Old-Fashioned Business Embraces New Marketing Trends

By Thomas Seubert

Eddies is located on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, Queens Photo by Thomas Seubert
Eddie’s is located on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, Queens
Photo by Thomas Seubert

On Fresh Pond Road in Maspeth, there was Schaefer’s Candy Store. In Ridgewood, there was Merkins’. Jahn’s had locations all over the city, including one in Richmond Hill. A kid growing up in Queens in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, was never far from a family-owned ice cream shop, pharmacy, or soda fountain that served his or her favorite scoop of ice cream.

As ice cream chains expanded and quality ice cream became available in supermarkets, these “Mom and Pop” businesses began to disappear. Schaefer’s and Merkins’ are gone. Jahn’s has just one location in Jackson Heights.

One of the few small ice cream shops left is Eddie’s Sweet Shop. Established in the 1920s, this family-operated business has been scooping homemade ice cream for nearly a century.

“We’ve been lucky,” said the owner of Eddie’s Sweet Shop, Vito Citrano, 45. “I really have great customers.” Citrano, the proprietor of Eddie’s for the past nine years, recalls how slow business was when his father purchased the ice cream shop in 1968. Citrano’s father, Joe Citrano, hammered his days away in a shoe factory and worked at Eddie’s six nights a week, relieving his wife, who worked in the store during daytime hours. A few years after acquiring the business, Citrano took a chance. “He eventually made the decision to leave the factory where he made money to work in the store where he wasn’t making any money,” Citrano said about his father.

Business soon picked up. Thousands, possibly millions, of customers have enjoyed sundaes, shakes and old-fashioned ice cream sodas, brimming with foam. Whether it’s the taste of the homemade products or admiration for the marble counter and decorative woodwork, these days even on cold winter nights, patrons pack the store.

The "Jessica" sundae - made with coffee ice cream, bananas, caramel, whipped cream and hot fudge - is part of the "secret" Eddie's Sweet Shop Menu Photo by Thomas Seubert
The “Jessica” sundae – made with coffee ice cream, bananas, caramel, whipped cream and hot fudge – is part of the “secret” Eddie’s Sweet Shop Menu
Photo by Thomas Seubert

Most businesses achieving this level of success advertise their products and services, but not Eddie’s Sweet Shop. Up until 2009, the Citranos hued to the 1920s style of the shop and marketed the old-fashioned way. “My father and I really have relied on word-of-mouth,” Citrano said.  Four years ago though, Citrano created a Facebook page for Eddie’s Sweet Shop. Since its inception, the page has soared to over nine thousand “likes.”

Other frozen yogurt and ice cream shops have ventured into social media advertising, but few independently owned “Mom and Pop” stores in New York City have experienced the same level of success as Eddie’s Sweet Shop.  Twist It Top It, a frozen yogurt chain based in Queens, has only four hundred “likes” on Facebook. The ubiquitous ice cream franchise, Carvel, with five hundred locations and products sold in over eight thousand stores, has thirty-five thousand “likes” on Facebook. Eddie’s has just one location, and its products are exclusive. The ice cream-shop  owner commented, “I don’t care about being compared to those guys. I hope they stay in business forever and make a ton of money. I mean that sincerely.”

The primary purpose of the Eddie’s Facebook page isn’t to promote the business. Instead, it “exists for my loyal customers and online fans,” said Citrano. “They know about some specials before we even advertise them in the store.”

Facebook fans were tipped-off about a cookies-and-cream ice cream pie special this past spring, as well as when special summer flavors, like peach and blueberry, were introduced this last June.

Delighted by the response to his business’s Facebook page, Citrano admits having nothing to do with it. “The Eddie’s fan page is run totally by my workers.” Citrano employs a small crew of no more than ten people, most of them teenagers.

Citrano encourages his young workers to pursue their social media ideas. About a year ago, the workers attempted to start an Instagram account for the sweet shop since hundreds of photos posted by customers already existed on the social media site, listed under “#eddiessweetshop.” But the Eddie’s Instagram account didn’t generate as much interest as the Facebook page. “We tried to get it off the ground, especially since there is a running hashtag on Instagram for the store, but it never took off,” one worker said.

The young staff at Eddie’s has yet to venture into the “twitter-sphere” because their boss doesn’t want them to. Citrano said, “On Facebook we can post sporadically and not inundate people with posts, but Twitter is just too much. I would feel like we are spamming customers instead of acknowledging their loyalty.”

The marble counter and wooden stools in Eddie's Sweet Shop are over 90 years old. Photo by Thomas Sheubert
The marble counter and wooden stools in Eddie’s Sweet Shop are over 90 years old.
Photo by Thomas Seubert

One of the most successful Eddie’s Facebook-related ideas came from the store manager, Sean Donovan, 25. As a result of a conversation with Donovan, a customer, known as “Customer Dave,” agreed to collaborate on a weekly ice cream suggestion for Facebook. “Customer Dave’s Pick of the Week” posts include a picture and caption of the loyal patron’s concoction.

“An average post, like ‘Pick of the Week,’ gets seen by at least 3,000 people within a day, sometimes hours,” Donovan said. Besides acting as store manager, Donovan serves as an Eddie’s Facebook page administrator. His duties include posting messages from the owner and staying on top of customer comments. If customers post questions about the store’s history, hours, or catering services, Donovan answers them as soon as he can on the Facebook page, or asks them to call the store if a long answer is required. Unlike most Facebook business pages, the Eddie’s page tries to at least “like” all customer comments, so people know their ideas are read and appreciated.

Customers seem to appreciate the acknowledgement. Hundreds of customers have posted positive comments about their Eddie’s experiences on Eddie’s Sweet Shop’s Facebook page. Steve Casalaspro commented on September 22nd, “I took my son to Eddie’s Sweet Shop for his birthday. He is now the third generation in the family to enjoy their ice cream.” On August 17th, Arlene B. Muller wrote on Eddie’s wall, “Last night’s banana split was fabulous.”

After years of being in the business, Eddie’s owner doesn’t forget what makes it all possible. “I have great workers,” said Citrano. He also appreciates his customers’ loyalty.  “People I served as kids are now coming in with their children. That’s loyalty. The Facebook page is a small way I can try to give back to them.”