And a serving of nostalgia
In 2002, Rick Fiacco retired after working more than 30 years for IBM/Lockheed Martin. Not one to take it easy, Rick purchased an all-glass ice cream stand built in the 1960s on Route 96 in Owego and opened for business. Owego Soft Serve’s menu includes ice cream and other frozen treats, plus delicious espresso for folks who want something else. Traditionally, it opens earlier in the year than most others – in time to serve Shamrock Shakes; and stays open longer so that autumn leaf peepers can stop for Pumpkin Ice Cream.
But the ice cream stand was just the beginning. “I just keep going on this, and I’m having a ball,” Rick says with a smile. He’s added an old tin-can barbeque stand and a 1940’s-style steel diner with counter seating and picnic tables outside. The menu features family affordable barbeque fare and some signature items. I haven’t been adventurous enough yet to try the famous Peanut Butter Bacon Cheeseburger with Fried Egg, but I have enjoyed the huge sausage-and-pepper sandwich and the tasty chicken barbeque.
There are no shortcuts on the food here: the chicken is pulled off the bone and the rolls are fresh from the bakery. Many of Rick’s recipes come from his parents. As I chatted with Dave the Cook (aka Rick’s nephew) about the seasonal specials, he pointed to the yard and reminded us to play some bocce while we were there.
Get your kicks here
At the same time he opened the soft serve, Rick renewed his interest in collecting antiques. “They are memories of my growing up years,” he explained to me. “I always liked old gas pumps and signs, and thought it would be a lot of fun to recreate an old-time gas station right here behind the ice cream stand.”
Rick installed a vintage Texaco gas station with pumps from both Texaco and Sky Chief, and re-created the inside of the building complete with advertising signs, oil cans, vintage coke bottles, and a game of checkers ready for play. Outside, there’s a walk-in red phone booth and a coca-cola cooler. All in all, it’s very eye-catching and cool.
Brightly colored signs shout out “Get your kicks on Route 96,” a take-off on the well-known Route 66 slogan. “It inspires me,” says Rick. “Along this route, we get a lot of travelers headed to the Finger Lakes. We are a gateway to the Finger Lakes Region. I like to call us “The Port of Owego”; the starting point on the road to all points west.”
With that in mind, he added a lighthouse to his park, “to light the way through the port for our travelers.” The beacon works, and lights up after dark. Every port needs a boat, so he added an antique houseboat, which he completely restored from the inside out. Visitors can walk the deck and peek into the windows at the pristine living quarters and the captain’s navigational equipment in the front. To accommodate his younger guests, Rick installed a swing set nearby.
“These are my memories,” he explains. “I spent a lot of time as a youth with my aunt and uncle on their houseboat, cruising along on Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. This boat reminds of those good times.”
More to come
Rick is a man in constant motion, and always has a ready smile and time to chat with his visitors. His goal continues to be family enjoyment and very affordable prices. Ask him about the attractions and he’ll share tales of antique hunting, along with the memories of his youth that motivate him. Rick’s enthusiasm is infectious.
Recently, I asked him, “What’s next?” He pointed behind the gas station and said, “See that big tree over there? I have plans to build a tree house!” And not just for the youngsters, he adds. It will feature a ramp. “I want everyone to be able to experience it.”
I recently took my niece and nephew on an outing, and stopped at the Owego Soft Serve on the way home. After paying for their double-scoop cones (and getting change back from my $5), they wandered around studying the antiques and walking the deck of the boat. They spent time swinging on the swings and hanging from the monkey bars. Afterwards, they grabbed the hula-hoops Rick keeps on hand for his guests, and showed me their skills. When we finally left, my niece exclaimed, “Oh that was so much fun!” High praise indeed from an 8-year old.
Everyone seems to agree. Last summer, Rick’s place was the starting point for an antique car road rally through Tioga County to the Tioga Downs Casino. It was also a banana-split stop for four busloads of seniors from the local high school, on their way home from their class trip. “Four busloads with a great bunch of students,” Rick says.
He estimates that 50 percent of his customers are locals, and 50 percent are travelers along Route 96. With Rick’s two additional ice cream locations, one in downtown Owego and the other at Tioga Downs Casino, “I’ve served around 4 million people. That’s a lot of ice cream!”
The next time you drive along Route 96, take time to stop at the Port of Owego. Enjoy some great barbeque and ice cream, play some bocce ball, and check out Rick’s memories in the form of some beautifully restored antiques. Be sure to “Get Your Kicks on Route 96!”
story and photos by Cindy Ruggieri