On a recent Sunday evening, a teenager came into Timmy O’s Frozen Custard and waited nervously by the door. When owner Timmy O’Leary offered him a custard sample, he declined, opting for a cheeseburger. Another young guy showed up a half-hour later, asking for a slice of pizza. He too refused custard. On the sidewalk outside, a little girl defiantly slurped on a Mister Softee cone, purchased from a nearby truck.
You’d think Timmy O’s was some off-brand dairy shack out by the airport, not an award-winning custard shop in the heart of Queens.
Timmy O’s is rated by Fork in the Road and Serious Eats as one of the top frozen-treats places in the city. It is one of three Queens recipients of Slow Food NYC‘s prestigious Snail of Approval. The superstars at M. Wells dish out gallons of Timmy O’s Frozen Custard each week, calling it “luscious” and “exquisite.” So why is it that, on steamy summer nights that scream for ice cream, O’Leary’s storefront looks all but abandoned?
O’Leary shrugs. “I gotta get more locals, I guess.”
A big, jovial man with the mien of an Irish barkeep, O’Leary offers up a nickel tour to all comers. This includes a rundown of his meticulously selected ingredients, the difference between frozen custard and ice cream (custard contains more eggs), the process of mixing small batches in-store, and a sample of every flavor. It’s obvious you’re dealing with a craftsman here, and his dense, potent custard will blow your mind. If you take the time to visit, that is.
While 104th Street gets some foot traffic, many are on their way to the nearby powerhouse known as the Lemon Ice King of Corona. It’s a wildly popular 65-year-old icon, and it casts a tall shadow over newbie Timmy O’s. Sarah Obraitis, co-owner of M. Wells, visited the Lemon Ice King as a kid: “It’s part of the city; it’s just something you do.” She adds, “But why anyone would pass by Timmy O’s, I really can’t tell you.” Obraitis discovered O’Leary’s shop while on a tamale expedition to nearby Tortilleria Nixtamal (one of Queens’ other two Snail of Approval winners). Each week since then, she’s picked up 15 to 20 liters of vanilla, chocolate, and banana frozen custard in her car.
Over time, other customers have trickled in. Lemon ice fans sometimes cross over to custard; roving foodies travel from Long Island City, Astoria, and Manhattan; O’Leary’s symbiotic relationship with Nixtamal gives him a post-dinner rush. But the crowds are unsteady, and they dry up when the weather cools. That’s where Timmy O’s unsavory product expansion comes in.
O’Leary now buys EZ-prep pizza and burgers from a large commercial foods distributor. The products are heated rather than cooked, in a complicated modern oven he doesn’t totally understand. “When I first bought the thing, some chef came out and showed me how to make a few things. Now I just put the [pizza and burgers] in and hit a few buttons.” O’Leary says his prepared foods are surprisingly decent, but there’s an unmissable note of apology in his voice. “Gotta get by, right?”
Maybe the trick is just getting people in the door. Right before leaving the store, the kid who ordered the cheeseburger shyly asks, “Can I get a strawberry shake now?” O’Leary lights up and says, “Now we’re talking.”