ALBION, Neb. — Oh, the ice cream at Shorty's is good.
The soft-serve is rich and creamy. The list of flavors runs long. And the sweet treat comes in cones or cups filled past the brim and at a cost so low you'll swear the math is off. (It's not.)
Shorty's staff will also sell you the perfect salty complement: burgers, dogs, chicken and nachos, topped with about anything you want.
Shorty's serves up guilty pleasure. But this tiny snack shack in a town two hours northwest of Omaha also is offering something else: the past.
You get out of your car. You order at an outside counter. You can eat at a picnic table while batting away flies. Or you can lean over the bed of your pickup truck, as I saw one couple do, and share your dessert with the dogs. Enough dogs come here that the owners know them by name and preference. One mutt, named Buster, comes every Sunday for his "Buster cone."
The service is fast, but the ritual is slow. Some days the line is 20 people long. You don't just run to Shorty's for your shake — called, appropriately for Nebraska, a "tornado." You go and slurp and say hi to the neighbors and listen to the resident pigeons coo in their nests in the roof of the old metal co-op building next door. You go to Shorty's to people watch from the corner of Fifth and Main. You go to Shorty's to take a load off.
"It kind of brings you back," owner Dave Landauer said, "to when people weren't in a hurry."
A lot of places deal in nostalgia shtick. Shorty's, however, comes by nostalgia organically.
There is no shiny black-and-white tile floor. You step onto a gravel drive at Shorty's. There is no Elvis and no jukebox. You might get country music piped in from a nifty speaker hidden inside a light bulb and run by a smartphone app. The ice cream doesn't come in a quaint glass dish. Shorty's serves in foam cups with whisper-thin napkins and plastic spoons.
But these unfussy details connect us to the past. And that's true whether you're a Zesto-loving Omahan or you're 30-year-old Kelly Seier from nearby Petersburg.
"This is a Pepsi Freeze," said Kelly, by way of introduction on one of the hottest nights of summer so far.
It was about 6:30 p.m., and the heat index was in the triple digits. Kelly used to come to this ice cream shack all the time when she was growing up. So did her grandparents and great-grandparents. Her mother worked here as a teenager. Now a mother herself, Kelly brings her daughter, Peyton, making this pink-faced child a member of the fifth generation of Kelly's family to enjoy ice cream in Albion. Shorty's has become such a regular stop for them, even though they live 13 miles out of town, that 5-year-old Peyton was fully versed in Shorty-ese.
"I got a sprinkle cone that was definitely messy, so Grandma Dee ate it, so I ate her ice cream, then I had a Chocolate Homestyle. All that powder. I love," she said in rapid-fire run-on.
You could eat all that, Peyton?
"Uh-huh," she answered, digging into her mother's Pepsi Freeze.
Over the dinner hour and until the 9 p.m. close, traffic at Shorty's on a weeknight was steady. Someone was always at the counter: an elderly couple; a shirtless boy who'd walked over in swim trunks; a family with a baby stroller; high school volleyball players; a trio of sweaty teenage boys who'd just finished moving furniture.
Seemed like plenty in a town of about 1,600 people with competition from three fast-food places, a sports bar, a restaurant and two fully-stocked convenience stores close by.
But Dave said it was a slow night for Shorty's. He speculated that the heat was keeping everyone inside. Ironically, he said, people go out for ice cream when it's cooler.
But I found plenty of goers eager to sing Shorty's praises.
"Definitely better than Dairy Queen," said Kylie White, spooning up her S'mores Tornado.
"We drove 40 minutes. There's nowhere this good," said Erin Stevens, a 17-year-old volleyball player who'd driven from Greeley, Nebraska. She gobbled down her banana split first and then attacked a chicken strips-with-gravy basket with impressive gusto.
Jacob Krings, 18, was so busy gobbling down his Dirt-and-Worms Sundae that, when asked how it was, he simply smiled, mouth full, and gave a thumbs-up.
From a Shorty's picnic table you can see a sliver of downtown Albion that includes a massive brick building that once held a roller rink. You might make the assumption that this old empty building with broken windows was a symbol of John Cougar Mellencamp's America, on the decline. You'd be wrong.
What you can't see from here are signs of Albion's stability and growth, which the Albion Chamber of Commerce president was happy to share the next day.
Lori Krohn, who has a T-shirt screen-printing business, quickly listed progress: a new Shopko; a revamped city pool; a bond measure to remodel the K-12 school. She said new businesses are opening and that old traditions, like the Boone County Fair, are still going strong. In late August about 1,000 people are expected for the chamber's annual fundraiser, a street party called Rhythm and Ribs.
"We've got quite a bit going," Lori said.
She credited mom-and-pop businesses like Shorty's. It has been around in one form or another for decades.
The white-painted building might date back to the 1930s. Dave said it first was used as a gas station, and it was even called "Shorty's" for a while.
The Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/2bl0vAb ) reports that the Findley family took it over in 1950 and turned it into an ice cream shop. Officially it was the "Albion Dairiette." Unofficially it was "Charlie's," so dubbed for the son of the founders and the last Findley to run the joint for years.
Dave, who is 63, remembers cruising the "circuit," or Albion's downtown, and then swinging through Charlie's when the line had shrunk for his usual: five hot dogs and a vanilla malt.
"He would know when I walked up, and would start making hot dogs," Dave said.
One night in 1972 Dave drove up to Charlie's in a dune buggy with a buddy. They noticed a pretty pastor's daughter with blue eyes. The buddy said something like, if you don't ask her out, I will.
Dave and Deb have been married nearly 43 years.
When Charlie quit in 2009, the Landauers debated what to do. They thought of starting a restaurant, but the hours and work seemed too slavish. A seasonal, relatively low-maintenance shop like Charlie's seemed about right. They bought it in 2010 and fixed up the tiny inside, adding a state-of-the-art soft-serve machine. They also expanded the menu and decided, in a departure from apparent Charlie practice, to be more generous with lids, napkins and spoons. Ol' Charlie famously once gave a couple sharing a sundae one spoon despite their request for a second spoon. The couple famously returned the spoon after they were done, saying it was obvious that Charlie needed it back.
The Landauers also renamed the business in honor of Dave's dad, who stood 5-feet-2. LaVern "Shorty" Landauer was short in stature but tall in spirit and liked to hold court at the picnic tables outside the ice cream joint. His wife, Dottie, died early last year. He died six months later, at age 89.
Dave and Deb run Shorty's with their two daughters, Jennifer Whited of Petersburg and Janelle "Nellie" King of Newman Grove. Nellie's husband, Chad, proposed to Nellie during a picnic supper on Shorty's roof.
The two women say they like the schedule: daily from April 1 through Halloween. During their winters off, Jennifer works at a nursing home and Nellie makes wooden signs to sell on Etsy. One of her signs hangs in the window of Shorty's. It says: "You can't buy happiness but you can buy ice cream and that's kind of the same thing."
Hard to disagree on a humid night.
I made the rookie mistake of ordering my brisket nachos and a Grasshopper Cookie Tornado at the same time. To avoid warm ice cream and cold nachos, I slurped down both.
The meal was too much for one person.
I polished it off handily.
But what I enjoyed most was filling up on the scene: A quaint corner shack on a hot summer night, people parading to the counter and a family delighting in serving its friends and neighbors.
"It kind of brings you back," Dave said.
That's the kind of thing that young Peyton may be telling her kids someday, when she's taking a sixth generation for ice cream in Albion.
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com