Casey’s Snowballs, an Austin Tradition
Since 1996, Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs has been serving cups of carefully shaved ice topped with flavored syrups to locals lined up outside of a 1930s bungalow-turned-storefront in Austin, Texas. For customers who’ve grown up visiting each summer and for the family who shepherded it into its second decade, the local business has become a beloved seasonal tradition. Second-generation owner-operator Mars Chapman believes the snowball stand is an opportunity to brighten each customer’s day – for part of the year, at least.
The Family Snow Business
Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs has a rich family history that dates back to its original owners, Suzy Casey Gallagher and Kit Thompson, who were inspired to start the stand by her family’s snowball business, the separate but similarly named Casey’s Snowballs located near New Orleans. Longtime customers-turned-employees Pattye Henderson and Cliff Chapman opened an independent snowball concept called Raspas in 2000, but returned to Casey’s in 2008 to run the business and ultimately purchased it from Gallagher and Thompson in 2010.
Even though he grew up in the snowball business, Pattye and Cliff’s son Mars Chapman didn’t always want to take over Casey’s. He changed his mind after college, when a realization during the 2012 off-season – that taking on the family business meant only having to work for part of the year – interrupted his plans to apply to grad schools.
“We really like what we do. It’s a very special product [and] a very special experience,” Chapman says. “When I was growing up, I thought it was a bunch of malarkey, to be honest with you, that a snowball can make a person’s day better, but after serving them now for over a decade? It’s true, and it’s kind of refreshing that something so simple and something so pedestrian can bring so much joy to so many people.”
Since 2013, Chapman has handled the business’s daily operations alongside co-owner and general manager Kyle Littlepage, who’s worked at Casey’s for 12 years and is “just like family.” When it comes to inheriting the family business from his now-retired parents, Chapman jokingly references Sierra Nevada‘s “family owned, operated, and argued over” tagline as a way to summarize the “very long” transition.
“It’s been rough, in some regards, because [there were] growing pains from one generation to another that they resisted,” Chapman says. “At the same time, it’s also been amazingly rewarding because I am continuing something, and that’s really meaningful to me.”
Making a Casey’s Snowball
Baltimore is usually credited with inventing snowballs – not to be confused with other types of shaved ice desserts like snow cones, which use crushed ice, and Italian ice, where the flavoring is incorporated into the ice instead of being added as a topping – but they’ve been a traditional summertime treat in New Orleans for several decades.
“There’s three things that define a good snowball,” Chapman says. “That’s the texture of the ice, the sweetness and flavor of the syrups, and the customer experience. You’re selling something for $3 or $4. That’s a really low price point [and] there’s a lot of competition for it. You have to do something that’s special.”
In keeping with the traditional New Orleans style, the ice used in Casey’s snowballs comes from a block of ice shaved in a horizontal machine.
“To get really good textured snow, you have to use the right temperature ice block,” Chapman says. “If your ice block is too cold, your snow is going to get super soft and fluffy – which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just harder to work with. We have ice that’s really easy to work with, but it’s not at all crunchy.”
To make sure each snowball is topped with an appropriately sweet and unique syrup, Casey’s flavors are all made in-house.
“We boil sugar and water to make a simple syrup, and then make our flavors from that,” Chapman says. “When you boil the sugar and the water, you get a sweeter syrup that’s thicker. It kind of gets that caramelized taste to it, and it tastes better.”
The stand’s lineup of toppings includes classic candy and fruit flavors, from grape and orange to cotton candy and piña colada, as well as a variety of dairy-enriched flavors such as Boston cream pie, dreamsicle, and Casey’s chocolate that are made with proprietary recipes. Those “creamy flavors” and dairy-based toppings like sweetened condensed milk are also typical of New Orleans-style snowballs.
Sweetening the Customer Experience
Having seen firsthand how a good snowball can impact a customer’s day, Chapman’s third criteria – the customer experience – is one he’s passionate about.
“The folks that started Casey’s said that a snowball could be the difference between someone having a good day and someone having a great day,” Chapman says. “It can be the difference between someone having a bad day and someone having a good day. My parents believed that as well. I believe it now myself, that it can be a day-changing experience. I’ve had people cry on our porch. I’ve given snowballs away and had people say it’s the nicest thing anyone’s done for them in a month. We’ve had people get engaged on our porch.”
Since Austin is home to the Texas School for the Deaf and Casey’s co-owner, Littlepage, is Deaf, Chapman also sees the business as an opportunity to employ and serve Austin’s Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. He aims to give the city’s Deaf and hearing communities a place to enjoy shared experiences over cups of shaved ice.
“It’s been a big enrichment to my life to get to work with that community, to get to work with somebody from that community, and to get to learn sign language,” Chapman says. “[We also] get to hire a bunch of kids on their first job and to de-otherize deafness and break down those barriers that people might see. [If our employees and customers have] never interacted with somebody who’s different, [we] give them that safe space where they can interact with somebody who is different, and [they can] find connections with them and find ways to communicate with them.”
Because Casey’s has been a staple in the Austin community for so long, many customers come to the stand confident they’ll have a positive, friendly experience, especially since staff are always trained on their “zero-tolerance policy for bias.” Though Chapman increased the business’s capacity by installing another hot plate for making syrup, a new ice maker, and two additional serving windows a few years ago, the stand’s biggest fans know that on its busiest days, Casey’s snowballs and friendly service may come with a 45-minute wait.
“If people are waiting 45 minutes for a dessert, one, it’s a really good dessert, but two, they’re waiting because they get something more out of it,” Chapman says. “You have to respect the fact that they’ve waited 45 minutes for you to spend [a few minutes] with them [or] however long that snowball takes to make. You have to take care of them, and you have to make sure they leave happy.”
If they can’t think of any other conversation starters, Chapman recommends his employees greet customers by asking them how they’re doing – because even if they’ve had a bad day, a Casey’s snowball is there to make it better.