Plopped in a former cornfield in the drowsy hamlet of Maryville, Ill., Bobby's Frozen Custard seems an unlikely candidate for St. Louis' Best Ice Creamery, but its intense blue-and-pink neon and gleaming stainless steel act as a magnetically attractive light during the summer's hottest spells, drawing more than 1,000 customers daily. On the busiest nights, a platoon of up to 25 fresh-scrubbed youngsters, smartly dressed in starchy white shirts and fluorescent-pink bow ties, man the five windows and dole out sundaes, cones and concretes with assembly-line efficiency. Speakers play a loop of '50s and '60s rock & roll, and if not for the tattoos and piercings of a few customers at the gleaming counter, the wholesome, retro vibe might fool you into thinking Ike's still fighting the Cold War and Stan the Man's hitting .350 for the Cards.
Opened back in 1990 by Bob and Debbie Kozyak, Bobby's grows more popular with every passing summer, luring faithful regulars from neighboring towns such as Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, Troy and Collinsville, but also enticing custard-lovers from farther-flung Illinois towns like Belleville. The stand's proximity to I-270 and I-55/70 -- it sits dead-center between the two interstates on Highway 159 -- even coaxes a fair share of West Siders over the Mississippi for something other than gambling or licentious entertainment. A spacious parking lot accommodates more than 100 cars -- it's not unusual to find it near-capacity -- and a nicely landscaped seating area allows 75-or-so customers to loll about in comfort rather than perch awkwardly atop their car hoods.
Such amenities would mean little, however, if the frozen custard weren't a confection of ambrosia-like allure. Bob Kozyak, 47, whom you'll find toiling cheerfully with his young crew most every night during the long season (which runs from March 1 through the Sunday before Thanksgiving), preaches the gospel of quality he learned working in his father's Granite City grocery: "We try to use the very best toppings, the very best nuts, the very best mix," he says. "There are so many ways to cut corners and cheapen your product, and we just refuse to do that." When business reached a critical mass of volume after two years, Kozyak began fine-tuning the custard mix supplied by Southern Products in St. Louis, making it uniquely Bobby's. The mix contains the de rigueur eggs and 10 percent butterfat that distinguish custard from other frozen desserts, but Kozyak cites his vanilla as a defining ingredient: "It's a very special vanilla that we think means so much to the custard," he says. "Right now it costs $150 a gallon, when I could buy vanilla for $75 a gallon. In fact, Southern Products thinks I'm almost foolish for spending that kind of money."
Kozyak's no fool: Bobby's custard, which is always served within an hour after it oozes in thick bands from the four continuous-flow custard-making machines, is invariably fresh and addictively creamy. Eaten unadorned, the custard's treat enough, but Bobby's offers a tempting array of options, including the signature Turtle Sundae: vanilla custard topped with hot fudge and hot caramel, and finished with salted, roasted pecan halves that Kozyak claims are "unlike any others." Bobby's also features a chocolate custard and, for the diet-conscious (and who are you trying to fool?), a still-delicious 98-percent-fat-free frozen dessert that's closer in kin to traditional ice cream. Frozen-custard cakes and pies are made on the premises in a special flash freezer, and after Labor Day (when cooler weather begins to suppress business), Bobby's begins serving its fabulous caramel apples. Monthly concrete specials, made with pies and cobblers baked by Collinsville's legendary Kruta's Bakery, further complicate the decision-making process for patrons.
In St. Louis, of course, frozen custard is synonymous with Ted Drewes, and Kozyak readily offers obeisance: "Ted Drewe made it possible for all the custard stands in the St. Louis area," he admits. "We were one of the first to bring it over to the Illinois side, and it really helped that he was in the St. Louis area because he's the one that made it popular. Ted Drewe runs a great operation -- he was definitely an inspiration to us. He is the No. 1 custard stand, as far as I know, in the country for a store that size. And I know through Southern Products that we're the No. 1 stand in the state of Illinois. In fact, a lot of people refer to us as the Ted Drewes of the East, and to me that's the ultimate compliment."
Well, perhaps not the ultimate compliment. That was paid this summer, when I stopped at Bobby's during a terrifying July T-storm, water cascading down like a great falls. Given the outlandish weather, only one other rain-drenched fool joined me at the normally crowded counter, but as we finished ordering, the lights flickered and Bobby's machines stopped dead for lack of electricity: no concrete tonight. Mildly disappointed, I was about to scurry back to the car when my fellow custard fiend began to wail mournfully: "Goddamn it, why me?" he screamed to the glowering sky. More imprecations followed, and he raged on, near tears, with a Job-like fury. The stunned employees offered sheepish apologies, and he seemed briefly to calm, but then the lamentations started anew, and I retreated before the rending of clothes that seemed imminent.
Can a frozen custard that stirs such mad passion be anything but the best?
-- Cliff Froehlich