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Last Swensen’s ice cream parlor in U.S. is proud to call San Francisco home

Swensen’s | Courtesy Swensen’s

War and ice cream typically occupy opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, but in the case of Swensen’s—a vintage San Francisco creamery that moved one step closer to being officially recognized by the city’s Legacy Business Program on Wednesday—they go hand-in-hand. 

“Ice cream [...] has been the most neglected of all the important morale factors,” said John Forrestal, the secretary of the Navy during World War II. 

The U.S. Armed Forces went on to correct this oversight, becoming arguably the world’s largest producer of ice cream by 1943—right around the time that Earle Swensen was serving aboard a U.S. Navy troop transport. He ended up repairing an old ice cream maker on board, and his love for the frozen stuff was born. 

Swensen's | Courtesy Swensen's

“The sailors didn’t care what flavor of ice cream I made, just as long as I made it,” Swensen once said. 

The Navy’s support of ice cream went as far as turning a barge into a million-dollar floating ice cream parlor to service its crews—it could produce a mind-blowing 10 gallons of ice cream every seven minutes.  

The war ended, but Swensen’s love of making ice cream remained. He eventually found an escape from his deputy tax assessor job in San Francisco when an ice cream store became available at the corner of Union and Hyde streets. 

Earle and his wife, Nora, took their life savings—and a loan—and opened See Us Freeze Ice Cream in 1948, a tongue twister of a business name that Earle eventually changed to his surname. 

Interior of Swensen’s | Courtesy Swensen’s

The Russian Hill shop opened with neo-Tiffany lamps, marble-topped tables and oak floors. The ice cream was made with real vanilla and fresh strawberries, and it remains just as delicious and wholesome today. 

Swensen sold the franchising rights to his eponymous scoop store in 1970, and there used to be several hundred Swensen’s operating throughout the country. While all U.S. franchise locations have since closed, there are still some 350 Swensen’s across the world, in nine countries. The Swensen family retained control over the San Francisco location, using the same ice-cream-making techniques as he did when he opened the store. 

Swensen’s | Courtesy Swensen’s

Richard Campana got his start at Swensen’s behind the counter as a 15-year-old selling scoops, but today, he owns the store—Earle’s three daughters sold him the business after the death of their father. Campana’s daughter and son-in-law, Diane Campana and Jim Laughlin, manage the story today, continuing to use the same methods to craft ice cream as the business did 75 years ago. 

“We are passionate about making good, old-fashioned ice cream and serving our customers with quality ingredients,” Laughlin said. “We are proud of our business and consider it an old-school San Francisco establishment that should be preserved.” 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at