Yo, Philly grubbers!
I recently went back to my old stomping grounds of Southwest Philly to satisfy my sweet cravings at Fred’s Water Ice (5343 Chester Ave.). I’m trying to take it easy on the sugar, but folks, this is definitely not just any ordinary water ice. I made a point to dodge all the crazy construction and traffic over the Grays Ferry bridge to get my fix of what he’s coined “Caribbean water ice.”
The story of Fredrick Augustus Cooper, the founder of Fred’s Water Ice, started 50 years ago. Born to an immigrant mother from West Africa here to study dentistry in New York, Fred told me that her original plan was to put him up for adoption, but someone insisted that she send him back to his native Liberia to be raised by his grandmother.
She did, and that’s where Fred would kick it until he returned to America at a formative age with the rest of his five siblings. There, they all lived in the same Staten Island projects famous for generating the Wu-Tang Clan. Fred tells me he actually grew up knowing Method Man and the rest of the crew and adds that they all know him from back in the day.
To sweeten Fred’s future and the future of his siblings — and escape a crazy crack epidemic ripping through NYC at the time — Fred’s mother moved the family to Philly.
As Fred grew into a man, so did his curiosity when it came to business, which led to the growth of his water ice empire. Fred would link up with Matt Covington of Matt’s Water Ice nearly 20-some odd years ago to rent his carts, but his admiration of Matt’s business savvy — he was the first black man who owned an ice cream factory — would find Fred working for him, being his mentee and watching his moves.
Years later, the need to branch out on his own became the next logical step. Fred got his hands on a refurbished water ice machine from an old Italian man in South Philly, and his legend began.
I met Fred back in 1997 when he started his operation in the basement of his building on the 5400 block of Chester Ave., back in my “Cake Man” days selling water ice and fresh homemade baked goods to hair salons and barber shops across Philly. I would pick up my water ice from him early in the morning and sell out by mid-afternoon, introducing folks to his “Caribbean water ice.”
One time, I asked him why he named it that. Fred said that everybody has to have pride in their roots and that even though it’s water ice, he’s not Italian. The flavors had to speak to him and the neighborhood from the incorporation of the Liberian and American flag on all of his containers.
My man’s flavors are what make him a household name in the neighborhood. He’s got exotic flavors like kiwi strawberry, pina colada and even Swedish fish. In 2000, he moved his operation directly across the street, renovating an old tire shop into his water ice establishment that was gifted to him by the owner of the shop inspired by Fred’s plans for the space.
Since then and even today, the lines for Fred’s ice is crazy, and his wholesale distribution is equally on point. Personally, my favorite mix is lemon, blueberry, grape and cherry.
Come through and you’ll see why.
I’ll leave you with this interesting story, grubbers. I was in the King of Prussia Mall some years ago talking about Fred’s water ice, and a suburban man interjected in my conversation. He told me that his daughter attended the University of Pennsylvania and that whenever he made the trip down to visit her, a stop on the way was Fred’s Water Ice.
My man Fred has cracked through the Philly confines and has the suburbanites fiending for a taste.
With all of the accolades he’s gotten over the years, Fred tells me that his eye is solely on expansion. A bigger operation is coming soon via a cash and carry on 55th and Paschall Ave., in addition to locations in Germantown on 65th and Lambert St., a spot on 4th and South Sts. and even a spot along Main Street in Darby.
Rita’s, y’all better watch out.
My man Fred tells me that he’s also taking on mentees the same way Matt took him under his wing. The goal is to create a hub for young folks who have big ideas and the dream to execute.
I’m out, y’all, but venture to the Kingsessing section of Southwest Philly and get you a taste. I promise you’ll be thanking me later. Holla!