FIRE TRUCKS AND JUKEBOXES: A PORTRAIT OF JELLY’S SCOOPS

To many, Slidell isn’t much of a destination. It’s where the cheaper hotels are for a trip to New Orleans. It’s a run-down, concrete echo of suburbia, marked by a scattering of pawn shops, strip malls, and overgrown parking lots. There’s a nearly-abandoned mall down the road, two out of every three entrances obscured behind metal shutters, and somehow it’s one of the more popular places to hang out. Slidell is a place you end up if you can’t make it in the city. 

But to its residents, and to those who know where to look, Slidell is a bright hub of artistic culture. Art walks, food-based town gatherings, and a plethora of family-owned shops and cafés grace the streets of Old Town, and none more beloved by residents than Jelly’s Scoops. 

Truthfully, I don’t remember much about the first time I visited the diner. I was maybe four years old at the time. It was my best friend Molly’s birthday, and I was sitting next to her on the vintage fire truck as it toured the neighborhood (a feature of the diner’s birthday party package). I had gotten bubblegum-flavored ice cream, and was struggling with the pieces of gum embedded in the pink. I remember racks upon racks of scoops which lined the walls, each one ever so slightly different from the ones beside it. Trophies, brought in by customers in exchange for a free cone or two. And I remember the arcade room, filled with old classics in perfect condition. For decades, Jelly’s has been a nostalgic Slidell staple.

Opened by Angela “Jelly” Jones  in 1988 due to the lack of places to host a birthday party, the diner was a mom-and-pop oasis in a sea of chain restaurants. “My husband and I, we wanted to make something for our family, and for all families,” Jelly said. “I actually was in the construction business at the time, but that was taking me away from what was actually important, so I decided to take the leap, as it were. Build something for them instead.” Two years after quitting construction, she opened the new restaurant’s doors for the first time, and it wasn’t long before Jelly’s evolved from an event venue to a full-time diner, complete with mini jukeboxes in each booth. It was a haven for high-schoolers and retirees alike.

That is, until August of 2005. 

I’ve never been home for a real hurricane. Categories 1 and 2, sure, but for anything worse than that, my family has always evacuated—to my aunt and uncle in Savannah, to my grandparents in Las Vegas, to Tennessee or Virginia or anywhere but home. Katrina was the first of many.

It’s strange, as a kid, to leave without understanding why. It’s strange to come back to the aftermath. 

Among the hundreds of blue-tarped, water-stained shells lining the streets of Slidell, one absence was felt perhaps more intensely than most. Jelly’s Scoops had taken on nearly 8 feet of water in the flood, and would not reopen for seven years.

Though I can’t recall what it was like pre-Katrina, I do vividly remember driving past the empty building when we returned. I wasn’t yet big enough to sit in the front seat, but I can picture clearly the ragged lines of spray paint on the street-facing side. I asked if we could stop to look at it, and asked what had happened. “Not graffiti,” my mother told me. “Look, that’s the water line; that’s how high the building flooded during Katrina.” 

I nodded, and pointed at the boat and the stick figure. “Who’s that?”

My mom frowned. “I’m not sure.”

The stick figure, I found out later, was none other than Jelly’s Scoops’ founder and owner herself—Angela Jones. She had stayed for the storm: “I’ve never left for a hurricane. What I’ve come to realize is, it’s always better to be there. Be on the ground, so you’re ready to start picking up the mess. It’s not fun, but it’s better than waiting and wondering.” 

I met with Jelly a few weeks ago to discuss the history of the establishment. Last year, she retired, handing the reins to Keith Hardy. “The start of the pandemic hit us pretty badly, same as everywhere else.” She wanted someone to guide the diner through these swiftly-changing times—someone young, with a good background in marketing to draw customers back in. Hardy was perfect for the job. “He had founded this company which was all about new ways to advertise for your company. He stood out to us.” Hardy’s business focuses on social media-based marketing, which was already popular pre-pandemic but has now become almost a necessity when catering to a younger crowd.

It’s always uncertain to watch a business change owners. Frequent visitors such as myself were apprehensive at first. According to Jelly, though, the process went incredibly smoothly and she trusts Keith wholeheartedly to continue the Jelly’s Scoops traditions. “It’s almost like nothing’s changed,” she told me. “I’ve been back there quite a few times, and it still feels like home to me.” All 300 of Jelly’s rotating ice cream flavors are still in production, and they offer the same birthday party packages they have since it first opened. The only visible change has been more elaborate holiday decorations and sundae additions—most recently, an “Eye Scream” sunday for Halloween.

Though I wasn’t able to interview Jelly’s post-reopening co-owner, Ty Hawkins, I was glad to hear that his transition has also been a happy one. “He’s actually pursuing his other passion now over at ACER,” Jelly said, “Helping people fight addiction.” The two are reportedly still good friends, even now that they’ve let go of the diner.

Since Jelly’s Scoops reopened in 2012, I’ve spent countless afternoons seated at a back booth. Whether it was with family, with friends, or alone with my laptop when I needed to get some writing done, the maroon laminate benches always welcomed me. The friendly noise was comforting and inspiring to me in a way that I simply couldn’t find anywhere else. Over the years, I’ve tried french-fry poboys and an array of vintage candies, as well as more ice cream flavors than I could have imagined. 

Even though not all of us live in the same place, my family still likes to use Jelly’s as a place for reunions—whenever all of us are back from our respective colleges for Thanksgiving break, for example, we’ll make a point of getting ice cream together. Traditions like this are, I’d like to believe, part of this local gem’s purpose: to strengthen our connection to home and family even as we grow up and away.