Earthquake. Sticky Chewy Chocolate ice cream. Banana split. Baked rice. Clam chowder in a bread bowl. And oh, that Firehouse Happy Birthday treat for that special day.
If you grew up as a kid in the 1980s and 1990s in Singapore, chances are, you celebrated a birthday party at Swensen’s. Whether it was your special day or a friend's, celebrating at the Thomson Plaza or Changi Airport Terminal 1 outlet, it definitely involved a fair amount of brain-freeze.
It was a place of fond childhood memories: Of finally getting a chance to indulge in fancy ice cream that wasn’t Paddle Pop, Wall’s or Magnolia; of pooling together joint school allowances just so you and your friends can afford that mammoth Earthquake sundae; of first dates and school reunions.
For many Singaporeans, it was the affordable place to celebrate life's little milestones growing up. Forty years on, it still is.
IN INTRODUCTION TO ‘ATAS’ ICE CREAM
Back in 1979, Swensen’s arrived at Thomson Plaza with its booth seats and trademark Tiffany lamps. It was a strictly old-fashioned ice cream parlour right out of Americana movies that somehow found itself on Singapore’s shores.
It might have been a long way from San Francisco, where its founder Earle Swensen opened his first ice cream shop in 1948, but it has since become a place synonymous with kids’ parties in Singapore – and arguably the country’s introduction to atas or “high class” ice cream.
Yes kids, before there were Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs, there was Swensen's ice cream.
Eric Tay, 56, remembers his first party at the Thomson Plaza outlet fondly.
“It was of my parents celebrating my birthday with me. It was known first and foremost for its ice cream. And it was such a treat, especially back in those days,” recalled the longtime customer.
It was also where he brought his girlfriend on their first date.
“It was a special day as it was also her birthday,” he said. “So we were treated to the Firehouse Happy Birthday sundae. And I also ordered an Earthquake. There was a lot of ice cream.”
These days, his slice of nostalgia is still a regular family affair for Tay and his parents. “We dine at a Swensen’s at least three times a week,” he said, adding that he also arranges for work meetings with colleagues and clients there.
RETRO FANS AND LOYAL STAFF
This “multi-generational” kind of experience is something that accounts for the chain’s longevity, reckoned Teo Tong Loong, a representative of ABR Holdings, which runs the restaurant chain in Singapore.
“A father might bring his son to our restaurant because he too had great memories celebrating his birthdays with us as a child,” he said.
And this kind of loyalty isn’t reserved just for diners. “Many of our staff have also been with us for more than 10 or even 20 years,” he added.
One of their longest serving staff is 54-year-old Raymond Soong, who began working with the brand just two years after it opened in Singapore.
The assistant operations manager has been with the chain for 38 years and had slowly worked his way up the ranks. “I began as a junior service staff. Promotion didn’t come easy back then,” he said.
Back then, his favourite memories of old outlets were the ceiling fans with rattan blades and the small lamps fitted under these. “We don’t see these fans anymore.”
What he does see however, are regular customers. “I have a couple who come back to the same outlet every year to celebrate their wedding anniversary,” he shared.
As for the favourite thing on the menu, it’s obviously a no-brainer. “I love the Firehouse Happy Birthday sundae,” he said. “Every time we serve this, it’s celebration time again.”