The Big Chill

A Local Ice Cream Parlor Fights A Cold-Hearted Corporation.

HERE'S THE SCOOP: The ice cream at Santa Barbara Ice Creamery may just be the best in Tucson.

The store, located along Tucson's best used-book corridor at 2502 N. Campbell Ave., carries somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 different flavors, most of them made by McConnell's Fine Ice Cream of Santa Barbara.

McConnell's ice cream is quite the sensation in its California home. Time magazine raves that "the best ice cream in the world, as anyone who has tried it will argue, is sold by McConnell's in California." The Los Angeles Times reports that "McConnell's is known among ice cream connoisseurs for its bold, natural flavors, richness and wholesomeness."

Choosing a flavor or two can be quite the challenge. Besides the standard variations on chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, there are plenty of exotics like licorice, spumoni and Vermont blueberry.

Or you might prefer a scoop of Cascade ice cream from Oregon, or perhaps a taste of the wild flavors of Denali Alaskan Classics, creator of the outstanding Moose Tracks, a rich blend of vanilla, fudge and peanut butter.

Despite the fine quality of these sweet treats, the last several months have been a rocky road for the ice cream parlor. At the start of the year, the store was a Baskin-Robbins franchise. But in March, franchise owner Jo Jensen got a letter informing her that Baskin-Robbins was canceling her franchise agreement. She had two weeks to de-identify her shop from the corporation.

"I broke down in tears," remembers Jensen, who had run the franchise since 1984.

The corporation declared Jensen in violation of franchise rules because she had failed to repair an awning that was torn in a storm. Jensen says she wasn't able to make repairs because her landlord was in the process of building a new awning along the length of the entire strip mall that houses the ice-cream store. But that detail didn't concern Baskin-Robbins officials, who stress the importance of ensuring every B-R store in America look like every other store.

"They're a pretty cutthroat franchise," Jensen says.

After getting over the initial shock of losing the business she'd built over 16 years, Jensen started browsing the Internet to learn how other former franchises had survived. She discovered that other ice-cream suppliers such as McConnell's were aiding former Baskin-Robbins outlets.

Jensen ordered a bunch of ice cream, had a taste-testing party, picked the most popular new flavors, and opened up as Santa Barbara Ice Creamery. She says that customers responded enthusiastically to the new rich flavors.

"When I brought McConnell's in, I had ladies dancing in the store," Jensen says. "People go to California, they have these great times, and they're eating McConnell's ice cream. Santa Barbara is a lighter version of McConnell's. It's very creamy and all-natural."

But Baskin-Robbins officials didn't share in the enthusiasm. In June, the corporation sued Jensen, arguing that her now-canceled franchise agreement prevented her from owning an ice-cream shop in the same location. Baskin-Robbins attorney Charles Wirken declined to comment on the case because it is still in litigation.

"In the franchise agreement, they hold all the power," Jensen says. "I've learned that now. Before I was very naïve."

Jensen raced to find a lawyer over the Independence Day weekend. Once she managed to find one to take her case, his advice was simple: Sell the store. Jensen did just that, selling to an acquaintance even as her court case was winding its way through Pima County Superior Court. Although Wirken argued that the sale was a sham, Judge Michael Brown sided with Jensen, ruling that it was an arm's-length transaction.

"If it hadn't been for Judge Brown, I would have been very angry with the judicial system," Jensen says, "because I did think I was right."

Under the franchise agreement, however, Jensen is restricted from being an owner, co-owner, partner, manager or operator for two years. "So that's why I'm an employee," she says. "I can work behind the counter and badmouth Baskin-Robbins all I want."

Despite the improvement of the ice cream's quality, business has been tough. Between the change in the store's name, a construction project that discouraged customers last summer, and the onset of cold weather, sales have been slow.

But Jensen has high hopes for the future, even as she adapts to her new role as an employee behind the counter.

"I like the public," she says. "It's fun. We've got a lot of regulars who come in .... I'm expecting great things in 2001."

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