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Food & Drink

This San Francisco institution has been serving ice cream for 7 decades

Larry Mitchell poses with his brother Bob Mitchell in Mitchell’s Ice Cream in 1953. | Courtesy Linda Mitchell

It’s a familiar sight for San Franciscans: the wrap-around-the-block line at Mitchell’s Ice Cream, a queue that forms in all kinds of weather and sometimes lasts until 10:30 p.m. There’s so much love for the 70-year-old creamery that its owners have instituted a number system for orders, with customers clutching their paper tickets like they’re in line at the deli or the DMV (but having a lot more fun).

The dedication has deep roots. In 1865, the Mitchell family moved from New York to San Francisco to begin a dairy farm in then-rural Noe Valley. Edward Mitchell died in the 1890s, leaving his wife and their eight children to run the family business. 

Margaret Mitchell and her children pose in front of her Noe Valley dairy farm. | Courtesy Linda Mitchell | Source: Courtesy Linda Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell didn’t miss a beat. She leased the farmland and built a three-story apartment building on the corner of San Jose Avenue and 29th Street, where Mitchell’s Ice Cream still stands. When San Jose Avenue was widened in 1947, she fought to keep officials from tearing down the building, according to the business’s legacy application. In the end, the building was instead turned 90 degrees to accommodate the change. 

In 1952, Margaret’s grandsons, Jack and Larry Mitchell—who also worked as a city firefighter for three decades—decided to open up a scoop shop in the building’s vacant storefront.

“They worked awfully hard through the years,” said Larry’s daughter, Linda Mitchell. 

Mitchell's Ice Cream co-founder Larry Mitchell poses with a sign that includes the shop's original prices. | Source: Courtesy Linda Mitchell

She called Friday’s news that the city was adding Mitchell’s to its legacy business registry “a cherry on the top” of many successful decades. 

Linda and her brother, Brian, ran the business for some 30 years. They are now semi-retired, and the Mitchell family has entrusted the shop’s day-to-day operations to Marlon and Wanda Payumo, who have a combined 67 years working at Mitchell’s. 

“They’ve been like family,” Linda Mitchell said. 

The shop is particularly well known for its tropical flavors, which it began selling in the 1960s after a fruit broker talked the family into adding mango ice cream to the menu. It found fans among the immigrants who lived in the neighborhood and remains Mitchell’s most popular scoop.

“It became a hit immediately,” Mitchell said. “More so than vanilla.” 

Soon, the Mitchells added more tropical fruit flavors, like ube—the purple Filipino yam that’s become a food craze—and macapuno, a type of coconut. There have also been misses throughout the years, such as atis (also known as sugar apple) and maiz y queso (corn and cheese). Mitchell’s began with 19 flavors. Today, the company offers 40, and the workers continue to make all of it in the basement—all day, seven days a week. 

The business generates 75% of its revenue from its flagship location on San Jose Avenue, while the other 25% comes from a couple hundred wholesale accounts, Mitchell said. 

Mitchell's Ice Cream displays its new mural on the side wall. | Source: Courtesy Linda Mitchell

Artist Jen Brault painted a commemorative mural for the 70th anniversary of the business on the outside wall of the shop. In keeping with Linda’s requests, it aims to capture the flavors of the neighborhood, including the J-Church light-rail car, St. Paul’s Church and lowriders. 

The painting’s unveiling took place July 16, National Ice Cream Day. People visited from all over the Bay Area, some of whom had been customers since they were children.

“It speaks volumes about the community and the quality of the product,” said Brault. 

Linda Mitchell attributed the shop’s longevity to its high-quality product and its people. 

“They’re just as important as the ice cream,” Mitchell said.