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Bringing Joy with Kona Ice

Bringing Joy with Kona Ice

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  • Photos by Rebecca Allen
  • Modeled by Athena, Sofia, Emilia, Olivia, Ryder, and Stirling
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The Beginning

In 2013, Cathy and Chris Cook were scouting downtown Columbia for the perfect spot to open a bar or restaurant. Cathy was working on her PhD in psychology dyslexia, but didn’t quite feel like things were falling into place. When they began their search, the Cooks had never heard of Kona Ice, the shaved ice franchise. But eventually, the Cooks put their previous plans aside and took a leap of faith by purchasing their first Kona Ice truck. “Chris blames for me getting into this,” Cathy says, laughing. “But I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Thirty days after buying into the franchise, the Cooks had attended Kona College and were driving their neon, tropically painted, chrome-wheeled, steel-drum music playing KEV (Kona Entertainment Vehicle) on the street. “I was so nervous — we stood out like a sore thumb!” Cathy says. 

In the beginning, they hit a few bumps in the road. The trucks are battery-powered and plugged in at night to recharge. Cathy says their first truck was originally wired wrong, causing the electrical to blow, so they had to purchase dry ice for the truck to keep things cold. 

But the Cooks persevered. On their first day out, they had not gone a block from their own neighborhood before their first customer was waving them down from the street corner. Cathy says she asked Chris, “Is he waving at us?”

Nine seasons later, Cathy and Chris have grown used to the attention that the trucks garner. She says people driving down the interstate even take pictures, and now she feels weird when she’s not driving around in one of their KEVs.

The Cooks’ Kona Ice fleet now consists of four trucks, a mini-cart, and a kiosk and serves five territories across Missouri — from north of Columbia down to the Arkansas border, including Springfield and Branson. With partnerships with local ball fields, the Columbia Mall, MU Athletics, and Tanger outlet, in Branson, to name a few, Cathy says she and Chris have no problem keeping the trucks busy year-round. 

What Is Shaved Ice?

Often confused with crushed ice, slushies, or Icees, Kona Ice gourmet shaved ice is finely shaved through a blade, allowing for the added flavors of choice to completely soak in. Each truck is equipped with a shaver that turns ice cubes into the shaved ice served to customers, who can then mix and match the wide array of flavors located in the “Flavorwave” on the outside of the truck to their hearts’ content.

Flavor choices include classics like cherry limeade, peach, and red raspberry, in addition to the crafted flavors such as bourbon black cherry, blackberry mojito, and Tiger’s Blood that are more geared for an adult’s taste buds (even though they are alcohol-free). 

Healthier options are available, too, like the “Fruit First” low-calorie flavors made from real fruit, and the sugar-free flavors. A sanitizing shield used in conjunction with the highest level of cleanliness keep the Cooks’ Kona Ice trucks approved by every health department from here to Branson. 

Bringing Joy

Although scheduled events take up more of their time these days, Cathy says the joy it brings her to drive through the neighborhoods is indescribable. “You see the best of everything. It’s like heaven. There is a community feeling that I can’t even begin to explain with words,” she says. “It just makes people so happy.”

Recently, a fellow franchisee from Nashville, who also happened to be a musician, used his recording studio to turn well-known songs into steel drum music. Cathy says she and Chris operated during the entire pandemic, broadcasting this new music and watching as kids in the neighborhoods recognized the songs. “The trucks are equipped with loudspeakers, flashing lights, and light-up menus — it really brings the kids running.”

One of Cathy’s favorite memories occurred a few years ago during an unseasonably warm Christmas Day. The Cooks decided to take the truck to Coyote Hill Christian Children’s Home in Harrisburg. They served the 36 foster children living there, most of whom had never had Kona Ice.

“Kids love Kona Ice, but I think adults love it even more,” says Cathy, sharing that they also visit a retirement facility in Eldon once a month and serve hot chocolate with toppings along with the shaved ice. “Seniors love it, too! I served a 93-year-old woman her first shaved ice ever. She was so excited.”

Giving Back

Chris and Cathy also offer Kona Ice fundraising opportunities, having already given back over $100,000 to local schools, churches, and nonprofit organizations. A fundraising event can be scheduled at athletic events, parks, or even in a neighborhood with a 20% giveback, which can be given right after the event. Kona Ice has also recently added a fundraising opportunity that will be completely online. 

“We usually do a tax-free day where we set up at MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital — we get bombarded!” Cathy says. “The nurses, doctors, they love it so much. There are children who can’t leave their room or are on a strict diet, but because Kona Ice is dairy and gluten-free, they can still have Kona Ice, even when they might not want or can’t have regular food.”

Once, Cathy remembers a young man on the autism spectrum who came to the truck. “I was pushing the lever to help him put the flavors on and it made his eyes light up. He waved goodbye, which was a huge thing [for him]. It was so rewarding to make him so happy.”

The Kona Ice brand is constantly growing and adding new equipment, boasting more than 1,200 franchisees around the globe, including trucks in Canada, Dubai, Mexico, and Alaska. Kona Ice can be requested for weddings, birthday parties, and corporate events year-round, including hot chocolate set-ups during the winter months.

To schedule an event, contact Chris and Cathy via Facebook, Instagram, email, phone, or text — they just need to know when, where, and how many people there are to serve. Cathy says kids even get the phone number from their website and call requesting a visit to their neighborhood. “We can hold more than 200 pounds of ice — we’ve even served the Mizzou football team!” 

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