever I want and then go back to it again and it’s there. So there’s so many fun things about it. It’s hard to put your finger on one of them.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.