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East Coast native brings icy dessert to Sonoma County through Amy’s Wicked Slush

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The list of food and drinks Sonoma County entrepreneurs have turned into thriving businesses that helped define our region is long: wine, beer, dairy, poultry, cheese, apples and even kombucha.

Could the ice slush be next?

That’s the goal of Amy Covin, who two years ago at 55 quit her longstanding accounting practice and opened Amy’s Wicked Slush across from Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach. Her quest — give local residents her version of what a bona fide East Coast water ice or Italian ice should taste like.

“I thought it was going to be a slow, sleepy place at the bottom of Healdsburg Avenue,” said Covin, a single mother of two adult sons who grew up north of Boston.

Instead, the results have been astounding, with crowds of up to 1,500 daily customers on a summer weekend eager to get their flavored sugary ice fix. Or there’s the soft-serve ice cream and a few other items on the limited menu.

This summer, Amy’s Wicked Slush expanded into Cloverdale and opened in Petaluma through a partnership.

And that’s just the tip of the slush or the split, as Covin calls the slush and ice cream combination. A month ago, she hired Rob Daly, a highly regarded local manager for coffee purveyors Starbucks and Taylor Lane Organic Coffee to help her lead the potential rapid growth of her slush business. Daly is her first general manager and he came aboard to shepherd the ambitious expansion plans that include opening from four to six franchised slush stores by next spring.

“We have touched a nerve in people that goes far beyond having ice cream,” Covin said.

The rise of Amy’s Wicked Slush in local business circles has been noticed and applauded by other merchants in a sector already accustomed to the rags-to-riches stories of other well-known Sonoma County food businesses. Recent examples include how Tony Magee built his Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma from his kitchen stove into a craft beer behemoth nationwide before he sold it to Heineken; and how Sean and Rebekah Lovett peddled their kombucha at the Santa Rosa Farmer’s Market before becoming a top-selling beverage producer acquired by Peet’s Coffee.

Hot reception for slush

Covin’s already collected a big accolade for her slush company’s quick start. After only a year in operation, the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce named Amy’s Wicked Slush the 2018 Business of the Year.

Alan Baker, owner and winemaker at Cartograph Wines, said when Covin first hung her business sign on the front of the slush shop in the spring of 2017, he harbored doubts if she would be able to make it in a location that previously had housed canoes for day trips along the Russian River. It didn’t take him long to become a convert.

“I have just been absolutely blown away by how it’s been an instant success,” said Baker, chairman of Healdsburg’s chamber board.

Even Covin said she was unsure. But opening day in May 2017 showed her the potential of her slush business. The steady line that day got as long as 60 people and she reached the inevitable — running out of certain slush flavors.

“Every staff member looked like a deer in the headlights,” Covin said, recalling those long opening day lines. Her team could not make mango slush fast enough, as every 3-gallon bucket that was produced was soon followed by a cashier shouting: “We’re running out of mango!”

The dessert shop was helped by strong word-of-mouth support from local teenagers, since most of her workers attend Healdsburg High School. The popularity of her slush was amplified via social media. Instagram has been a particular fixation for Amy’s Wicked Slush customers who post a picture of their colorful concoction before consuming it, helping spread the gospel of slush even further.

On a recent weekday, Lisa Walser stopped in with her four foster kids. She was hooked after she first sampled the flavored ice at the Sonoma County Fair.

“We are big fans. We are going to bring my husband back,” Walser said. She then snapped the smartphone picture, an action that is ubiquitous on the shop’s deck: “This is kind of a moment in time. Everybody look at the phone and say ‘Wicked Slush,’ ” she said.

Starting a new chapter

After 25 years in accounting, Covin said she wasn’t driven to a career change by a midlife crisis or a hankering to do something else. It was all about finding the perfect slush, the type she grew up on in the 1970s served by Richie’s Retail Slush & Food in Everett, Massachusetts. A trip back to her hometown a few years ago with her son was key in giving her the courage to follow through on her slush venture. Covin’s son, Ben Shakked, oversees the mobile slush stands that have been popping up around the county.

“I had a cushy little life and then I tossed it all up, because I got tired of waiting for someone to have slush out here,” Covin said of Sonoma County. “There’s no slush here.”

Her slush is not like a 7-Eleven Slurpee or Hawaiian shaved ice. It’s more in the mold and texture of the Italian ice that’s a fixture on the East Coast. But Covin features a much wider range of flavors such as watermelon, cotton candy and horchata, and she can add a sour version to any flavor.

Covin is a self-taught dessert maker, creating recipes after watching online videos and reaching out with questions to the small community of Italian ice producers back East for advice.

“There’s about five guys named Carmine and they all live back East. And they all know each other for 40 years,” she said.

As part of experimentation, Covin tried including her soft-serve ice cream layered with the slush in a parfait-like presentation. While sounding initially unappetizing, the creation has become a hit that she has termed a “split.” For instance, the horchata ice with the espresso ice cream has been popular and provides a combination that tastes almost like coffee cake.

“We are the Willy Wonka of slush and ice cream,” she said with a chuckle.

Decision to franchise

Soon after opening, satisfied customers were telling Covin she needed to open more stores. Last year, she opened a slush stand at Ukiah Valley Golf Course in a partnership with outside investors, but it did not work out and they parted ways.

But the episode taught Covin a valuable lesson that she needed another adult to help her manage the business. By happenstance, Daly visited with Covin earlier this summer while working for Black Oak Coffee Roasters in Ukiah. He was trying to get her to carry Black Oak’s coffee, but the conversation turned to her future plans and Daly said he knew Covin had something special with her cool desserts. He said her store made him think back to his early days in coffee working at Wolf Coffee Co. and Taylor Lane when it was known as Taylor Maid.

“I could have stayed in coffee and could have found another place to go to, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Daly said, explaining his move to Amy’s Wicked Slush.

Taylor Lane founder Mark Armstrong said he thinks Daly can help Covin grow her business similar to what he did in coffee, noting how unusual it was for him to go in another sector because “none of us leave the industry.”

Covin and Daly are now drafting Amy’s expansion plans on franchise locations for the spring, as well as a central office for administration and production. Covin said Daly’s presence has been invaluable because it has allowed her to think about how the business will operate in the next five to 10 years. “This business may outlive me,” she said.

The help also has allowed Covin to do what she enjoys the most, experimenting with new flavors — she is still working on trying to make watermelon slush better — as well as interacting with customers on the deck of her Healdsburg shop.

On a recent afternoon, the playlist music on the deck was straight out of the 1970s during her youth. Songs such as “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings and “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty were pumped through the speakers.

“I get to be my absolute true self around here,” she said, noting the contrast to her previous life as an accountant.

“People are thrilled here. The worst news I have to give anybody is that, ‘I’m so sorry we’re out of mango today,’ ” Covin said. “I don’t have to tell them they owe $135,000 to the IRS.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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