Getting wicked in the ally: Frozen treat worth waiting

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Wicked Slush has taken Petaluma by a frosty storm and for good reason. Their frozen treats are delicious and come in an endless array of flavor combos. However, the owners are really what make this new shop something special. Being long time locals, they know their town, and knew Wicked Slush would be a success. Having the idea was great, but they were also smart enough to know a great location when they found one. Tucked in to American Alley, just across from Petaluma Pie, Wicked Slush has already had a huge impact on the number of visitors to Helen Putnam Plaza.

The Pokornys are deeply rooted in Petaluma, not so much based on longevity but on how involved they are in the community. They moved here with their two young daughters Alexis and Miranda almost twenty years ago because, “we always wanted to live in the type of town that we enjoyed (and) visited while on vacation,” said Juliet Pokorny. “Petaluma was it for us.”

Juliet grew up in Garden Grove in north Orange County and went on to study theater and stage management in college. She eventually moved to San Francisco for work as a stage manager for American Conservatory Theatre, Berkeley Rep and Theatre on the Square, to name a few. It was in San Francisco where she met Dave Pokorny. He moved to the Bay Area from Illinois with his family when he was 8 years old and would go on to have a successful career in standup comedy, working as the house MC at Cobb’s Comedy Club where he opened for such stars as Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone and Jim Carrey. The two met in 1988 at comedy traffic school, where Juliet was a manager and Dave was a comedian teacher. Having a bit of a lead foot in my younger days, I actually attended one of Dave’s classes before I knew the Pokornys.

Both Alexis and Miranda were born in San Francisco, but the Pokorny family soon moved to Sonoma County for more affordable housing. They started in Rohnert Park before moving to Petaluma where they lived on the west side.

I first met the Pokornys when I served as the president of the board of Cinnabar Theater in the late 2000’s. The Pokornys had been in Petaluma for a few years at that point with Juliet commuting to Pixar and Dave staying home to take care of the girls. In 2007 Juliet retired from Pixar and had taken over the position of Development Director at Cinnabar. “Cinnabar was a palette cleanser,” explained Juliet. “It gave me an opportunity to go from corporate art to the purest form of art, which is live local theater.” With Alexis and Miranda growing older, Dave went back to his grocery store roots and started a 10-year career as a manager at Whole Foods.

Alexis and Miranda were actively involved in Cinnabar’s Young Rep program and Dave had just started producing one-night stand-up and spoken word events at Cinnabar. I saw the Pokorny family on a regular basis and was always struck by just how “Petaluma” they were. They were welcoming, encouraging and driven in everything they did and as a family unit were a genuine pleasure to be around. These traits will surely be what help Wicked Slush succeed.

In 2010, Dave and Juliet visited the Moth in NYC, which is a group dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. They felt that Petaluma was the perfect place to try the same idea and approached the theater about starting something similar. Dave was already running well-attended one-night comedy shows in the space at the time so it was a natural progression. “Jan was supper supportive,” said Juliet of Cinnabar Theater owner Jan Klebe. “She is always open to making the theater available to all kinds of performing arts, which is one of things we love about Petaluma.”

Since that time, the Pokornys have expanded their West Side Stories to its current home at Sonoma Portworks with its Grand Slam season finale now held at the Mystic Theater. Additionally, they are now in their third year of producing Wine Country Spoken Word festival, which has also been a huge success. To say that the Pokornys are deeply involved in the community would be an understatement, which really does make them a great fit for opening up their downtown location of Wicked Slush. And “the girls”, who are now amazing young women, are also helping to drive the Wicked Slush team.

Juliet would eventually leave Cinnabar for a position at Sonoma State University, as the production manager of the center for performing arts, and Dave would continue on with Whole Foods. However, both retired in March of 2019 to pursue their dream of opening up a local snack shop of some sort.

“We were always saying, ‘we want to open…’,” said Juliet. “We didn’t know if it would be a hot dog stand or what, but we love the downtown and wanted to be part of it again. Both girls had jobs downtown when they were in high school and during summer breaks from college and really appreciated those experiences. We are all grateful for the opportunities they had to connect with the community.”

“We would reevaluate every few years, always with an eye on opening our own shop,” continued Juliet. As the girls moved away to college, Dave and Juliet even downsized by selling their home, in order to stock away money for their future endeavor, whatever that might be. With Juliet being a fan of quilting, they even ran the numbers on a quilt and hot dog stand but quickly figured out that would not pay the bills. If you know the Pokornys, nothing is off limits. If they set their sights on something, they will get it done. However, they are also realistic and grounded, which makes them such a great production team.

“When home, the girls were constantly showing up with cups of Wicked Slush, with Miranda and her friends even driving all the way from San Francisco State University to Healdsburg to enjoy the unique treat,” reminisced Juliet. One day, while talking with the family about what kind of shop to open, Juliet took a look at yet another cup of Wicked Slush that one of the girls had brought home and proclaimed, “that stuff is like crack!” and the spark of an idea struck. Dave also points out that they couldn’t resist a business that had “W.S.” as its initials when West Side Stories is such a huge part of their lives.

The original Amy’s Wicked Slush is located just steps from Memorial Beach and the Russian River in southern Healdsburg. It had only been open for about a year, but that didn’t stop the Pokornys from approaching the owner, Amy Covin, about franchising. Amy hails from the north end of Boston, where slushes are popular during the summer months. She missed that taste of home so brought those flavors to Healdsburg in the spring of 2017.

Unlike what we west coasters think of as a slush, slushy, slushie or slushee, which consists of a more granulated ice based dessert, a Boston style “slush” is officially known as Italian ice. Brought to the U.S. from Italy, probably based on the Sicilian’s ‘granita’, Italian ice is a finely ground sweet ice dessert made with fruit, juices and artificial flavorings. It is similar to sorbet except that American sorbets usually contain dairy and/or eggs.

As for their unique storefront on American Alley, the Pokornys were quite familiar with the former shop, Bump City Bakery. “The whole family is gluten-free, so we were regulars at the bakery,” said Juliet. “In fact, we were the first ones to order a sheet cake from Emily.” When they saw that the shop was closing at the end of last year, they made inquiries and were able to secure the space, which is perfect for Wicked Slush because although a food service, they do not require a kitchen.

“We wanted to be somewhere where we could walk to coffee and a hardware store,” explained Juliet. “Those were two key criteria. And we wanted to be part of a community, not a strip mall in a remote area. We looked at other towns in the area but wanted to be in a place that was more focused on locals than on tourists and that is definitely what you get with downtown Petaluma.”

Had I known that Wicked Slush was not the run of the mill slushy, I likely would have been more curious at first. However, having found myself far too often on the hot summer days of my youth, halfway through a slushy and already out of the flavoring syrup, I was skeptical that Wicked Slush could live up to the hype.

Additionally, as readers know, I am a huge ice cream fan, eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, often in the same day, and regardless of the weather or outside temperature. The idea of soft serve, which is Wicked Slush’s other main offering, initially had little appeal to me. Soft serve was invented by Tom Carvel in New York in the early 1930’s and quickly replicated in the late 1930’s by Dairy Queen. Soft serve is lower in butter fat, usually in the 3-6% range, compared to ice cream’s 10–18%, in part because it contains more air, which is added during the mixing process. The FDA actually requires at least 10% butter fat for a producer to title their frozen dessert “ice cream” which is why you will only see the two names combined by mistake. Soft serve is also generally a bit warmer than ice cream, hence its customary softness.

However, Wicked Slush offers something different with both their slushes and their soft serve. First off, their slush is very finely crushed ice so it holds the added flavors through the entire experience. Additionally, Wicked Slush has well over 150 flavors, ranging from the fruit flavors like apple, mango, cherry, watermelon, pomegranate, strawberry, peach, passion fruit, coconut and lemon (just to name a few), to drink flavors like root beer, lemonade and orange cream. Exotic flavors can also be seen on the menu, with flavors including cotton candy and horchata. An “SR” before a slush flavor denotes that is sour, such as “SR apple” and “SR blue raz” (raspberry.)

The soft serve is also better than expected, which says a lot for this ice cream fan. Although I had originally thought that maybe they were using a special machine, co-owner Juliet tells me it is all due to them using fresh milk from local favorite Straus Family Creamery. Wicked offers 11 flavors of soft serve daily, with vanilla, chocolate and vanilla/chocolate twist always gracing the menu. The other flavors come from a list of over 50 options, with standards like strawberry, pistachio and caramel, along with amped up options such as brown sugar cinnamon, cupcake, toasted marshmallow, red velvet cake and cereal milk, which is a flavor I had never heard of but seems to be quite popular as of late.

Wicked Slush’s specialty is actually combining their slush and soft serve, and they do it well. What at first appears to be just a cup of soft serve topped with a scoop of Italian ice, is in fact a triple layered frozen treat that offers the availability of plenty of slush with every bite of soft serve. Just when I thought I had polished off the slush topping, I broke through the soft serve to find a bottom layer of slush. These combos are called “splits” and the combinations are nearly endless, all depending on which flavors of slush and soft serve are available on any given day.

With so many combos to create from the choices of slush and soft serve, I found it easier to simply move to the “splits” menu and choose from one of the dozen or so suggestions. Dreamsicle (orange cream/vanilla) was a natural first choice but other interesting combos certainly caught my eye, like Cotton Campfire (cotton candy/toasted marshmallow), Apple Pie (SR apple/brown sugar cinnamon) and Black Cherry Cordial (black cherry/chocolate.) As odd as it might sound, I am one who dials in on a particular favorite flavor and does not tend to budge. However, the splits menu at Wicked Slush offers something new and delicious on every visit and is a large part of the reason for our multiple return visits in the short time they have been open.

Other options include having your dessert dipped or topped with drizzles or jimmies. And because this is a Petaluma family-run business, they pay homage by offering toppings to match your favorite school whether that is the Trojans, Mustangs, Gauchos or even the Sonoma State Sea Wolves. You can even get your Wicked Slush topped with PopRocks for an added “crackle.” For the decadent, specialty cones are available as well as cereal toppings such as Cap’n Crunch and Wicked Charms. Sizes vary from the small “pipsqueak” up through the “regular” and on to the “Wicked Big.” They also sell pints and quarts of their slushes and soft-serve, but no splits for these options.

Coffees, from espressos to Americanos are also on the menu for those looking for something warm to drink. They source their coffee from a tiny producer in Santa Rosa called Land and Water Coffee. The son of Juliet’s best friend, who was actually in his mother’s womb when she attended and sang at Dave and Juliet’s wedding, was part of Land and Water Coffee so it was natural for the Pokornys to reach out and support another small business in the area.

Miranda is currently home for the summer from San Francisco State University, where her academics earned her a scholarship to study communications and human sexuality with the end goal to someday be a counselor. However, she currently helps out as Wicked Slush’s social media manager.

Older sister Alexis recently returned from Colorado where she earned her Masters of Fine Art in performance from Naropa University, which is the first Buddhist-inspired school to receive regional accreditation. Graduates of Naropa are in high demand throughout the country because of their focus on contemplative learning, regardless of which major they concentrated in. This helps explain why Alexis fits so well as general manager of Wicked Slush and is loved by her employees. Her leadership is described as “seamless” and her training and support of the staff is evident in their excellent customer service. Both young ladies, as well as Dave and Juliet, also assist with all the day-to-day operations, from working the line to running the cash register.

“They do crazy things all the time,” explained Alexis when asked what she thought when her parents first proposed the Wicked Slush idea to the family. “But they always do what they set out to do,” added Miranda, as the whole family stands around giggling while I try to take their photo. And with both being huge fans of Wicked Slush, neither of the young ladies could resist getting involved.

“We are selling happiness,” said the family, with a hint of slush colored teeth behind their smiles, having already sampled some of the day’s wares. The cozy space, pint and white motif, colorful frozen treats and dry-erase board children’s wall certainly all exude a sense of fun. Even with lines running out the door, everyone in line is excited and everyone is happy.

Wicked Slush is a truly unique treat and is more than up to the hype. However, what goes on behind the colorful slush balls and distinctive cups, which we now see in happy hands all over downtown, is what makes Wicked Slush Petaluma special. Although first generation Petalumans, the Pokorny family represents Petaluma values as well as anyone, including their desire to contribute something special to the community, from jobs for our youth in a fun downtown environment, to adding a new treat to the Petaluma culinary scene. They were even gracious enough to reach out well ahead of their opening so that the Petaluma Argus-Courier’s Food & Drink page could get the first scoop on this exciting story. I could have had only one reaction when I learned from Juliet what their plans were and that was that I could not think of a more perfect family to open such a business in downtown Petaluma. So, enjoy the Wicked Slushes, but also revel in the fact that part of what makes the experience feel so great is that the people behind the counter are truly in love with, and involved in, our community as much as the rest of us.

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