As a small child living in Bexley, Ohio, there was no place where I enjoyed visiting the bathroom more than at Johnson’s.
Down the ice cream shop’s dimly lit hallway to the toilets, you’d pass by a huge window revealing part of their production kitchen. Time your potty break just right, and you could see the staff pouring vats of chocolate into giant ice cream machines, or pumping grassy-green ribbons of mint chip into scoopable containers.
The ice cream was good. But watching it get made, as a young food obsessive? The cherry on top.
Today there’s news that the once-small creamery from suburban Columbus is expanding into the Chicago market, acquiring Lake View shop Bobtail Ice Cream.
This makes logical business sense: Bobtail co-owner John Wilcoxon is the brother of fourth-gen Johnson’s owner Matt Wilcoxon. I get it — I really do — and I’m excited to have a piece of my hometown in Chicago.
Honestly, though, it’s also really, really weird.
The experience of going to Johnson’s is coded deep inside me, somewhere between long division and the original 150 Pokémon. There was a ritual to it, beyond watching the stuff get made: wiggling the sticky front door to get it open; sampling banana chip, then cherry cordial, then cookies & cream before settling on bubble gum in a dish (ages 5 to 12) or no-sugar-added vanilla (ages 12 and up, when I was in crisis about no longer fitting into Limited Too t-shirts). I’d sit at a table near the leaded glass windows with my mom, picking out our favorite suncatchers affixed to each pane (animals always beating out sports stuff and Ohio State emblems).
Sometimes, my mom or my aunt would pick me up from school and take me there for lunch; we’d sit in the booths while I picked at my tuna salad sandwich, talking about what I was reading in class. It was the place to be after soccer games, sweaty and grass-stained. In high school, when a friend was dating one of the cashiers, we’d descend, demanding free scoops.
It was a small corner of the world that felt reliably like mine. It still does, even though I haven’t lived in Bexley for more than a decade.
Alas, this is 2018, and businesses — especially those that serve food — can’t survive on nostalgia alone. Since I moved away, Johnson’s has grown from one shop to three in central Ohio. Now it’s here, and it will probably be in other places soon. Ice cream scales well.
I’m happy to see Johnson’s thriving. Soon, there will be kids in Chicago for whom Johnson’s will become its own ritual, its own meeting ground, its own bubblegum-hued childhood memento. I’ll probably stop by, for old time’s sake, for an ice cream Buckeye or two. But then I’ll probably keep on moving, because it doesn’t belong to me any more. It’s yours now.
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