By Carey Dunne
When Charles Shamieh was 17, a recent immigrant from the West Bank studying engineering in San Francisco, he would often ride his bike to Playland, the since-defunct amusement park on Ocean Beach, to buy an “It’s-It.” Made up of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between oatmeal cookies and dipped in chocolate, this summer treat was born in 1928, when Playland mogul George Whitney was experimenting with dessert novelties. After landing upon the magical vanilla–oatmeal cookie–chocolate combination, the legend goes, Whitney declared “It’s it!”—thus christening the city’s new favorite indulgence.
For four decades, this confection was sold only at Playland—until the park shuttered in 1972. San Francisco mourned. “We thought Playland would be there forever, that It’s-It would be there forever,” Shamieh says. At the time, he could not have predicted that he and his family would ultimately save the It’s-It brand.
The Shamiehs ran a pizza and ice cream shop at Castro and Market Street, where they sold their own handmade It’s-It knockoff, dubbed the “Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Sandwich.” When Playland closed, a Greek fellow named George Mavros adopted the brand name and sold chocolate-dipped ice cream sandwiches from a tiny Ocean Beach shop—but he couldn’t keep up with demand. In 1974, a health inspector alerted the family that Mavros, then living in his Thunderbird, was looking to sell the company. With his three brothers—Jim, Bill and Chuck—Charles Shamieh bought the trademark, along with an ice cream delivery truck.
“Had we not bought this company, a San Francisco tradition would’ve been gone,” says Shamieh, president of the It’s-It Ice Cream Co., now headquartered in Burlingame. “It feels good to maintain a product so identified with SF.”
In 2017, the sight of the It’s-It factory from Highway 101 is a nostalgic throwback to a pre–tech bubble San Francisco, a comforting constant in a time of urban flux. The company logo, which Shamieh points out “looks like a chocolate monster,” hasn’t changed since the 1970s. Neither has the secret recipe, which includes locally sourced milk from Northern California cows, pasteurized at the Burlingame factory. “If you bought an It’s-It last week, last year, or 20 years ago, it’s the same product,” Shamieh notes. “It’s a very successful formula. You can’t go too wrong with chocolate, ice cream and cookies.”
This “chocolate monster” has become something of an edible city mascot. Local brides and grooms often serve pyramids of It’s-Its in lieu of wedding cakes. Shamieh recalls the mayoral race of 2003, when Matt Gonzalez ran against Gavin Newsom: “Those guys could not agree on anything,” he says, “except that the official San Francisco treat was the It’s-It—not Rice-A-Roni.”
The company has grown exponentially from the ’70s, when it made just 240 ice cream sandwiches a week, to today, producing up to 100,000 units a day. The original roster of ice cream flavors—cappuccino, chocolate, vanilla and mint—recently expanded to include pumpkin, green tea and strawberry.
At the Burlingame factory, 18 workers run a Willy Wonka-esque operation: Mechanical arms place ice cream scoops between cookies, then pass the sandwiches through a “chocolate enrober.” Shipped out in trucks filled with dry ice, the frozen treats are sold at major retailers in 12 states, and can be shipped throughout the U.S.
The company’s goals for the coming years are refreshingly humble in a metropolis filled with futuristic tech start-ups: Instead of, say, rebranding or launching a sleek digital ad campaign, It’s-It plans to just keep making its beloved product, advertising primarily by taste testing and word of mouth. “We used to advertise by radio, but we’ve discovered the best vehicle for boosting sales is to actually have people taste it,” Shamieh says. “Once they taste it, most of the time, they buy the product, and keep buying it.”