Back in the Day: Baskin-Robbins' Elsie and Mary were sweeter than a sugar cone


The following Back in the Day column was published in the Fairfield Daily Republic on Feb. 1, 2013

By Tony Wade

I found out recently that the Baskin-Robbins on North Texas Street closed. Seeing the interior gutted and the “for lease” sign on the building deeply saddened me as in the 1980s I had worked there for the original owners, sisters/partners Elsie Nakamura and Mary Minakata, who ran it from 1969-90.

Elsie and Mary were two of six children born to Toshiyuki and Fusae Minakata, who were first-generation Japanese immigrants, or Issei. Elsie and Mary were born in Suisun Valley, in 1919 and 1921 respectively, and were part of the Nisei, or second generation.

Shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the shameful internment of Americans of Japanese descent began. Elsie was sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center near Phoenix. She married Tadashi Nakamura in 1946.

During the war, Mary had been attending school in Japan and she was forced to vote in an election there to get rations. As a consequence, the U.S. government revoked her U.S. citizenship. It took 10 years to get it back. When she finally did, she came to San Francisco and worked in a garment factory until she and Elsie decided to open a 31 Flavors ice cream shop in Fairfield on Oct. 4, 1969.

Elsie took care of the books and Mary made custom ice cream cakes and pies fresh to order.

The word that comes up time and again when people look back on Elsie and Mary is “nice.” In reference to them, that word should always be in capital letters, bold, underlined and with an exclamation point at the end.

Mary and Elsie allowed employees to eat whatever we wanted for free while we were at work. My favorite was two scoops of Pralines ‘N Cream with strawberry topping, whipped cream and nuts. I blew up like a balloon while working there.

If you worked the lunch shift, they would bring you lunch from awesome local restaurants like Pelayo’s, Eastern Cafe, Dan and Ruth’s and Omodaka.

An elderly man named Owen would come each morning to buy a hand-packed pint of Jamoca Almond Fudge. They charged him $1, even though it was at least twice that much back then.

Every couple of months we would clean the freezers. It was a big job that took hours. Mary would go to Shakey’s and buy us pizza, chicken and those wondrous mojo potatoes for fuel.

A friend from church, Albert Warren, got me the job and I worked with John and Jerry Bassler, Paul Brodeur, Darin Kermoade, Kelly Farney, Thomas Basham, Roger Martinez and Elsie’s daughter Jayne, among others.

One drawback from scooping ice cream was that unless you were ambidextrous, you got one arm that looked like Popeye and one that looked like Olive Oyl.

Other locals shared remembrances:

Ray Ann Fune Sullivan: “I remember the day Baskin-Robbins opened. I took the day off from work, just so I could be one of the first customers.”

Clarissa Correa: “I used to go there all the time as a kid. Those ladies were so sweet. I always loved the ceramic cats they had on the shelf behind their counter. They used to tell me they were for good luck. Anytime I see one of those cats, it brings back found memories of that place!”

Mike O'Connor: “I remember them as an incredibly nice family. Jayne Nakamura worked there and I played with her brother Jimmy in the band Matrix. They donated products to raffle so we could earn money to buy band equipment. Lots of nice memories stopping by to sample the many flavors.”

Bill Fischer: “Back in the early and mid ’70s, this is where our family would collect prizes from family games and bets from football games. Dad was so cool because everyone was a winner so we’d all get double scoops.”

Elsie is now 93 and in poor health, but Mary at 91 still has the twinkle in her eye and the same wonderful smile and laugh I remember.

Now, there is another Baskin-Robbins in Fairfield near Raley’s on Travis Boulevard where I can get my Pralines’ N Cream fix, but they can’t give me a double scoop of delicious memories of working for two wonderful human beings.