ENCINITAS — Every day from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, a steady stream of people enter Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream Shop in the Lofts at Moonlight Beach, and leave with sticky hands and faces — and big smiles.
Sometimes, as many as 50 people will be in line for the cones, ice cream sandwiches and other goodies.
The Midwestern ice cream chain’s fourth California location in Encinitas has been a success since the day it opened its doors June 4, 2016. Its popularity has only grown, co-owners Ken Schulenburg and Juliana Ortiz said.
The longtime couple attributes the shop’s popularity to the family-friendly atmosphere they’ve tried to foster.
“Our vision was to create a family-friendly environment, and to create the memories that we had when we were kids going to ice cream shops,” said Schulenburg, who goes by the nickname ‘ScoopDogg.’ “In San Diego, you get businesses that are trying to do that, but many of them are microbreweries, so it’s not totally a family environment, so we wanted to create something for the adults and the kids too.”
But the explosion in popularity hasn’t been all sweet, especially for neighboring tenants in the Lofts, a residential and retail complex on the northwest corner of Coast Highway 101 and Encinitas Boulevard.
Some businesses complain that Handel’s patrons overwhelm the other businesses with requests to use the restroom — Handel’s doesn’t have a public bathroom — and take away precious street parking from their customers while leaving trails of debris as they exit the restaurant.
“We can’t pay for all of their people to wipe their butts with our toilet paper,” said Valerie Buccieri, who owns the Hairloom Salon two doors down from Handel’s. “It’s too much.”
Long lines, booming business
Even on an overcast day, the queue of people waiting for Handel’s Ice Cream grows by the second.
Inside the shop, bright-eyed teens stand behind a counter, taking orders, giving samples of the shop’s 50 different ice cream flavors and ringing up customers.
Outside, some families — from gray-haired grandmothers to tiny infants — congregate around a handful of chairs and tables, while others take their ice cream to go.
For toddlers, the shop gives “baby cones,” tiny sized versions of the big kids variety, for free. They also give cones away to dogs, and feature them on an Instagram page “Dogs of Handel’s.”
There’s an undeniable energy at the store, Schulenburg said, one that’s fueled by a few factors: fresh ingredients, affordable prices and a friendly customer experience.
“San Diego loves fresh, quality ingredients, and I think people are really attracted to it, we hear that our ice cream evokes a lot of memories,” Schulenburg said. “People will say, ‘I haven’t had butter pecan like that in 20 years,’ or ‘You use real Michigan cherries in your black cherry ice cream, I haven’t had that in years.’
“And the price point, it’s very unique today that a family of five can come to Handel’s and all get something for $20,” Schulenburg said.
Schulenburg said he also takes pride in hiring local teens to man the counters. For many, it’s their first job.
And as the business has boomed, so has the hiring. The first summer, Ortiz and Schulenburg said they hired around 15 kids. This summer, they’ve hired 50 kids.
Along the way, the shop was recently named the best ice cream parlor in San Diego County in an annual contest hosted by San Diego Magazine.
Ortiz said the honor meant a lot because those contests are often dominated by San Diego-based businesses.
“It’s cool because we are representing our area,” said Ortiz, who lives with Schulenburg in Leucadia.
As the line picks up outside of Handel’s, so does the frustration inside of Hairloom Salon, where a sign outside of the shop gives an indication of the primary cause of friction between the two businesses.
“They don’t have a public bathroom, and it’s kind of ridiculous,” Buccieri said. “Every business in the plaza has put up signs telling their customers to not use their bathrooms.”
Buccieri said that people have yelled and cursed at them for not letting them use the bathroom, and a few have even urinated in the underground parking structure.
She said that on the busiest days, as many as 100 Handel’s customers will stick their head in asking to use their restroom.
“It gets disruptive to business,” she said.
Other businesses throughout the retail portion of the loft, including a pizza parlor, clothing store, a tanning salon and a popular coffee shop, concurred that Handel’s customers can sometimes be overwhelming.
Their customers can’t find street parking along Coast Highway 101. Business owners say they frequently find wrappers, cones and other debris from patrons heading back to their cars.
“The bathroom is the biggest issue, and the ice cream gets everywhere,” said Nicole Richards, who owns a boutique clothing store in the center. “They don’t shop at the other stores; they’re just going to the coffee shop or for ice cream.”
Schulenburg said shop’s configuration — a sea of ice cream vats stand between the rear restrooms and the front counter — makes it impossible to open the space’s two bathrooms to the public. The state health code prohibits people walking through areas where food is prepared.
Additionally, Schulenburg said, they have a dairy manufacturing license that also prohibits people walking through clean rooms or manufacturing areas, making the bathrooms unavailable.
City planner Kerry Kusiak confirmed that the city’s building code wouldn’t allow public access to the bathrooms because of the food preparation areas blocking it.
Kusiak also said there are no city requirements that businesses have public restrooms, even restaurants.
The city, he added, hasn’t received any complaints about Handel’s lack of public restrooms.
When asked if the shop’s space could be reconfigured to make a bathroom available, Schulenburg said the space is too constrained to make it possible.
Schulenburg said they try to be good neighbors to the surrounding businesses. He regularly power washes the deck areas, which are considered common-use areas. They bring on additional employees during peak times not only to accommodate the large lines but also to clean up debris outside the shop.
“When I hear people say we’re bad neighbors, and I know that we’re trying to build something that brings families together, it’s kind of hurtful,” Schulenburg said. “I don’t think us not having a bathroom makes us bad neighbors.”
But more importantly, he said, they bring foot traffic to a center that once couldn’t keep tenants for longer than a few months at a time.
“I spent my whole life in retail, and retailers spend billions to try to drive foot traffic,” he said. “We drive that traffic and we also recommend our neighbors to our customers. It’s up to them to capture that traffic and turn the situation with the long lines from a ‘glass half empty’ to a ‘glass half full’ scenario.
“You have happy people waiting in line and are in large part enthusiastic to do business with you, you have to use that to your advantage,” Schulenburg said.