Sitting at a table in Chill on Park, her gleaming new ice cream and coffee shop in Fields Corner, Wendy Issokson asks, “Who’s not happy when they’re eating ice cream?”
Issokson and her husband, Alan, who live in Needham, have close ties to the Dorchester neighborhood and envision their cafe, which opened in May, as a gathering spot. They are also committed to working with the community, employing local high school students and recent graduates with an eye toward helping them prepare for their next step, whether it’s college or another job.
Alan Issokson, who owns H. Levenbaum Insurance and Real Estate around the corner, has worked in this neighborhood since 1995, but his roots here go back generations. His great-grandfather, Max Levenbaum, had a haberdashery on Blue Hill Avenue. His grandfather, Hyman Levenbaum, opened the insurance agency in 1923, and Alan recalls visiting the neighborhood often as a child. More recently, he has attended community meetings and listened to area residents talk about the desire for “a place to call [their] own.”
In response, Issokson, who owns the building that houses this venture, tried to find somebody to open an ice cream shop, “but nobody wanted the space,” he says. With the youngest of their three children now 14, says Wendy Issokson, “I was talking about what’s the next chapter for me.” That chapter turned out to be to starting the business herself and using it to create employment opportunities. She built a staff of 12 teens from the Boys & Girls Club of Dorchester and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, along with two full-time assistant managers. “These two organizations are heavily invested in the community,” says Alan Issokson. “We know we’re not alone. They see us as part of their mentorship.”
Wendy Issokson has a master’s degree in sociology with a concentration in criminal justice. She used to develop programs in the Boston prison system and set up federal halfway houses in the city. She stopped working when her first child, now 19, was born. She was drawn to criminal justice because she was interested in reducing recidivism. “This is coming at it at another way, giving people positive work history,” she says. She hears kids tell her, “I’ve applied everywhere and nobody will hire me.’”
Learning with her staff — “This is new to me too,” she says — Wendy Issokson trained the teens on food allergies, the espresso machine, tea, and, of course, how to scoop and serve ice cream and make treats like sundaes and frappes.
It’s the only ice cream shop in the neighborhood. The 1,100-square-foot space, with seating for 19, is bright and welcoming, with a wall of windows that looks out to the street. Lesley University student Rebecca Schnopp painted the colorful mural on one chalkboard wall with fellow student, Stephen Kunz.
The shop serves baked goods from Haley House Bakery Cafe in Roxbury; Karma Coffee, roasted in Sudbury; and Watertown’s MEM Tea Imports. Ice cream comes from family-owned Puritan Ice Cream of Roslindale, 32 ice cream flavors at all times, along with ice cream pies (made by Puritan and decorated in-house) and drinks. Issokson relies on her staff to develop new smoothie recipes. “They know what people will want.”
On a recent Tuesday, shift supervisors Destinee Morris and Lamarre Edouard, both Boys & Girls Club members, are behind the counter. Morris, 18, a graduate of Excel High School in South Boston, is still wearing her long white nail tips from prom a couple of weeks earlier, with long braids flowing through the vent in her Chill on Park cap. She is enjoying this job, she says, her first in food service. Even before noon a steady stream of customers comes in. Morris is splitting her time between this job and another as an assistant in physical therapy at Tufts Medical Center before going to Framingham State University in the fall. Edouard, also 18, graduated from Boston Latin Academy. He will divide his summer between the shop and a temp agency before heading to Clark University.
Morris, whose home is a 10-minute walk from here, thinks the community-based activities in the park across the street should drive business. The All Dorchester Sports League’s summer schedule starts soon, with Little League games throughout the season. Neighborhood kids have begun coming in for birthday parties. And others have noticed the spot makes a great stop after visiting the library around the corner. As summer picks up, things should only get busier.
Wendy Issokson says Chill on Park is shaping up to be “a happy place. When people come, they’re here to treat themselves.”
CHILL ON PARK
142 Park St., Fields Corner, Dorchester, 617-297-5401, www.facebook.com/pages/Chill-On-Park/43379449013
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.