Two summers ago, 11-year-old Tamyra Proctor walked down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and peered through the window of a vacant commercial property. She noticed activity inside and two people hard at work. Without hesitating she knocked on the front door to inquire what was going on.
On a recent Sunday afternoon visit to Capital City Creamery in the heart of Congress Heights, Proctor was hanging out, patiently waiting for her moment to ask for a birthday ice cream cone. She had just turned 13. “I prefer here to the ice cream truck because you can see what they’re doing,” says Proctor, an honor-roll student at Kramer Middle School.
According to Charlene and Bill, co-owners of the ice cream shop, Proctor was their first customer and hasn’t stopped coming since. “I come every day to either say hi or buy something,” Proctor says with enthusiasm and a smile. When she turns old enough to legally work, next year, she knows where she will apply first. “I told them they better have an open spot for me!”
Responding to “Ma,” “Mama,” and “Aunt,” Charlene is regularly shown photos of newborns, newlyweds, and recent graduates by her customers. She graduated from Ballou High School in the late 1980s. Her mother still lives in the area and her brother is the director of the nationally known Ballou High School Marching Band. “I know the grandparents, parents, kids, and grandkids in a number of families,” says Charlene, who as a teenager in the 1980s worked at Bob’s Frozen Custard, just up the street from the creamery.
During my visit, a collection of extended family members come into the shop along with a steady stream of neighborhood regulars. Nearly everyone is on a first-name basis.
After requesting and receiving numerous small plastic spoons of a variety of ice cream flavors, Bryant Jenifer, 25, who is introducing his girlfriend to the shop, praises the creamery’s topnotch “sample game.” Usually choosing between a cup of cookies and cream with crushed Oreo or vanilla with granola, Jenifer, a fueler at Reagan National Airport, says he comes to the store weekly. He likes the feel of the ice cream parlor because “they don’t sell cigarettes.” Angela Burton, 23, shares, “I’ve never been here before but I feel comfortable.”
“Some people say Ward 8 is the poorest part of the city, but we’re also the most self-sufficient,” declares a regular customer. “I come here because it saves me having to drive all the way to East Over,” a shopping mall on the DC-Maryland line, explains another.
Sitting near the window are a couple dressed in their Sunday best. “The area needs this and the trust,” says James Littlejohn, a law enforcement official. The past three Sundays, following services at Allen AME Church on Alabama Avenue, Littlejohn has patronized the creamery. When asked if this would become a tradition, he responds, “This is great for the area. It’s not a matter of support. I’ll be here regardless.”
Opening Capital City Creamery
Bill and Charlene, married since 1989, explain that the genesis for the creamery was a weekly ritual that went on for years – driving her mother crosstown every Sunday to patronize a Baskin-Robbins at Eastern Market. “Every Sunday, we drove across the bridge and back,” says Charlene. “We thought, we shouldn’t have to keep leaving the neighborhood. Let’s open our own place.”
Dedication and patience were close partners with Bill and Charlene as they waited more than a year to open after securing their lease in July 2014. To cover costs of permitting, architect, demolition, new construction, and constant headaches from contractors, the couple initially invested $80,000. They estimate no interior work had been done on the property since the 1970s.
Opening the store came as a complete surprise to their twin 17-year-old sons, Bradley, an incoming freshman at Temple, and Brandon, an incoming freshman at Norfolk State.
“They brought us here one day and told us, ‘This is ours. We’re opening an ice cream shop,’” Bradley says. The family experience of working with and supporting their parents has been rewarding. “We’ve watched them become neighborhood favorites and we’ve gotten to see how much the community responds to them,” Bradley observes.
Capital City Creamery opened for business in October 2015, as Rita’s simultaneously launched less than a block away. Their dual opening was not planned or known in advance. Bill says there is no competition or hostility. While Rita’s is a walk-up window and closes for the winter, Capital City is open seven days a week, year-round, and sells more than just frozen goods.
“We responded to the neighborhood’s demands for more than just ice cream,” Bill says, as he sprinkles cheese on top of a small pizza and places it in the oven. Along with the self-proclaimed “best milkshakes in the city, not just east of the river,” the creamery offers wings, half-smokes, chili hotdogs, and slushies for $1.
Capital City Creamery, 3023 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, across the street from the Old Congress Heights school, is open seven days a week, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., and Sunday, noon-5 p.m.