How Mitchell’s Ice Cream brought Filipino flavors to SF

In 2006 my mom got the idea to try all the flavors on the board at Mitchell’s Ice Cream over the summer. It was bold as there are 40 different flavors at all times in the beloved ice cream parlor at 688 San Jose Ave., and since we lived nearby, that was not out of the question.

She tried but failed.

That’s okay, though, because Mitchell’s Ice Cream has been around since 1953 and they’ve been making their ice cream the exact same way since day one. The flavors he missed are mostly still there, and if they aren’t, others will suffice. But one flavor that will never leave the board is mango.

The ice cream counter and main menu at Mitchell’s Ice Cream in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

Patricia Chang / SFGATE Special

Mitchell’s was the first ice cream store to bring Filipino and other Southeast Asian flavors to San Francisco, bringing with it a following that has supported them through thick and thin. Mango was the attraction, but an influx of Filipino immigrants in the 1970s was the catalyst that made Mitchell what he is today.

“We have really skyrocketed,” said co-owner Brian Mitchell. “Production has just tripled.”

Mitchell's Ice Cream in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

Mitchell’s Ice Cream in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

Patricia Chang / SFGATE Special

Located on the ground floor of a three-story apartment building, Mitchell’s is known today for its cramped stores as much as its ice cream. It’s common to see a line forming around the block as customers grab a numbered ticket and wait for their number to be called before they pile into the store like sardines to shout their order at an ice cream scoop.

In 1865, the Mitchell family traveled the country from New York to California and finally settled in San Francisco. The first family business was a dairy farm in the western hills of Noe Valley, but after Edward Mitchell died in the early 20th century, his wife sold the dairy farm and entered the apartment business. She designed the building that still houses Mitchell’s to this day.

Two of her children, Jack and Larry, had a fondness for ice cream from an early age. Their favorite salon growing up was the old Garrett’s on Alemany Boulevard. In 1953, they decided to take that love and turn it into a business. Back then, dairy companies were helping small salons get started by teaching basic recipes and introducing owners to different flavor profiles. Brian Mitchell said he thought Mitchell’s had between 12 and 15 flavors on opening day. These were the basics – chocolate, vanilla, mint sprinkles, strawberry – but in 1965 the brothers started experimenting, debuting mango and other flavors popular in South Asian cuisine. Is thanks to a regular customer.

The opening day photo for Mitchell's Ice Cream is displayed in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

The opening day photo for Mitchell’s Ice Cream is displayed in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

Patricia Chang / SFGATE Special

Emerson Clark got to know Larry and Jack, and he offered them something they didn’t know they would want – a connection to the Philippines and other countries around the South China Sea. As an import broker, Clark introduced the brothers to the owner of Gina Corporation (which Brian Mitchell still buys from). He brought them mangoes, purple yam (or ube), young coconut (or buko) and other fruits from this part of the world.

“Instead of saying ‘No, not interested’,” Mitchell explained, “they said ‘OK, let’s try the mango.’

Initially, he was not a money maker. But in 1970, sales of tropical flavors increased as crowds of people arrived in San Francisco from the Philippines between 1965 and 1974. The US Immigration Act of 1965 removed strict country immigration caps. of origin, allowing Filipinos to create a new life for themselves in America, three decades after their effective ban on migration.

Henry Luo hands an <a class=ice cream cone to a customer at Mitchell’s Ice Cream in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.”/>

Henry Luo hands an ice cream cone to a customer at Mitchell’s Ice Cream in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

Patricia Chang / SFGATE Special

By 1977, Filipino immigrants had formed a small community in the Excelsior district, according to SFHeritage.com. The Excelsior, a short distance from Mitchell’s, was easily accessible by car at the south end of Mission Street, below Cesar Chavez, then known as Army Street.

“They found out that we had their native fruit, and then we had a whole new group of customers,” Mitchell explained. “And let me tell you, they bought in force. My father and uncle had touched a vein. They said to themselves ‘We’re on to something’.

Business got so good that Mitchell’s began wholesaling to a select group of Filipino family owned stores and restaurants. Everyone in the Filipino community of San Francisco wanted Mitchell ice cream. For them, it was like home.

At the top, Miguel Sosa makes peppermint ice cream;  below, Ruiz Castro is adding the finishing touches to the new half-gallon ice cream containers at Mitchell's Ice Cream in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

At the top, Miguel Sosa makes peppermint ice cream; below, Ruiz Castro is adding the finishing touches to the new half-gallon ice cream containers at Mitchell’s Ice Cream in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

Patricia Chang / SFGATE Special

Even as a small family business, the Mitchell family never skimp on quality. In ice cream production, it all comes down to fat. While most ice cream parlors use 14% fat to save costs, Mitchell said, Mitchell’s uses 16% fat. “Even when the butter market has skyrocketed over the years, we’ve never compromised,” Mitchell said. “Our customers know the smoothness. This is what we are known for. If you change it, that’s how you lose your customers.

The other secret that kept them alive? Stay small.

“There were so many [other] the ice cream shops that tried to expand with two or three stores, but they all fell apart, ”Mitchell said. “That’s why we stayed small. We’re doing a good volume, we just keep doing it so that we can take care of our customers and our crew. “

Linda Mitchell, left, and Marlon Payumo at Mitchell's Ice Cream in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

Linda Mitchell, left, and Marlon Payumo at Mitchell’s Ice Cream in San Francisco on November 3, 2021.

Patricia Chang / SFGATE Special

Marlon Payumo is part of this crew. He emigrated from the Philippines to the United States in 1987. He is originally from Subic, in the province of Zambales, and he traveled to San Francisco in 1988 and found Mitchell’s shortly thereafter. It was his first job in his new town.


Now managing director, Payumo has risen through the ranks of Mitchell’s base of organization through hard work and loyalty. “It’s a lot of hard work, which I’m used to anyway,” said Payumo, “but I feel like I was recognized. They recognized me and my hard work.

Payumo even met his wife at Mitchell – Wanda is also a managing director at the company. A few days before this interview, Brian Mitchell, his sister Linda (also co-owner) and other members of the management team offered the Payumo and a few others a dinner at House of Prime Rib for their decades-long service to the family business, including more than three decades for Payumo.

The secret to Mitchell’s long-standing success isn’t chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. It’s buko, the family commitment to the legacy started by Jack and Larry Mitchell; ube, which serves some of the creamiest ice cream in San Francisco thanks to its higher fat content; and mango, the Filipino community that adores Mitchell’s.

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