On the hottest day of July 1948 in Norfolk, a second-page ad in the local newspaper presented readers with a flavorful way to cool off.

The recently opened Baldridge Zesto Shoppe touted its “new and different … high quality dairy product” that contained 6% butterfat but was “not ice cream.”

The product would soon be widely known by a more recognizable name: soft serve.

The Norfolk Zesto was one of the first few dozen links in a chain of ice cream joints that once stretched from California to Florida and threatened Dairy Queen’s dominion.

The upstart brand’s sweet spot came between the coasts in places like Nebraska. Over a five-year span, at least 11 shops cropped up in the state, including a location in South Omaha that would become part of College World Series lore.

But Zesto’s heyday lasted just a few years. Amid an increasingly crowded fast-food marketplace, its parent company, an Illinois ice cream machine manufacturer, ditched the retail business in the mid-1950s and left franchisees out in the cold.

Today, more than 30 surviving locations across the Midwest and the South make up a loose network of restaurants that bear the Zesto name but operate mostly independently of one another.

Now, two Nebraska-born ice cream obsessives who grew up on Zesto dream of broadening that network and bringing the brand back to the masses.

“We always felt like there should be more of them to bring to the public because we were that in love with the ice cream,” said Todd Jansa, a Wahoo-area farmer who co-owns the federal trademark for Zesto with business partner Jerry Irons.

From Zest-O-Mat to Rosenblatt

Louis A.M. Phelan was no stranger to the patent office by the time he turned his attention to ice cream. His inventions included dozens of electrical apparatuses that gave him claim to a mountain of intellectual property.

But the creation that launched Phelan’s reputation as a fast food pioneer came around 1945 when the Illinois-based Taylor Freezer Corporation rolled out the Zest-O-Mat, a hulking soft-serve ice cream and frozen custard machine.

A few years later, the company began delivering a simple pitch to newspaper readers all over the country: Buy a Zest-O-Mat machine and open a Zesto franchise in your town.

A shop opened in El Paso, Texas, in April 1947 and the chain spread like wildfire, operating in at least 32 states between 1947 and 1955, according to a Flatwater Free Press search of newspaper archives.

After Nebraska’s first shop in Norfolk, franchises emerged in Fremont, Lincoln and Alliance. All three are still in business more than seven decades later. Others in Columbus, Hastings, Scottsbluff, South Sioux City and Sidney proved more short-lived. The Norfolk Zesto eventually closed, too. 

By 1953, Omaha had twin Zestos – an iconic location across from Rosenblatt Stadium in the south and a still-running shop in Florence to the north.

It’s not exactly clear why Taylor deserted the Zesto concept in the mid-1950s, but the move came as the American fast food hierarchy began to take shape, with giants like Dairy Queen (now owned by Omaha’s Berkshire Hathaway) and McDonald’s at the top.

The Taylor Company, still a leading manufacturer of ice cream machines, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Without the support of its mothership, most stores struggled and eventually shuttered, but a sprinkling of Zestos survived – and even thrived – as communities like Omaha grew around the retro-looking establishments.

Ungoverned by a franchisor’s branding guidelines, the dispersed restaurants formed their own personalities and developed quirky provincial menus.

Several Atlanta Zestos offer a Big Mac-like burger called the ”Chubby Decker.” A location in Columbia, South Carolina, serves a pimento cheese sandwich. A now-closed Seattle Zesto sold fish and chips. Two of the three Omaha shops carry pickle fries.

Zesto’s demise as a national brand mirrors the stories of many other chains that tried and failed to “become the next big thing” during the postwar fast food boom, said A.S. Rogers, who authored the “Broken Chains” blog.

The Michigan-based Rogers visited and wrote about more than 200 such “broken chain” businesses, including two Indiana Zestos.

It’s common for a few left-behind stores to find profitability in pockets of the former empire and “to take on the local identity of their surviving market,” Rogers said.

The original South Omaha Zesto took on a life of its own due to its de-facto association with Rosenblatt Stadium.

Waiting in line for a treat became elemental to the College World Series experience for locals and visiting fans alike. Tom Kelley, whose father Mike owned the restaurant in the 2000s, fondly remembers bringing shakes and burgers to the ESPN crews during game broadcasts.

On the other end of town, Chris and Rick Minturn grew up in the 1990s on chili footlongs and malts from the Florence Zesto. The cousins started working there as teenagers – a rite of passage for neighborhood high schoolers. Their grandma had worked there three decades prior. 

They recall taking the older kids out to a patch of grass next to the store for collegial wrestling matches after close.

Chris later left for college, but Rick rose through the Zesto ranks to become the general manager of his local store and a northwest Omaha location that opened in the mid-2000s.

By 2012, the Minturns owned both locations. They kept the classics but added more savory food, including a hand-breaded pork tenderloin sandwich.

Regulars noticed every little change – a few older customers complained that the hot dogs were no longer red. (It’s the same meat, but the supplier stopped using red dye in production, Chris said.)

But the expansion of the hot food menu has helped the stores evolve from seasonal ice cream stands to sustainable year-round restaurants, the Minturns said.

The Zesto near Rosenblatt closed a few years after the College World Series moved downtown to TD Ameritrade (now Charles Schwab) Field in 2011.

But the late Mike Kelley made it his mission to ensure college baseball fans could still get Zesto near the new stadium, his son said. After a back-and-forth with city planners, the elder Kelley and his partners built a seasonal Zesto window anchored by year-round restaurant Blatt Beer and Table.

The 10-day College World Series are some of their busiest days of the year, said the younger Kelley, who now co-owns the business.

Minutes before the first pitch on Sunday, traveling fans dressed in Tennessee orange and Aggie maroon flocked to the window.

For A&M fans Karen Tobin and Meg Foreman, snagging a cone before entering the stadium was a matter of superstition. They’d gotten Zesto twice before games earlier in the tournament, and the Aggies won both times. Plus, it’s great ice cream, Tobin said.

Carrying on the Zesto tradition at the World Series is a major responsibility, but the window near the ballpark has a winning formula, Kelley said.

“You want to put the customer first and make sure the ice cream’s cold when they get it,” Kelley said.

Sweet prospects?

Jansa’s attachment to Zesto goes back long before he acquired the federal trademark – perhaps all the way to the womb.

On the day Jansa was born, his mother stopped at the Lincoln Zesto for a black raspberry malt before heading to the delivery room at Bryan Hospital, she recounted to him years later.

“She said, ‘I was feeding you umbilically,’” Jansa said. “So, I think I started (eating Zesto) pre-birth.”

Jansa and Irons, two self-identifying “car guys,” met in the mid 1980s while cruising Lincoln’s O Street. They made frequent nighttime stops at the Zesto down the road, where they each ordered two large malts. 

Irons moved out to California, but Jansa stayed in Nebraska and still farms near Wahoo.

The friends eventually became business partners and approached Harold “Brownie” Brown in the 2000s about buying the Zesto trademark. Brown, the longtime operator of a few Missouri locations, “knew we were in love with the product” and dealt them first the Nebraska trademark and then the federal one, Jansa said.

The original Zestos are mostly grandfathered into the brand, but some locations have licensing or franchise agreements with Jansa and Irons.

The trademark holders recognize that each Zesto has a unique identity, but they hope to ensure customers can get the same rich soft serve at every location. That means prescribing the ice cream machine settings used by the newer stores, Jansa said.

Those machines are usually made by Taylor, the company that spawned Zesto. Jansa said he and Irons established a national account with the firm, which also provides ice cream machines to thousands of McDonald’s locations.

Going forward, Jansa and Irons would like to add Zesto locations near the brand’s existing turf. They’re keen on convincing the Minturns to add a new location in the suburbs south of Omaha. The cousins are considering it.

But they’re also looking to franchise new stores in parts of Zesto’s former footprint. There’s a plan to open one on Los Angeles’ Venice Boardwalk about a year from now, Irons said. 

Irons hopes that some of the southern fans visiting Omaha for this year’s College World Series will want to open a store in their hometowns after tasting the downtown location’s product. 

“I think there's a very bright future in Zesto, and we're really excited about it,” Jansa said. “We just want the story to keep going.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.