Residents of the Hopewell Valley are known to watch eagerly for signs every April. Signs of spring? Surely. Signs that Cream King is open again for the season? Most definitely.
Cream King, the treasured ice cream oasis, opened in the mid-1950’s and has changed little since. As Route 31 has gone from sleepy country road to churning commercial connector in that time, the tiny roadside hut with its rustic charms remains a symbol of a time mostly lost.
But there has been one change this year, a change that happened almost without notice: Cream King is under new ownership. After 16 years as owner operators, Laurie and Phil Volpe have sold the business to their long-time manager, Stacy Paolella, and her husband, Joe.
Stacy Paolella says she has seen little reason to change what has been successful for so many years. The ice cream is still supplied by the same purveyors, and crowd pleasers like chicken fingers and fries remain on the menu, cooked to order as always. Local high school and college students off for the summer still serve the food with a smile.
For the past five years, Paolella has been the person responsible for inventory management and hiring staff, although not necessarily with the goal of someday owning the business.
The Ewing resident says that people would offer to buy Cream King from the Volpes at the end of every season, only to be told that it was not for sale. That is until last fall, when the Volpes decided that they were ready to listen to offers. Once the Paolellas knew that the business was on the market, they asked to be put in the mix.
They had a meeting with Phil Volpe to discuss the sale price. “Joe and I had come up with a number that we were comfortable with. It was the same exact number that he presented at coffee,” Stacy says. “That’s when we knew that maybe something was meant to be.” The deal was closed in April.
The Volpes had owned Cream King since 2002, when they purchased it from Suki and Jerry Kuykendall. Their eldest daughter, Lauren, was on the staff when she heard the Kuykendalls tell a customer that they might be looking to sell. She implored her parents to buy it, and after some consideration, they did.
Phil and Laurie ran it for 16 years all told, all while they both held full-time jobs. Phil has had a long career in corporate sales, with Texas Instruments and, more recently, with EBM Papst. Laurie was a counselor in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District for 20 years before leaving to become supervisor of curriculum and instruction for the Rumson school district. Now retired from that job, she’s still working as a teacher in The Pennington School’s Cervone Center for Learning.
Lauren Volpe and her sisters, Kristin and Erin, also played a significant role in managing the store, which is usually open from April to October each year. All three are now through school, with the youngest, Erin, graduating from Georgetown University this year.
The Paolellas moved from New Hampshire to Ewing in 2007 for their jobs. They worked for Young Life, a Colorado-based Christian ministry that runs summer camps and clubs for middle and high school students across the country. Today Joe Paolella is still with the organization as a regional director.
The Volpes were also involved with Young Life. The Paolellas met them at a local Young Life fundraising event in 2008. In spring 2009, Joe worked at Cream King as a side job, helping out early in the season until the school year ended and the usual team of high school and college kids slotted into their roles.
“He would come home from Cream King and say, ‘You’re really the one who should be working there,’” Stacy says. “He knew I would like meeting and talking to people, the socializing aspects of it.”
And in spring 2011, with Lauren and Kristin already off to college and only Erin to hold down the fort, Paolella did just that. Over the years she took on more and more responsibility. “We couldn’t have done it without her,” Laurie says.
Laurie Volpe says selling the business to the Paolellas was a “no-brainer.” “My youngest, when we told her we were selling it, said to us, ‘You can’t! You’re selling my life!’” she laughs. “But when we said it was Stacy, she was all in. She was totally OK with that.”
Neither the Volpes nor the Paolellas had had any experience running a restaurant before they got involved with Cream King, although Laurie notes that both her father and Stacy’s father owned and operated bars when they were growing up: The Cobweb Inn in Clifton for Laurie, Zankes’s Cafe in Wheeling, West Virginia for Stacy.
Not much has really changed at Cream King since the Volpes bought it, and that is very much by design.
Today, Cream King has 11 part-time employees besides Paolella. The Paolellas’ son Eli, a sophomore at Rowan University, is working his first season at Cream King this summer. Son Gabe is a senior at The College of New Jersey.
Both agree that a key aspect in Cream King’s success is the deep pool of young talent in the area. “The backbone of the business is the quality of the kids we were able to hire,” Laurie says. “We hired well, and they served us well.”
The Paolellas have continued one of the Volpe’s enduring traditions, Cream King Mondays. On Mondays, the restaurant pledges to donate 20 percent of all sales, including tips, to local organizations. This year, Paolella has let her employees make the choices. Beneficiaries so far have included The Hopewell Valley Education Association, EASEL Animal Shelter and Pennington Fire Company.
Phil Volpe says the idea to do Cream King Mondays came when his daughter Kristin was home from college and became involved with a group that was raising money for a young person in town who had cancer. She asked her father if there was something Cream King could do to help.
He suggested she schedule a fundraiser for a Monday — a day of the week on which Cream King usually saw small crowds. So she did. And people came.
“It was like a Sunday,” Volpe says. “Everybody in town came out. I was in North Jersey at the time, and my daughter called me and said, ‘We’re going to run out of ice cream.’ So I actually drove from where I was to Paterson, New Jersey (where their purveyor was based), picked up ice cream, and I got to Cream King at like seven. The place was packed. It was really cool.”
When Kristin told him the staff would donate their tips as well, he wasn’t sure that it was the right thing to do. But she insisted, and that has become a tradition the staff follows to this day. “People were so generous,” Volpe says. “That’s how it started, and it’s been going ever since.” He estimates that Cream King has collected some $50,000 over the years, and he’s glad the Paolellas are stilll doing it.
Not much has really changed at Cream King since the Volpes bought it, and that is very much by design, Laurie says. She says they shortened the menu somewhat from what the Kuykendalls had offered. Paolella says lunch and dinner business has picked up this season from last. The menu features an assortment of comfort foods like burgers, cheese steaks, hot dogs and pork roll, as well as fried indulgences including onion rings and french fries.
Cream King offers a variety of hand-dipped ice cream and sherbet in addition to their always popular soft-serve, with more than 20 toppings options like strawberries and Heath bar. Anything goes: Paolella says one recent customer ordered a rainbow sherbet with Kit Kats and hot fudge.
For the Volpes, it may have been time to move on, but they are still adjusting to life after Cream King. “I’m so used to being here,” Laurie says. “I’m adjusting to not having that urgency that goes with owning a small business.”
Phil Volpe, who has recently stepped down from the board of the Hopewell Valley YMCA after serving for 17 years, says many of his fondest memories are tied up in the young people who have worked at the restaurant over the years. “Usually we would hire three or four kids the same age and then our older kids would go off to college and we’d hire more kids. We’d ask the kids off to college what it was like working with the new kids and they’d say, ‘Oh, they’re terrible, they don’t know what they’re doing.’ And then three years later, those kids are the ‘seasoned veterans’ and you ask them about the new kids and they say, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing.’ I find that very humorous the way that kids forget everything that changes over those three years.”
Cream King, 46 Route 31, Hopewell. Open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. Phone: (609) 737-0283.