Sugar Bowl thrives in trendy Old Town Scottsdale - East Valley Tribune: Business

Sugar Bowl thrives in trendy Old Town Scottsdale

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Posted: Thursday, August 7, 2008 6:50 pm | Updated: 8:53 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Paula Cano was having her hair done at a salon near her Gilbert home when she ran into a 31-year-old man getting back-to-school cuts for his children.

The two adults struck up a conversation and discovered they had met before - long before - when the man's grandmother used to take him to the Sugar Bowl in Scottsdale for ice cream.

"He told me his grandmother's name and I remembered her - and him as a boy," said Cano, who has been serving sundaes and sandwiches for 40 years at the downtown Scottsdale hot spot for cold delights.

Cano and the Sugar Bowl may both be anachronisms in Scottsdale's newly urban commercial core.

Downtown Scottsdale has become hip and trendy in recent years with a thriving club scene, boutique hotels, chic shops and towers of pricey condos rising above the faded Old West decor of Old Town.

But Cano and the Sugar Bowl could give the Energizer Bunny tips on staying power in a changing environment.

Carroll Huntress said his uncle Jack started the "old-fashioned" ice cream shop and soda fountain in 1958 to provide a place in Scottsdale where families could enjoy a meal.

A half-century ago, the city catered mostly to adults with its fancy eateries and cowboy bars, said Huntress, who grew up in Milwaukee but remembers the delights of Uncle Jack's restaurant from his family's annual visit to the Valley during winter school breaks.

But it was in January 1981 when a 20-something Huntress was waiting for the morning bus to work, standing on a Milwaukee street corner, braving snow and temperatures well below zero, that he decided he'd rather be in Arizona permanently.

"I called my uncle and asked if he needed help," he said.

Four years later, Jack Huntress turned over the keys of the family business to his nephew.

The menu, the decor and the traditions haven't changed much since his uncle created them, Carroll Huntress said.

For less than $2 you still get served a dip of ice cream in a glass bowl atop a plate with a doily, and with real spoons.

And Sugar Bowl's atmosphere is still pink and striped like a strawberry and vanilla confection.

Many of the customers are the same, too, or new generations of the same old families. That's true of tourists and locals, Cano said.

She realized recently how long she and Sugar Bowl have been around when she served the fourth generation of a family of longtime regulars.

But Huntress said he also has lots of new customers. They are new-to-the-area families discovering the reasonably priced, kids-welcome eatery, and later in the evening crowds of diners who forgo dessert at the posh restaurants to stop by Sugar Bowl for a signature ice cream sundae or piece of pie a la mode.

Huntress said he never thinks of the Sugar Bowl as trendy, but Robin Meinhart, Scottsdale's downtown liaison, said it's still hip.

"It's a place to go after dinner or the theater. Young people go there after a bar hop," Meinhart said. "And we tell almost every visitor about it. It's an enduring tradition that thrives in an urban environment."

The tradition continues to get bigger. A few years ago, Huntress punched out a wall to take over an empty shop next door, adding 40 seats to the original Sugar Bowl's 100 for overflow or private parties. A year ago, he installed a few arcade games - not the video kind, but old favorites like pinball, air hockey and Skee-Ball.

Business has been down a bit lately. Huntress blames the economy, not the Sugar Bowl's dated image, since he saw business boom from 2003 through 2005.

He believes the Sugar Bowl can weather it, just like it has several downturns in the last five decades. And he's pleased that his son Ben has taken an interest in the family business, although Carroll Huntress said he's not ready to turn over the keys for at least a few years.

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