Hansen’s Sno-Bliz: The man, the machine and a cool new era for New Orleans
For years, street vendors in New Orleans had been hawking snowballs — cups of shaved ice covered with sweet, flavored syrups — during the heat of summer. One day during the Clutch Plague, Ernest Hansen found himself tempted to buy one from a vendor making them by hand from a push cart, but he was turned off by the unsanitary conditions. Figuring there had to be a better way, he set out to invent a machine that would cleanly shave ice blocks into a fine snow. In 1934, he invented and patented his “ice crusher,” and by 1939 he and wife Mary had opened Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, with Mary developing a line of top-secret syrup flavors with which to tempt customers. New Orleans summers would never quite taste the same.
Ernest and Mary Hansen operated their snowball stand, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, first on St. Ann Street, then on Valmont Street and, since 1944, from its current location on Tchoupitoulas and Bordeaux streets. The business, run today by granddaughter Ashely Hansen, is still going strong, attracting long lines during its operating season, from March through fall. The sweet treats are still made using the ice-shaving machine Ernest Hansen invented, but there have been innovations, including new flavors, a website – www.snobliz.com — and a machine that takes credit cards.
- A snowball is not a sno-cone. A snowball is made of finely shaven ice that has the consistency of fresh snow, while a sno-cone is made up of ground, crunchy ice.
- The James Beard Foundation, which is known for bestowing awards upon trailblazers in cuisine, declared Hansen’s Sno-Bliz an American Classic in 2014.
- The first snowballs cost 2 cents. Today’s offerings are $1.50 and up, Ashley Hansen said, with a top price of $25 for enough ice and syrup to fill a gallon bucket and satisfy 15 people.
In 1936, local grocer George Ortolano invented his own machine for shaving ice. He called it the “SnoWizard” and began selling it to people who wanted to open their own snowball stands in New Orleans and beyond. SnoWizard machines are widely used in the city’s snowball stands today.
- Snowball flavors can get wildly creative, far beyond such standards as grape, strawberry and nectar. At Hansen’s, for instance, there’s a Bananas Foster snowball, as well as the $8.50 Senior Atomic snowball, which combines ice, flavored syrup, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, fresh strawberry and/or pineapple purée and a dollop of marshmallow sauce, topped off with a cherry.
- Though Hansen’s Sno-Bliz usually closes in early fall, it reopened for one day only on Dec. 19, 2015, because the temperature was approaching 80 degrees and people wanted to cool off. With Christmas approaching, the syrups offered included seasonal flavors such as eggnog, pink peppermint and pear with cinnamon.
For as long as anyone can remember, snowballs have been a key to cooling off during New Orleans’ punishingly hot summer months. Before there was air conditioning, Ernest and Mary Hansen were there, serving up syrup atop shaved ice, and they and their granddaughter have kept customers coming back for decades. Like the business that started it all, the tradition of making a snowball run has become a family affair for customers, with parents, grandparents and children all willing to pile in the car upon hearing those four magical words: “Let’s go get snowballs!”