Theodis Williams was 17 years old when he first walked into Murray’s Ice Cream & Cookies.
“I thought to myself,” he says, “I must work here.” And he did.
Theodis, now 35, is a tastemaker for his design skills — he makes beautiful lamps, and he’s one of Peregrine Honig’s favorite models. But people still recognize him from his days at Murray’s. Or should I say years? For 12 years, he worked as right-hand scooper for Murray Nixon, owner of the iconic Westport ice cream parlor.
“I am a soda jerk for life,” he says. “I’ve made lifelong friends there. I’ve never worked for anyone like Murray — her honesty, she’ll never lead you astray. The sound of her voice, she always sounds like a teenager to me. She is what makes Murray’s special. She’s one of my favorite people in the world.”
It’s that kind of passion that has kept Murray’s open for 30 years. This year marks three decades of frosty decadence, and the flavors must keep Murray young. At 63, her eyes are a vibrant blue. Her skin is like vanilla ice cream. She tells me she’s a cookie person, but this woman is like two scoops. There’s a bit of a hardness to her, a shyness. She admits she’s an introvert. But when you get her talking, she melts with sweetness. Her smile is inherently youthful.
Ice cream was always a big deal in the Nixon family. She is one of five children and has fond memories of dipped cones at Dairy Queen. But homemade cookies were her thing.
And then, while in Boston to run the marathon, she came across Steve’s Ice Cream, which popularized the genius idea of folding cookie chunks, candy and the like into slabs of ice cream.
“It was all the rage,” she remembers. “He was doing mix-ins. There was nothing like it in Kansas City. I figured that was it; I could do ice cream and cookies. Why not?”
She makes cookie dough every Sunday. Not only does she sell a dozen kinds of cookies and the doughs, she sells out. It’s rare that they have any left to make one of her favorite flavors: Murray’s Greatest Hits, a mix of the leftover cookies from the evening and vanilla ice cream.
In 30 years, she has created more than 300 flavors. Westport has seen its ups and downs, but Murray’s has remained mostly the same.
“Ice cream doesn’t change,” she says. “The customers don’t change. It’s like a time warp when you walk in here. I stay consistent. And maybe people appreciate that.”
Murray appreciates the people, but it’s her soda jerks who bring her to tears. Her late mother, Penny Nixon, was her first soda jerk. They opened Murray’s together. Mom worked the front so Murray could concentrate on making ice cream.
“She was magnetic. She loved people and they loved her. She was so genuine.”
And that’s the model for working the counter at Murray’s. The soda jerks are kind. When I moved to Kansas City more than 10 years ago, I didn’t know Murray’s was a cash-only place. I walked from my Plaza apartment and brought only my debit card. The cashier took some change out of his pocket and helped me pay for my lemon sorbet — what I would later come to call the best in the city.
“We all know you can’t hit it out of the ballpark every time. But for the most part, if people come in here in a grumpy mood, they go out happy. We’re a team, me and the soda jerks,” she says, eyes tearing. “It’s been rewarding interacting with them over the years. It might sound cliche, but I have been fortunate to have great employees.”
And we are fortunate that she makes great ice cream in a parlor that shines with happy feelings. The ’50s diner style has a down-home vibe. It reminds me of the “Happy Days” reruns I saw on Nick at Nite. It’s no chain. It’s a small boutique, and people pack in there. When you walk in, the smell of fresh cones welcomes you. The energy is warm. Maybe that’s why people are happy to stand in lines that sometimes stretch out the door.
Outside, you’re likely to meet other fans on the benches. Even if your favorite flavor isn’t on the menu, something will catch your eye. Pink Grapefruit sorbet, Oreos ’n Cream, Cinnamon Honey — she makes 1,200 tubs a year, and her newest flavors are Key Lime Pie and Gimme Some More S’mores. She rotates the creations, featuring about 16 each week. Some flavors are so popular, they have a call-list. The most sought-after: Chocolate Flake Fromage.
That was Loren Ochoa Walsh’s first taste of Murray’s when she was pregnant two years ago. She worked at Shine Spa across the street.
“It’s amazing, but the revolving flavors at Murray’s kept me coming back. It was fun and exciting to try something new every time. It’s the best way to make it through the heat,” says Loren, 33.
She and her husband are expecting again, but now she lives in Manhattan, Kan. “I miss it this time around.”
Theodis says the Chocolate Flake Fromage gets him every time, too. What people don’t know is it’s an accidental hit. Initially, Murray was trying, and failing, to make a cheesecake-inspired flavor. But her mom tasted it and insisted they keep it.
Another favorite: One Drunk Monk. People love the Frangelico, hazelnuts, chocolate and espresso flakes flavor so much it makes a regular appearance — around the first of every month. Her rule of thumb is keeping the ice cream classic. She respects artisan trends, but she likes to make flavors people can readily identify without much explaining.
It works. Every winter Murray closes for a few months, starting in December. Come March, she starts all over again from scratch. But even in the off-season, ice cream is always on Murray’s mind.
“I’m always thinking of flavors. As long as I can keep making ice cream, Murray’s will keep going. It’s truly a passion project. It’s hard to know how and where I’d be having not done this. In general, I’m a loner by nature. But with ice cream, I’m around people all the time. It’s been a life lesson in dealing with the public. Knowing this is something I created and I can be proud of makes me feel good. And hopefully it makes people feel good.”
It does, Murray. Hooray for Kansas City ice cream and cookies, handmade by you.
Jeneé Osterheldt’s column runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. To reach her, call 816-234-4380 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. You also can follow her at Twitter.com/jeneeinkc.
Something about Murray
Her favorite cookies: Snickerdoodles, oatmeal scotchies, English toffees — it’s too hard to pick one, but she finds chocolate chip so boring it wasn’t on the menu until popular demand forced her into it.
A Westport Art Fair Affair: Murray and her mom first opened the shop 30 years ago during the Westport Art Fair. They sold out of ice cream, had a milkshake meltdown and the register jammed.
Paul Newman: Her favorite celebrity sighting was when Newman came in and ordered the Ultimint Mint. He was filming “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.” “I was pretty impressed,” she says.
Murray’s Ice Cream & Cookies, 4120 Pennysylvania Ave., is open noon to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday — typically March to early December.