“I was pregnant, and I had a craving for coconut ice cream,” she said. She had enjoyed the flavor in Puerto Rico, but in New Jersey, “We couldn’t find the right flavor. Nobody seemed to make it the way I wanted it.”
So her husband Pete bought an old fashioned hand crank ice cream machine to make it for her.
“We started to sell it in our deli,” said Berrios, referring to Jake’s Deli on the corner of First and Erie streets in downtown Jersey City.
“Ice cream became so popular, we gave up the deli,” she said.
Thus was born Torico’s, which has served as an icon in the changing neighborhood ever since.
Back in the summer of 1968, downtown was a dramatically different place with a mixture of Italians, Poles, African-Americans and Latinos. The ice cream store became a magnet for kids from the numerous public and parochial schools in the area at the time.
“A lot of kids stopped by at lunchtime,” she said. “We had hand-made ice cream, and we couldn’t crank it fast enough to keep up with demand.”
It became a family affair. Everybody took their turns cranking, including her brothers, husband, and later her children.
As the neighborhood changed, so did the business and the ice cream flavors the store offered. To learn about changing tastes, they talked to people who came in as well as the people they hired.
“We made the flavors they wanted,” she said.
Now the business offers more than 100 flavors, and accommodates a much wider variety of cultural tastes, from classic flavors to those favored by Filipino and other Asian cultures, reflecting the contemporary diversity of Jersey City.
“People who came here as children bring their children.” – Pura Berrios
One very popular contemporary flavor is called “Black Out,” which has chocolate cake as part of its recipe. Tropical fruit flavors are very popular, including the coconut ice cream she craved long ago. These days, she only has that flavor on very hot days.
She likes more traditional flavors like vanilla and butter pecan.
At a recent anniversary celebration, a 3-year old youngster sampled a flavor called bubble gum.
People come from far and wide. Many who moved out of the area bring back their children and grandchildren.
“People who came here as children bring their children,” she said, noting that the business has helped put her four daughters through college.
Sam Pesin, the president of Friends of Liberty State Park, said he used to bring his pre-school students here as an end of year celebration when he still worked as a teacher.
“It was the highlight of the year,” he said. “They would let the kids use the soft ice cream machines to make their own.”
While the store is famous for its ice cream, Pesin said, Berrios is very involved with local community groups.
“I’ve had a lot of careers, including real estate,” said Berrios, who moved to Jersey City in 1956.
Her youngest daughter Christina runs the store these days, so it is still a family business. But all three generations are still involved, with her children managing and the youngest making the ice cream. Even the original family members still lend a hand.
But the old crank ice cream machine has been retired.
“We didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “So we encased it in Plexiglas and use it as a donation box. We like giving to local charities.”
Giving back to the community has been one of Torico’s guiding principles from the start. They pick a local charity to raise funds for, most often around the holidays. But even in the midst of disaster, such as Superstorm Sandy, they opened their doors and gave away ice cream rather than let it go to waste.
At the ice cream block party, they decided to raise funds for A Birthday Wish, a nonprofit that helps grant wishes to children in foster care. Funds come from donations.
“We were founded four years ago,” said founder Jane Hoffman. “We grant 100 percent of the wishes we get.”
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