It is tradition. It is a time capsule of sweet summer memories reaching back for generations.
“It’s air conditioning for your tummy,” laughs Ashley Hansen, owner of Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, referencing the frozen treat that is to New Orleans what coffee is to Seattle.
After 75 years in business, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz is more than just a snow ball stand, it’s a local institution, and nobody appreciates her family’s legacy more than Ashley Hansen. Every day she shows up to work at the same corner shop on Tchoupitoulas Street that her grandparents, Ernest and Mary Hansen, started back in 1939.
From March through the end of September Hansen’s serves 37 flavors poured atop soft fluffy ice that’s still made using the same ice shaving machine Ernest Hansen, a machinist, built from scratch in 1939.
“I started working in the shop around age 15,” Hansen says. “My twin sister would go to leadership camps in the summer but I was painfully shy, so I hung out with my grandparents as much as I could.”
Hansen says it was her grandmother who taught her how to overcome her shyness.
“She would stick me at the counter and I would just smile. She would tell me ‘Just say what I say and you’ll be OK.’ She could talk to anyone. To this day I still channel her.”
After earning a fine arts degree at Loyola University, Hansen worked in commercial cooking. She says she always took jobs that allowed her to work at the stand in the summer.
Then came Hurricane Katrina, which, for Hansen, was one blow after another.
“My mom died in March of 2005, then my dog died, then our family lost both houses in the storm,” she says. “Then, nine days after Katrina, my grandmother passed away at the age of 95. My grandfather lasted only six months without her. He was 94. It was a horrible, horrible time in my life.”
Shortly after her grandfather’s death, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz reopened with Ashley Hansen at the helm. She has been running the stand ever since.
Extremely sensitive to the role she plays in guarding her family’s history, she has no desire for big changes.
She has, however, brought the business into social media with a presence on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and about four years ago the company began doing offsite catering at weddings and special events.
“We’ve added a new line of all natural flavors,” she says, adding that she and her staff try out special flavors every Friday.
“Bryce made this watermelon flavor that is out of this world. It will probably be on the menu next year.”
Hansen went to New York this past May to receive the 2014 James Beard Foundation Award, the food industry’s highest honor. Hansen’s Sno-Bliz was honored as an “American Classic.”
The key to her family’s success is simple, she says. In fact, it’s been written on the shop’s walls for decades.
“There are no shortcuts to quality.”
mentor: Definitely my grandmother and grandfather.
defining moment: There was a moment after Katrina, after Grammy and then Ernest died, that I decided I was going to reopen the stand.
When Ernest died, customers and friends started leaving flowers outside the stand. They left Polaroids, flowers, kid’s drawings of snow balls and wonderful letters I still have.
At first I reopened because I thought I was doing it for them. On retrospect, I think now I was doing it for me. I needed to be there.
advice for young women: To be positive and figure out where your talents are and your heart is. Follow your heart and your gut and the money will follow.
goals: I’d like to start exercising again – besides stirring a pot of syrup.
favorite thing about what I do: I love my job. I love the people that work for me because they almost always smile. I’m very sentimental. I love that we still make all our syrups in a pot my grandfather used. In fact, he made the stand for it and the tap. This place was such a part of my youth, and that of so many others, so I like that it hasn’t changed. In such a changing world I know I can walk in everyday and know it’s going to be the same.