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Produce, ice cream and a train: Father and Son starts Ice Cream Depot

SALISBURY — The more Tim Hoffner thought about it, he knew that trains and ice cream go together, especially for kids.

Tim and his wife, Linda, operate Father and Son produce stand on Sherrills Ford Road and are always thinking outside the box to attract new business. This time, they decided to install an overhead model train and, as they often do, went all out to make it special for everyone.

Hershey’s ice cream has been a popular seller in the store for the past year, surprising Tim.

“When we totaled up the ice cream business, we couldn’t believe how well it had done with no promotion,” he said. “So we decided the train would be perfect, especially for how kids could sit under it while they ate the ice cream.”

Kenny Baker came up with the name Ice Cream Depot. Jimmy McCall, a retired railroader, contributed other ideas based on the big railroad history of the area.

“Linda and I wanted to give ice cream its own identity in the store,” Tim said.

Knowing virtually nothing about quality model trains, Tim and Linda went to the internet. They contacted Train Installations LLC of Woodstock, Georgia, to ask about the possibilities. Just six weeks after the idea was hatched, the train installation was completed last Tuesday.

David Bennett, the owner and lead installer for Train Installations, arrived last Monday in a most unique van to begin the process. Bennett’s hobby quickly grew into a 60-hour-a-week business.

“My dad restored streetcars and steam locomotives, so I was always around trains,” Bennett said. “We can’t keep up. We’ve been to Flagstaff, Arizona, New Hampshire and Minnesota as well as driving to Key West. I have several retired railroad guys helping me and my nephew, Jamie. It’s hard to believe we have been doing this for 20 years.”

Bennett’s work is colorful and fun, but he says that it can also be hard. Often outside in heat and cold and under the gun for quick completion, Bennett remembers one installation that should have taken three or four months. But because it was needed for a movie, the work had to be done in a week.

Trains are installed for all kinds of themes, some recent ones including dogs, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chick-fil-A. Tabletops and garden railroads are also popular.

Trains can be suspended from the ceiling like the Hoffners’ or fabricated in lots of ways. Tracks are brass or stainless steel, and bridges and other structures are often custom built.

With five years of experience installing trains, Jamie Hernandez loves his work.

“It’s fun, it’s different and I really like to meet the people who want these trains,” Hernandez said. “No installation is ever exactly the same, so we’ve developed our problem-solving skills.”

Bennett and Hernandez travel in a work van that draws attention as soon as they arrive. The van has a cowcatcher on the front and a smokestack and bell on top. A press of a red button makes loud train sounds for about a minute each time.

“Kids will find the red button that activates the train, and they can’t resist pushing it,” Bennett said. “The Father and Son train has boxcars that carry ice cream ingredients, use whistle-and-bell sounds and sports a Hershey car. It is a G-scale train that has two engines and is a mixture of LGB and USA train cars.”

Tim and Linda’s daughter, Carla Kluttz, runs the Ice Cream Depot. For now, she serves sundaes and banana splits, and a milkshake machine is on order. There are 22 flavors on hand, with ice cream served from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.. Cups, cones, quarts and even 3-gallon containers are available.

Two ice cream bars with stools offer the best train viewing. Future plans for the store include a crossing arm with a motion sensor, a jukebox possibly with train tunes and lots of railroad photos and paintings.

The Ice Cream Depot plans a grand opening on May 10, the date the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.

Last week was especially busy for Tim and Linda.

“I have been impressed by how it all came together so quickly and seeing the train running is very cool,” said Linda. “The kids keep going for the red button to start it again, over and over.”

Tim wants people happy in the store, and he thinks that red button is going to make it happen.

“Just think how many kids are going to ask Grandpa if they can go see the train and get some ice cream,” he said.

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