Carl Rupp first tasted shaved ice while on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Every day, Rupp would see a crowd of people outside a tiny shack near his St. Louis apartment and wonder what the fuss was about.
“After about two months, I decided to stop and buy one,” he said. And to his surprise, the cup of shaved ice “was fine and soft and every spoonful was saturated with syrup.”
It was so different than the snow cones he remembered, where the ice was crunchy and the flavoring pooled in the bottom of the paper, cone-shaped cup.
Since that day in 1979, Rupp — along with his brother Gordon and other extended family — have made Utah a hub for the sweetest “snow” on Earth.
Snowie, their Utah-based business, sells everything a person would need to run a shaved ice operation — from small, medium and large ice shavers to nearly 100 flavored syrups to fiberglass kiosks and colorful food trucks.
The company sells its products in all 50 states and more than 50 countries and estimates that 190 million shaved ice cups have been sold using the Snowie shavers.
It is one of several shaved ice companies based in Utah, along with Tropical Sno, another family-run business that opened in 1984; and Hokulia, which sells ice shavers, concentrated syrups and other products worldwide.
March and April are a busy time for those in the business, said Rupp, as vendors prepare for the season that runs between May and September.
Last week, more than 150 people attended the sixth annual Snowie Summit at the company headquarters. Attendees learned about the newest shaved ice products, how to improve their social media marketing skills and how to extend their businesses into the offseason by selling hot chocolate or doughnuts.
People from all walks of life — from teachers to college students to retired military personnel — operate shaved ice stands as a way to supplement their income.
Depending on the location, and how well the shaved ice stand is operated, the seasonal business actually can bring in a full-time salary.
Food historians say “shave ice” dates back to seventh-century Taiwan. Japanese immigrants brought it with them to Hawaii when they came to work in the sugar plantations.
Before they started their shaved ice business in Oklahoma, Jurrii Barrett and Jennii Buendia researched various companies and decided Snowie ice shavers and flavorings were the best.
“They make a good product and the staff responds whenever we have questions,” said Barrett as she sampled some of the 29 natural syrups Snowie has introduced this year. “We also like it because it’s a family business and not a big corporation.”
Snowie is a business opportunity, not a franchise, explained Aaron Rupp, the marketing director and one of Carl’s eight siblings. “We don’t collect royalties or franchise fees. That’s what differentiates us.”
He said Snowie customers can invest as little or as much as they want, purchasing just a shaved ice machine or going big with syrups, cups, spoons and a kiosk on wheels.
Businesses don’t have to use the Snowie name, but if they do, they are required to also buy the company flavors, which the owners believe are superior to their competitors. Currently, 6,000 customers operate under the Snowie brand and another 10,000 buy Snowie products, but use their own name or brand.
Carl Rupp, now 61, never imagined such a career when he returned to Utah from his church mission and started his shaved ice business. “I always thought I’d own my own welding shop,” he said.
A “mechanical genius,” according to his siblings, he built a small wooden hut and placed it in the parking lot of the grocery store near his home on Redwood Road and 4700 South. He called it the Sno Shack, selling cups of shaved ice for 50 cents, 75 cents and $1. On a hot summer day, he easily collected $500.
Friends and acquaintances saw his success and asked if they, too, could set up a Sno Shack in their neighborhood.
Born to tinker, Rupp built more huts, designed ice shavers and spent hours mixing new flavors and delivering them to the different shacks. When he tired of building and painting the wood shacks, he constructed self-contained fiberglass kiosks on wheels.
After more than a decade of growth for his business, Rupp saw his success begin to melt when a drug addiction threatened his life and his livelihood. His first wife took over Sno Shack in those dark days. When the couple divorced, she got the business (it has since been purchased and its headquarters are now in Rexburg, Idaho.)
It took years, but he got clean and 21 years ago in February — with the financial backing of brother Gordon — they started Snowie.
“I had nothing,” Carl Rupp said. “But I did have the desire, ambition and work ethic.”
Rupp said Snowie has been able to attract customers by always evolving. Snowie’s newest shaved ice machines can fill a regular cup in less than five seconds — which means customers are served faster. That’s important, he said, at events like college football games, where hundreds of customers need to be served during halftime.
New kiosks also have self-serve flavor stations, which allow customers to make their own creations from among the 69 flavors, which range from popular tiger’s blood (strawberry coconut), blue raspberry or lemon lime to the more unusual zombie virus, birthday cake or firehouse (cinnamon). (See top 10 flavor list below.)
The company also has a new line of syrups with 60 percent less sugar and no artificial colors or flavorings. Before it launched the new natural line, which includes 29 flavors, it tested the products on Utah customers at the Downtown Farmers Market at Pioneer Park and the Utah Arts Festival.
The company’s latest offering is the Little Snowie 2, a shaved ice machine for home use. It sells for about $200 on Amazon and other big-box stores. So far, about 60,000 units have been sold.
Like most of the products he has made for Snowie, Rupp knew the first prototype wouldn’t be perfect. “But once I make the first one, I can see my mistakes and make a better one,” he said. “I don’t give up.”
Snowie’s top 10 flavors
- Tiger’s blood
- Blue raspberry
- Pina colada
- Lemon lime
- Cotton candy blue
- Wild cherry