GOSHEN — When it comes to a sign of spring, I’ll take a cup of ice cream over a robin sighting.
In Goshen, one of the state’s most popular ice cream stands is getting ready to reopen after a winter break. On Thursday afternoon, expect the line outside The Chief, though people in that line will be happier than the ones in lines of traffic that stretch through Goshen these days due to road construction. In fact, if you’re going by on Lincoln Avenue, you may as well stop for a few minutes at 502 W. Lincoln Ave. and get something to enjoy while you make your way.
This little concrete-block stand first opened in 1962. The machine that made the ice cream there is still operating, slowly turning milk, cream and sugar into ice cream.
On Monday, Nate Steffen stood next to the machine as ice cream coursed out into large metal cans that then go into freezers until dippers full are handed to customers.
His parents, Randy and Vanessa Steffen, purchased the the stand with Lowell and Jan Vanderveer in 1994. Three of the four of them were educators and this became a summer job.
When they purchased the business, it was on the brink of closing. They scrambled that spring to find recipes, help and a sense of how to serve the public. Now, this time of year, they know how to get ready: repainting, cleaning and stockpiling ice cream.
The Chief may be the region’s busiest ice cream stand, selling 70 to 80 gallons a day from April to September, said Nate Steffen, who with his brother Josh and their wives Samantha and Heather also help at The Chief. They work together and make ice cream daily from now until after Labor Day since the machine can only produce 10 to 12 gallons an hour.
The Chief’s simple Facebook post declaring that it would open Thursday was shared more than 350 times and given a positive emoji nearly twice that many times.
In 2012, The Chief won an online poll by the Indiana Office of Tourism Development to be declared Indiana’s best ice cream shop. In 2015, Thrillist.com put it on a list of 33 of the nation’s best shops. It’s also won numerous local reader’s choice awards.
There are some who have surely been going to The Chief, named when the Goshen High School mascot was still Redskins, since it opened. Others are newer to the experience and newer to using English. I’ve watched more than one child order for his parents and family.
All sorts of people gather in the line together at The Chief, waiting for that creamy, sweet goodness. College students and families. Workers and Little Leaguers. While some restaurants tend to attract clienteles that look or act alike, a few span income, race and background. The Chief, along with Lucky’s Donuts and Ricky’s Taqueria in Elkhart, does that. It brings the community together as they await dessert.
At the windows, high school and college students take orders with pencil and paper and make change after doing the arithmetic. It’s a throwback to another era, before not just cell phones but cash registers. That’s part of the appeal of the place.
A sign on the window indicates that the reason The Chief doesn’t open until 2 p.m. on Sundays is so that employees can be with family. It’s a nod to the notion that church matters, that on a Sunday morning and early afternoon, the routine centers around that, not business.
Since taking over more than 20 years, the owners have added flavors. Some, such as my favorite Cafe Mocha, went from being a flavor the week to the starting lineup. The chocolate at The Chief isn’t dark and rich, but when you combine that with a coffee flavor, it works. In recent years, Nate has convinced others that maple bacon is worth trying. (Though I love bacon, I don’t need that one again.) Now he’s lobbying for peanut butter and jelly. Vanessa claims that they have enough options with peanut butter. “Peanut Butter Oreo goes like gangbusters,” she said.
This year salted caramel pretzel will join the flavor options. Ant Farm, with chocolate-covered coconut, will be back, she said.
Officially, The Chief will open at noon Thursday, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it were earlier. The line will form. People will remember tastes of their childhood or just how good this ice cream is.
Spring has arrived. The Chief opens Thursday.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
502 W. Lincoln Ave., Goshen
Noon to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 2 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday