J.P. Licks is one of the first businesses to ever use J.P. in its name. They have been providing the people of Jamaica Plain with ice cream since 1981 and have grown to 13 stores throughout Massachusetts. Today we’re chatting with Vince Petryk, the owner and founder of J.P. Licks, about inventing creative flavors, the origins of Clementine (the cow) and the magical power of ice cream.
K: Where are you from originally?
V: Originally I am from a little working class town right outside Philadelphia. I started working in Philly at an ice cream shop because it was next door to me. That was where I fell in love and I realized what I like to call, ‘the magical power of ice cream.’ I came up here and I was getting my education working in fast food. I was working for Wendy’s Hamburgers as a manager. I have always been proud to be from JP. I’ve been here 38 years and I’m 61 so my adult life is JP.
K: What’s the ‘magical power of ice cream?’
V: Many of my customers in Philly, as they are here, were my neighbors and friends. I would see what happened when they walked into an ice cream shop. They changed. The ones that weren’t so nice got a lot nicer. A lot of people were happy and smiling. I wanted to do something good with my life that would benefit people. In my mind I justified waiting on 10,000 people a week and making them a little bit happy was the equivalent of making 30 families a week a lot happier. I could make sense of that.
I was kind of a weird kid by birth and I never really fit in anywhere so I was also looking to kind of create my own little world of a place that was nice and friendly and nobody got bullied or picked on. An ice cream shop is a lot nicer than the bars I had worked in. So that is how I ended up in ice cream.
K: When did you start making ice cream? How did you start making ice cream?
V: I started in Philadelphia as a dishwasher in the ice cream parlor. Eventually I ended up baking for the little cafe and making the ice cream.
The owner gave me the recipe book and showed me where all the cans of ingredients were. After a while I said ‘How about instead of the canned strawberries we use fresh strawberries? They taste better and in June they’re cheap. I made some for you to taste. See if you like it.’ The owner said ‘I don’t want to taste it.’ ‘Well, why not?’ ‘Too many problems could happen with that. Where if you open up a can and put it in the machine anybody can make ice cream.’ And that’s true. It’s like Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines versus a scratch recipe. With a scratch recipe cake lots of things can go wrong and with Duncan Hines not so much. We battled over that. It was his business so I did what he wanted but I started working on recipes at home.
I spoke to an impresario who was a very knowledgeable in the business and told him I wanted to open an ice cream shop and that I’d worked in bars and restaurants but I needed an education because I didn’t have any money. I asked him where he would recommend to someone who couldn’t afford to go back to school and get an education to operate a fast food place. He said ‘The Wendy’s franchise in Philadelphia area has 40 stores and they’ve got a great training program. I think that’s going to be a lot like ice cream, don’t you? The operations are going to be the operations. That’s what I would recommend.’ I was surprised but I went to get a job there. I became a manager trainee and worked my way up and learned and I liked it. I learned how to open up new restaurants for them which was helpful.
They were opening in Boston for the first time. They were saving Boston and New York until they really had it down. They granted a franchise to someone and he asked for the help of two managers. I was one of the managers so they sent me up to Boston. I worked for them for 2 years.
K: How did you end up in JP?
V: It was a tense time in Boston at that time and JP was relaxed. I liked it. I could afford it. So I lived here. It was nice for a poor neighborhood. It was such an affordable place to live that not only did it attract me but it attracted a lot a lot of students and about half of them were MassArt students.
K: How did you go about opening the first J.P. Licks location?
V: One day I was driving by the building across from the CVS down the street and I saw a lady taping up a sign in the window that said ‘For Rent.’ I didn’t even wait for the car to stop. I hopped out while the car was moving. I ran in like a nut case and I said ‘I want to rent the space!’ She said ‘You don’t know what this rents for.’ It was funny.
People said we would fail in JP because we were too expensive and people wouldn’t pay that kind of money for ice cream. At the time we were relatively expensive. It was 75¢ a cone and everybody else was 35-40¢ but I couldn’t charge that because we were making ice cream from scratch. It was rather interesting to prove wrong that good taste does not know socioeconomic boundaries. Well-to-do people, poor people and college kids have good taste and appreciate good food. It turned out not to be a problem.
When I was building my store I had an all-tile counter. The owner of the tile company came up to me and put his arm around me. He was an older Italian gentleman and he said ‘My help tells me you’re opening a store in JP. Don’t do it and don’t do it with tile.’ I said ‘Why not? I have the money. I can buy it.’ He said ‘No, no you don’t get it. You put in a tiled store in JP they’re gonna think it looks so nice. They’re gonna think it costs too much. No one is gonna buy anything from you. All they expect in JP is Formica.’ ‘Okay, Ernie, but I’d still like to buy the tile.’ At the time we were probably the nicest looking business in JP. That was 1981.
K: Tell me about the move to this building.
V: We were down the street and it was too small for us because we made the ice cream in the basement. We ended up renting the Purple Cactus space. It was about 3 times as big. We were there for about four years. When this building went up for sale I was able to buy it. I was afraid because it was huge. It’s a big ice cream shop. I thought maybe I should cut it in half and put another business in but then I thought about it and there was no other place in the community that was big like Doyle’s for families or for people that didn’t enjoy drinking to hang out. I thought that’d be a nice thing to offer people. So we did it. We have the outside front café seating area and that was really nice.
K: What are some significant changes you’ve seen to JP over the years?
V: A good thing that’s changed is we don’t get held up anymore. Thank god with all of the holdups no one ever got hurt. They just took the money.
I used to have to negotiate some of my gay males safe passage because some of the local kids would beat them up because they were gay. I had to cut deals with them. We were on a frappe a day deal for a while. So that’s good that that doesn’t need to happen anymore.
It was quite different back then. I used to have this one customer that would come all the way from Newton in a Mercedes. He said ‘I bring the wife and the kids here for ice cream on weekends in the daytime. Only the daytime. I would never come here at night time. Back where I live we all heard about your ice cream and we all come out here now. It’s a trip. We all take the hike. I don’t eat ice cream. I come to watch the freak show.’ And I said ‘Freakshow?! What do you mean freak show?’ He said ‘Look who you got working here. It’s a bunch of freaks. It looks like a carnival show. Look at that kid. He’s got his nose pierced, ears pierced, lip pierced. That one’s skin you can’t see except for tattoos. It’s a freak show here. But I’ve got to give it to you because I was kind of prejudiced I guess. I always thought those kids were kind of good for nothing. You hire nice kids here. You have kind of changed my mind about these people.’
This neighborhood has been becoming gentrified since the second I moved here. I owned the most expensive home in JP for a week. $33,000. A little 3-family house on South Street. That was the most expensive house. Some people hate on us because of the fact that we’re kind of corporate and we own more than one store. Most people are very happy for us for having 13 stores. It’s 13 stores in 35 years. It’s not setting the world on fire.
K: What are some ways that J.P. Licks supports the community?
We always support little leagues, soccer teams, churches and stuff like that. We try to say yes to pretty much everyone in the neighborhood. We’re a little company so we should take care of the little ones.
In the other neighborhoods we are in I try to be a neighborhood store. There are a lot of Jewish people in some of these neighborhoods and I made my ice cream Kosher. It took 7 years but I make the ice cream Kosher now. It was done out of respect. Eating Kosher is an old tradition but if there’s a family gathering and Uncle Charlie is there and he does eat Kosher then he can.
K: What’s your process and inspiration for the flavors at JP Licks? Does anyone help create the flavors?
V: I like pure flavors more than blends. I find if something makes a good dessert it’d make a good ice cream. My biggest failure was about 4 or 5 years ago when I did Thai dinner. I had found a way to do noodle kugel for the Jewish holidays. I could cook my noodles where they would not turn into rocks when they were frozen. They were al dente. I used that recipe and I did my Pad Thai noodles. It tasted just like Pad Thai. People’s reactions around here were so weird. They’d go ‘Oh my god. It tastes just like Pad Thai!’ Thai food is great in a way because it’s sweet and it’s a little sour. Half of Thai food is practically dessert. It failed miserably. I don’t even think we gave away a whole tub.
Our flavors are usually inspired by things that make good desserts. Banoffee is a recipe on the back of the sweetened condensed milk can in England. It has bananas, pie crust caramel and biscuits. The biscuits are these weird things that you give to toddlers. You can give them to a kid and they don’t melt from the saliva. They’re not sweet which is interesting and they’re kind of solid. People loved that. That was a success. I did blueberry pancakes and maple syrup and that was fun.
K: Tell us about the cow.
V: The cow is very important to me because, being city folks, we don’t deal with the hard part of ice cream making. We get the product of a dairy farmer’s labor. I hate the Ben and Jerry’s cows because their cows have no eyes. If you’ve ever looked at a cow at a 4-H show they have the most soulful eyes. I want to honor the cow and make sure I always remember where the source of the ice cream and my income comes from. That’s why the cow.
Our cow named after my foster grandmother. She was one of my customers. She was this little old African American lady named Clementine and she was the sweetest. She’d get all dressed up and take the bus in from Roxbury and she’d come get her ice cream for free. She was also very forthcoming. Once she said ‘You don’t have a name for that cow no do you? Why don’t you name it after me?’ So we named the cow Clementine. Clementine had her last birthday here about 5 years ago before she died and it was very nice.
K: What is your favorite thing about being a small business owner?
We still have a lot of day one customers. Whenever there is a complaint I try to make it a point to meet with them, talk to them and thank them. Disappointing a customer that has been coming here for 30 years is a real big deal for me because I feel like I owe them. That’s the way I’d like to be treated and that’s the way I’d like the world to be, where you’re not always looking for a new customer and you take care of your old customers. Before there was social media I feel like I discovered my own brand of social media. We never advertised much but what we did do was take care of our customers.
I was completely emotionally devastated after being open for 18 years when a young woman knocked on the door and said ‘Hi. I’d like to apply for a job and you told my mother I should do this.’ And I said ‘Your mom? Okay.’ ‘My mother was one of your first customers in line and she was pregnant with me. She said I’ve been eating J.P. Licks ice cream since I was a fetus. You told her that when I turned 18 to tell me to come to you and apply for a job.’ It got to me because it was like a milestone of having been in a neighborhood so long that you started employing your customer’s children.
Get the scoop about all of the latest J.P. Licks flavor at: