A century ago, Seaside Heights resident Greg Kohr’s grandfather gave up life on a farm near York, Pa. and took a risk, setting up shop on the boardwalk in Coney Island and selling ice cream.
It would be the distance from home and some initial hiccups that would turn one of many ice cream parlors into a legendary business whose product would carry on for generations and become as much a part of the fabric of the Jersey Shore as the boardwalk and beach itself.
“In 1919, my grandfather and his two brothers went to Coney Island and started selling ice cream,” said Kohr, standing in his Franklin Avenue shop on the boardwalk where the same machine his grandfather tinkered with produces the store’s signature frozen custard to this day. “The problem was that the ice cream was always melting because it was hot out, so he had an idea to add egg yokes to the ice cream to, basically, emulsify it and stop it from melting – hence the invention of frozen custard.”
Kohr, who represents the third generation of his family to operate the business, still holds the patents to the peculiar-looking machine that yields the most delicious of summer treats. A similar machine would cost about $95,000 to hand-build today.
There have long been debates about the “real” Kohr’s frozen custard, but both the local business and its southern counterpart can be traced back to the three brothers. It was Kohr’s grandfather, however, who modified an ice cream-making machine and developed the frozen custard recipe that thousands of customers enjoy to this day. The machine was manufactured in Pennsylvania and the family kept up the business during the Great Depression, even as the factory where it was made closed its doors.
“When the depression came, he shut down the plant,” Kohr said, of the company that developed the machine that would later produce frozen custard. A few years ago, Kohr ran into a man who recalled the values that his grandfather held even during those difficult times.
“He said, ‘I have to hand it to your grandfather,’ because even though it was the depression, he still paid for everything,” said Kohr. “A lot of people didn’t do that.”
The original business on the Coney Island boardwalk didn’t last too long, but its popularity led Kohr’s grandfather to the Jersey Shore, where he opened stores in Asbury Park, Point Pleasant Beach, Seaside Heights and Atlantic City. His two brothers went out on their own and agreed to open shops south of Atlantic City.
Values and Vision
Greg Kohr is technically the third generation of his family to run the business, but he may as well be the second. He began working at nine years old and was running the Franklin Avenue location when he was 14.
“I started at nine years old cutting oranges, making a dime and then running to the arcade,” he recalled. “As a kid growing up in Seaside, I loved it. It was so much fun and it seemed like the waves were always so big. Everyone was out surfing, on the beach, having fun.”
His family lived above the store, but suffered a setback in 1976 when a fire damaged the building beyond repair. That setback, however, turned out to be minor. The store was rebuilt in just a month’s time.
“My grandfather had two crews coming in to work all day – it burnt down in the springtime and we had to get it back open for summer,” Kohr said.
The 1970s also brought some modernization to the ice cream business, and Kohr’s stores began selling soft-serve. In the beginning, the family bought soft-serve machines like most of their competitors and kept selling the traditional custard as hard ice cream. That practice didn’t last long – and created another testament to the family’s ingenuity.
“We reformulated everything,” Kohr said, and as it turned out, the soft-serve frozen custard had less fat than traditional ice cream and also carried a richer, creamier flavor. It soon became the signature product.
A Setback and a Comeback
Kohr serves as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Seaside Heights, and witnessed the wrath of Superstorm Sandy firsthand.
“It’s something I hope I never see again,” he said.
When the storm hit, he owned four stores. A day later, three of the four were destroyed. Only the original Franklin Avenue location remained, and Kohr was faced with a decision on whether to take a significant financial risk in reopening. But not only did he decide to reopen – he expanded. Today, he operates six stores: three in Seaside Heights, and one each in Seaside Park, Ortley Beach and Lavallette.
“It was a lot of loans, loans from banks and loans from the state, but I really do believe in the Shore and in our customers,” Kohr said. “They were so happy we reopened and I feel so honored that we have the support of all our customers.”
The Kohr’s family has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, with employees becoming friends and generations of customers coming back summer after summer. Physicians, attorneys and engineers started their careers selling frozen custard on the Seaside Heights boardwalk, and all benefited from the same values the Kohr family has cherished for the past century.
“I tell everyone who works here, ‘you don’t work for me, we work together,'” Kohr said. “It helps having the respect of your co-workers and to make it an enjoyable workplace.”
Two aspects of the business keep Kohr coming back, year after year: his customers, and what has become an important vocation to keep the family business thriving.
“I see the parents bring their kids here and I see the smiles on their faces when they say it’s their child’s first cone,” Kohr said. “That’s what it’s all about for me – making people happy and making memories for people.”
Kohr’s own two children have established their own careers in accounting and engineering, but have left open the possibility of taking over themselves some day. Tradition is a way of life for the family, and it all dates back to the three brothers who left their farm in rural Pennsylvania to sell ice cream on a boardwalk.
Kohr and his grandfather were close. He’d come every Monday to inspect the store, then the two would go out to dinner. In a seasonal business where it’s nonstop work – day in and day out – for months, the stores would close one (likely valuable) day each summer so the family could celebrate his grandmother’s birthday.
“It’s something that you live for, to try and emulate, when you grow up with people like that,” Kohr said.
100th Anniversary Celebration
On May 17, 2019, Kohr’s will formally celebrate its 100th anniversary. Proceeds from the store will go to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and free frozen custard will be served from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Franklin Avenue.
Between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., several bands will perform in a celebratory concert on the Franklin Avenue stage on the boardwalk.