Zac Parker and Bill Chlebowski: Sweet Treats

From left, Zac Parker and Bill Chlebowski, founders of The Igloo.
From left, Zac Parker and Bill Chlebowski, founders of The Igloo.

I scream, you scream, we all scream… Well, that’s about right. I think we all feel like screaming a little these days. But why not cool your jets with something else —amely one of the amazing concoctions from The Igloo, a shop at 23rd and South that serves yogurt, ice-cream and more. I had a chance to speak to the two founders, Zac Parker and Bill Chlebowski about their journey to the sweet spot.

Are you a native Philadelphian?
Zac: I am! I was born and raised in the city. I’ve never left the city. I went to college in West Philly and then moved into Center City and have lived here ever since. 

Nice! You are tried and true. Tell me something about the family?
Zac: Three siblings and myself, so that makes four kids. We grew up in a row home in Northeast Philly. My sisters moved out of the state, but not too far and my brother is still in the Northeast. 

Who were your folks?
Zac: My father was an optometrist and my mother was his office manager. 

What traits do you think you got from them?
Zac: An incredible work ethic. It’s interesting. My dad was an academic. He was really generous and honest, an all-around good person. And my mother was more street smart, she was a really good business person. A big-picture oriented, get-the-job-done-now kind of person. Between the two of them, they covered all the bases. I’d like to think I’m a mix of them both. 

What’s a favorite family memory?
Zac: Every year, we’d go to Atlantic City. It was our big family vacation. We’d stay there only four days, but it was great. I remember we’d ride bikes on the boardwalk from one end to the other as our morning exercise. My mom and I would ride a tandem bike and it was the one time I got to have my mom to myself. I cherished those times. 

Where do you think you got your entrepreneurial spirit from?
Zac: My grandfather on my mother’s side. He owned his own business — a paint store — and was always looking for opportunities or creating his own opportunities. He had little side hustles going at all times. My mom really encouraged that in me. I ended up going to Wharton for finance and studied entrepreneurial management.

Not too shabby. What’s the first thing you did after graduating?
Zac: In my early career, I was in media ad sales. I worked at Comcast and then for the local CBS station, where I managed the sales team. I still kept my day job while starting the store with Bill and did both for a little while. 

So what made you think, “I’ll go into the ice-cream business?
Zac: To start with, I have a crazy sweet tooth and I love being creative with recipes. I’ve always loved that, and I worked at the Baskin Robbins in Roosevelt Mall when I was a kid. When the frozen yogurt craze was getting underway. Bill and I were living together and we were both  excited about it because it was somewhat healthy, but still satisfied with that sweet craving. We started as a frozen yogurt shop only but we have since morphed into doing…well…an all-you-could-ask-for frozen desserts destination. We have water ice and hard scoops and now we make our own ice cream on the premises. We have soft-serve which we also make, ice cream sandwiches too. It’s now a neighborhood hub. 

On to the next scoop. Bill, tell me a little about yourself.
Bill: I am not a Philly native but I’ve lived here a little over 20 years now. I grew up in Tennessee, about an hour outside of Nashville, a little town called Clarksville. My dad was in the army and I have several male relatives also in the service. It was a big army town. My mother worked in a restaurant before she retired. So I grew up and went to school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. After I graduated, my first job brought me here to Philadelphia and I decided to stay. It’s such a great town and I’ve had a great experience living here. 

What was the job that brought you here?
Bill: I was in accounting for a long time. I worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Radnor for several years. After that, I worked at the Franklin Institute in the finance and accounting department. It was when I was working there that Zac and I started speaking about possibly opening up our own business. We looked into different franchises and several ideas and landed on the idea of a frozen yogurt shop as Zac mentioned. 

Ha! I grew up in Radnor and I’ve rented cars from that location!
Bill: Oh, it’s so nice out there. I love it. 

Zac: To be clear, we never opened a franchise, we just started our own thing. 

What were some of the cultural shocks moving from the South to the Northeast?
Bill: One funny thing, and it’s not an insult… but it’s louder here. It’s one of the first things I noticed just walking down the sidewalk, [laughing] I thought everyone was fighting, but they weren’t. It was just people being really gregarious. It just took a little getting used to. It’s definitely much quieter in Tennessee but on the other hand, it’s much more vibrant up here. There’s a lot more to do, a lot more activity and a lot more opportunities than where I came from. 

I dated a Greek woman and that was like that with her family! It could sound like WWIII but they were only talking very passionately in Greek! So what were some of the things you were into when you were young?
Bill: A big thing was that during the Christmas holidays, we would go to Opryland. It was a theme park at the time, right by the Opryland hotel and there was a HUGE Christmas extravaganza with Christmas lights and displays. That was really cool. And sometimes,we would go out camping at my uncle’s farm. My cousins and I would pitch tents and sleep outside or we’d go to Fort Donelson, which was a Civil War museum. It’s really nice, right by the river. 

Do they tell you who won at the Civil War museum? Because people seem to have forgotten recently.
Bill: [Laughing] Yes, they do!

Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Bill: I had no idea, but we grew up somewhat poor, so my first instinct was to go to college, get a degree and do whatever I needed to do to earn a living. I just kind of figured it out. 

And here you are doing it! How did you two meet?
Zac: I’ll answer that one! I hit on Bill at Woody’s and he didn’t find me attractive, but his friend convinced him to go out with me. We started as boyfriends and ended as best friends. 

I read that you were both gym bunnies.
Both: Yes! 

Zac: We had seen each other at 12th Street Gym and that was before I hit on him. But yeah, we were both health enthusiasts with sweet tooths. So we were really excited about the Fro Yo craze. 

What was one of the most challenging aspects of starting the business?
Zac: We didn’t have any experience at this and we didn’t have a mentor. There was a lot of learning as we went along. We had to find a location, pick a concept, come up with a name, find financing, designs — you name it. Now we have mentors for each area — thank God — and there’s been so much support from the LGBTQ community. Now we get to give back and be mentors for others. 

I know that two of the people who worked with you are former Portraits of mine. Noel Zayas and Frankie Rowles, who I interviewed back in December.
Zac: Oh wow. Noel was the one who helped us get opened and Frankie did all the designs. 

I read that there was a little dust up, NY style, when you first opened. What happened? 
Zac: There was a competitor, a guy from NY who parked his truck right in front of our store and sat there giving away free ice-cream for two hours! And to add insult, he was blocking our deliveries! I was beside myself. Luckily, Bill was there to calm me down. 

What about you, Bill? What was challenging?
Bill: The same thing, not knowing what we were doing, but that also made it interesting — to be able to learn things from the ground up. And persistence. You just have to persevere through the ups and downs as you learn. 

Zac: Plus, we also took very humble salaries for the first two years. We really had to scrimp and scrape by to make it through. 

I’m sure. I know you make your ice-cream onsite. How do you come up with some of the flavor ideas and what are some of your more unusual ones?
Zac: We went to ice-cream school over the winter! We learned about making ice-cream at Penn State and if I do say so myself, we make some damn good ice-cream! 

Bill: For interesting flavors, we’ve done flavors like coffee with chocolate chips, and for what’s hot, we have a key lime ice-cream that we recently rolled out. We’re working on an Amaretto ice-cream for our neighbors next door. We also get a lot of tips and recipes as well as ingredients from some of the Italian distributors that we use. We take what we get or learn from them and give it our own spin. Like the key-lime, we’ve added graham crackers and whipped cream and it’s amazing. 

Zac: The ice-cream that we created for our neighbor is an exclusive ice-cream with an exclusive topping that we hope will bring new people into their location and enhance their business. 

I read an interview that you did with another mutual friend, Steve McCann from Philly Gay Calendar and at the time, you said the hot item then was gelato pops. What’s got the buzz for this summer? And what is pistachio drizzle?
Zac: Oh my God, you have to come in and try it. We have the BEST pistachio topping around. We import it, so a quick story: At one point, there was a popular yogurt store called Yogorino and they closed because of personal reasons and we asked if we could serve their yogurt and were told no. They still had some franchises around but when they closed, we asked again and they offered us exclusive rights to sell their product. That’s where we get that pistachio and it’s a crowd favorite! 

What are some of the ways you give back?
Zac: We support our staff in all that they do 100% and have a very alternative staff. But we also support other gay businesses. I had someone help steer me through the tricky permitting process and now I help other businesses. And we have a bunch of gay events here. We’ve hosted engagement parties for same-sex couples. We did a fundraiser for gender-affirming surgery. We’ve had a wedding here. We sponsored a gay softball team, my boyfriend’s team. We have movie nights and live music and we even shut down for the day so that they could turn us into a voting center! 

What were your coming out stories? Bill first!
Bill: Well, it started off rocky and then ended up being a good thing. I was in Tennessee and dating someone. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well and he sent letters and postcards to all my family and friends, outing me. So I didn’t come out. I was pushed out. But once my mother found out, she was very supportive and most of my friends were supportive; so although it seemed like the most awful thing at first, it ended up being a good thing in the long run. 

Well, a big raspberry to that ex! How about you Zac?
Zac: Being a little older, I didn’t have the societal support that many people have now. I was living in a fraternity house at Penn and was deep in the closet — pretending to be straight — Going out of my mind and anxious all the time. The moment I considered my coming out was when I went to visit my sister in NY. No one in the world knew I was gay. Even I was still denying it! As my sister was taking me to the train station to go back, she noticed that something was wrong. I just wasn’t myself. She asked what was going on and I just blurted out, “I’m gay.” She started crying and I remember saying to her, “You’re embarrassed” and she replied, “No! I just can’t believe that you’ve had to go through this all by yourself.” It took years for me to tell other people, but I always had her. 

Awww. So sweet. Alright, let’s do some rapid fire questions. What grabs your attention?
Zac: People who can make me laugh. 

What do you try too hard at?
Bill: Details! I’m too exacting. 

Zac: Bill keeps to the recipe to the gram on everything! He drives us crazy, but you can’t argue with the outcomes! 

What sports team would you buy if you hit the lottery?
Zac: The Eagles. There are some things that need to be changed and some new offensive and defensive coaches I’d like to bring on board. 

Ever fail a class?
Zac: I did. It was a poli-sci course that was supposed to be pass/fail and up until the final exam, I had an A average, so I didn’t even think I needed to take it. I didn’t study and got flunked!

Favorite toy as a kid?
Bill: A little red wagon! I would ride in it and pull my cousins around. I’d roll them downhills, see what would happen. Kid stuff. 

Ever been bitten by an animal?
Bill: Oh yeah, the goats at my uncle’s farm bite all the time but it doesn’t hurt. They chew on your clothes and other fun stuff. He also had ducks, a horse, dogs and cats. Oh and we also had a piranha. That was a little weird! 

Zac: And my cat Puji is a biter, so I get chomped on every day. And he’s named after a monk!

So let’s wrap up with a favorite saying.
Bill: The first thing that popped in my head was a line from the movie “Gia” about the supermodel from Philadelphia. Toward the end of the movie, she’s going through one of her rougher periods and the photographer looked at her and said, “This isn’t heaven. You don’t have to be perfect.” 

Zac: I’ll go with a line from “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls: “It’s only life after all.” Whenever I take things too seriously, I just remember that line. 

This column has been edited for length and clarity.

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