Beloved Thrifty Ice Cream returns to Las Vegas, sans pharmacy

Thrifty Ice Cream store owner Pankaj Shah at one of his stores on Wigwam Parkway on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012.

Most people from the West Coast know and love Thrifty Ice Cream.

Sold for years in its namesake pharmacy chain, the classic California dessert is known for its cylinder-shaped scoops, low prices and unique flavors, such as Chocolate Malted Krunch.

Most people might also assume that Thrifty Ice Cream can’t be found in Las Vegas, since it’s typically sold now only in Rite Aid stores in California.

They'd be wrong.

Thrifty cones soon will be available throughout the valley in stand-alone Thrifty Ice Cream parlors, thanks to a unique business venture from a seemingly unlikely source.

Click to enlarge photo

Ice cream, including bubblegum flavor, on left, at a Thrifty Ice Cream store on Wigwam Parkway Sept. 18, 2012.

Smarty’s gas station owner Pankaj Shah opened a Thrifty Ice Cream shop this year near the corner of North Pecos Road and Wigwam Parkway in Henderson. He plans to open five more stores in the valley.

Despite the dessert’s cult following, Shah appears to have the only stand-alone Thrifty shop in the country. What’s more, he hadn’t heard of the 1940s-era treat until a few years ago.

He sells 36 flavors that start at $1.79 a scoop. So far, business is booming. Customers say the lines are always long, sometimes stretching out the door. Many are lured in by the nostalgia of the treat.

Herb Porras and Irma Soto, a Henderson couple who grew up in Southern California, drove past the store one day and were shocked by the Thrifty sign. They hoped it was the same brand they knew as kids. They now buy ice cream from Shah’s store about twice a week, often with their grandchildren in tow.

Porras said they feel comfortable there, partly because the store has outdoor tables where they can sit and relax and partly because of the brand’s familiarity.

“It reminds you of back home,” Soto said.

Henderson resident Monica Jones grew up in Costa Mesa, Calif., and heard about the local Thrifty shop from a friend. When she first visited the store a few months ago, dozens of people were in line.

“I didn’t realize it was still alive,” she said of the brand.

The man helping to keep it alive hails from Bombay and moved to Dubai when he was 21 to start an advertising agency. He lived there for three decades before moving to the valley about five years ago, after visiting a nephew who then lived in Henderson.

During the visit, Shah’s wife suggested they move to the region as their daughter already was living in Los Angeles. Shah bought a house in Henderson and, after searching for a business to run, bought Smarty’s at the corner of South Durango Drive and West Twain Avenue.

About two years ago, he wanted to make better use of the space along the walls in Smarty’s convenience store. He decided to sell Häagen-Dazs ice cream by the scoop, but his store manager, Nancy Manning, thought it would be too expensive for customers. She asked them for suggestions about what to offer instead and was told to sell Thrifty.

Shah hadn’t heard of it, so on a visit to Los Angeles, he stopped at a Rite Aid to taste the ice cream. He tried to get a distribution deal with the pharmacy chain but was rebuffed for more than a year.

His efforts eventually paid off, however, and Shah started selling the ice cream at Smarty’s a year and a half ago. He opened the Henderson shop in April.

“I have been thanked by people probably hundreds of times for opening that store,” he said.

Shah declined to say how he landed the ice cream deal or how it’s structured, though he said the ice cream is delivered from California. Attempts to speak with Rite Aid about the store were unsuccessful.

Since he began selling the dessert, Shah has been approached by several people who want a piece of the action. Some want to work with him; others want their own deal. According to Shah, one person even tried bribing a Thrifty store clerk with $200 for a scooper. (The clerk turned him down.)

The scoopers, which work like oversized caulking guns to push the ice cream out, are hot commodities among the Thrifty obsessed. Last month, an item identified as a “brand new” Thrifty ice cream scooper was listed for sale on eBay for $320. A website, theicecreamscooper.com, sells what appears to be an imitation Thrifty scooper for $57, saying it’s “Just like the good ole’ days!” A spokesperson for the site could not be reached for comment.

The ice cream was launched in 1940 by the owners of Thrifty Cut Rate Drug Stores. They started using a cylinder-shaped scooper a decade later to ensure uniform scoop size, according to a September 2010 report from the Orange County Register.

Founded in 1929 in downtown Los Angeles, Thrifty Cut Rate eventually became Thrifty PayLess Holdings, the largest drugstore chain in the western United States. By the mid-1990s, the Wilsonville, Ore.-based company had more than 1,000 stores in 10 states with about $4.4 billion in annual revenue.

Rite Aid Corp., based in Camp Hill, Pa., acquired Thrifty PayLess in 1996 but continued selling Thrifty brand ice cream. The dessert is manufactured in El Monte, Calif., and Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flower said it’s primarily sold in California.

Rite Aid shuttered its 28 Las Vegas-area stores in 2008. The company now has only one store in Nevada, in Gardnerville, and it sells Thrifty Ice Cream there, a store clerk said.

But Shah isn’t the only one who sells Thrifty in Las Vegas. Some local restaurants reportedly offer the ice cream but don’t publicize it by name. The ice cream also is sold at Sweet Addiction on South Fort Apache Road near West Tropicana Avenue and at Crepe Shack & Waffles on South Eastern Avenue at Coronado Center Drive.

Crepe Shack opened in February 2011 and began selling Thrifty a month or two later, owner Li Hsun Sun said. Sun grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and ate Thrifty as a kid. He buys the ice cream from a distributor in California, not from Rite Aid directly.

He sells 15 Thrifty brand flavors, including the popular Chocolate Malted Krunch. Ice cream is a small part of his business, but it’s popular with customers who grew up eating Thrifty in California, many of whom recall buying it for 5 cents a scoop as kids.

At Crepe Shack, a single scoop in a cup sells for as little as $1.

“It’s done pretty well,” Sun said.

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