Neesa Peterson grew up in New Orleans and graduated from Ole Miss before moving to New York to pursue a career in fashion. Things were going great, but she soon felt a void. Some would liken that to a chill in her heart, but she felt the opposite — a burning. She knew the only thing that could extinguish the fire was a snoball, but where would she find one in New York? Enter: Imperial Woodpecker Sno-Balls.
What made you want to start Imperial Woodpecker Sno-Balls?
I started a snoball shop because I wanted to spread the happiness that one snoball offers! I wanted to combine my love of food, people and music and set an atmosphere I wanted to be in everyday. New York can be a hard city to live in, and many people work twice the amount of time here than in other places, so I wanted to offer a relief for people — a snoball community! One day while standing in line at Hansen's — my senses were stronger I suppose — and the idea came. All of my memories of being at Hansen's and Plum Street growing up resonated with me and I knew I HAD to bring snoballs to New York City, especially since no one knew about a New Orleans snoball here. I like the teaching aspect of food. Snoballs are something…people think they know what they are and they call them snow-cones, but as we New Orleanians know, they are not the same thing.
What were the reactions when you first opened? How is it when locals discover you?
I was lucky to be located on a corner with big windows in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan. The West Village is known for its charming tree-lit streets that are incomparable to the other streets of New York. The locals have such a strong bond in the neighborhood and really make you feel special and welcome. Other restaurants’ purveyors were bringing me food and giving me business along with all of the other people in the neighborhood. I will always remember the nice people that helped me my first season.
I've heard that you model your snoballs after Hansen's. Are there any other snoball stands that you emulate?
Well I would hope they are half as good as Hansen's. With Mary and Ernest who made/are making their own syrups and used/are using a one-of-a-kind machine, I don't know if I come close, but I hope I spread the cheer as much as they did. Mary used to always smile at me, and Ernest made the fluffiest ice. They were truly my biggest inspirations. Donna from Plum Street was a big help to me, as well. We met at Jazz Fest the spring before I opened the shop and with her guidance, I got the right flavors. Both are truly staples in New Orleans snoball history, and I am lucky to have eaten a lot of snoballs at both places!
What's the biggest challenge with having a snoball business in New York? Are any flavors or concepts strange to them?
The biggest challenge is probably weather. We only have a handful of 90 degree and above days and as we know, snoballs are soooo good when it's sweltering. I get a lot of people asking for ice cream because they aren't used to having a snoball shop to go to. I try to tell them that once they try the Nectar Cream, they won't want ice cream ever again, but sometimes people are set in their ways (laughs). If it rains, I just bring a good book. Flavors that are strange to them are Mardi Gras King Cake, Tiger’s Blood, Nectar Cream, and Birthday/Wedding Cake. No one can comprehend how snoballs can taste like cake! But they do...
Do you get any products from New Orleans?
Yes, I bought my machine from Sno-Wizard and flavors from Southern Snow.
(Peterson's favorite flavors and most embarrassing Imperial Woodpecker Sno-Balls moment below the jump!)
Growing up, what were your favorite snoball flavors? Where was your favorite place to get snoballs?
Nectar Cream, Coconut Cream, Coffee Cream. I am really sad I missed out on Ice Cream Cream as a child because that is my favorite now! The lines were just so long that you had to know your flavor before you got to the front and could see the menu! Hansen's and Plum Street are my favorites!
There is no particular snoball demographic in New Orleans. Is there one in NYC?
No, not really. They are something that everyone loves! (Thank goodness!)
Do you sell snack items? If so, any quintessentially Southern snacks like Frito pie?
I sell Zapp's Potato Chips! They are the perfect complement to a snoball! I used to sell Community chicory toddy coffee last summer, but felt I shouldn't this summer since it was hard to keep up with and wasn't really selling. People only had room for a snoball.
Has anything really funny or weird happened at the stand? Any celebrities visit?
Well, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick stopped me while my friend and I were painting the shop to ask what I was opening. They lived on the same street, so we were neighbors. Brooke Shields, Adam Duritz from Counting Crows, Peter Dinklage, Tori Spelling, Jonathan Cheban and the photography duo called the Hilton Brothers, which consists of a man named Christopher Makos and Paul Solberg. Christopher Makos was a good friend of Andy Warhol's and collaborated with him on a lot of projects. When I found that out, it confirmed that I was in the right neighborhood with my snoballs. I love the fact that West Villagers have that creative edge and have historically lived through innumerable interesting experiences.
Oh I almost forgot! One of my most favorite experiences up to date was when I partook in Paper magazine's Super Duper Market that Editor-in-Chief Kim Hastreiter organized. The guests at the opening party consisted of David Byrne of the Talking Heads, Andre Balasz (owner of the Standard Hotel, Mercer Hotel, etc...) whom I gave a Coconut snoball to and Anna Sui amongst others. I am a HUGE Talking Heads fan so I thought I would run over to David Byrne and give him a snoball — or so I thought. As I got closer to THE David Byrne, I recognized the person I was about to hand over the Orchid Cream Vanilla snoball to was, in fact, a woman. Not to mention there was a video photographer behind me attempting to film the whole thing. Pure mortification. The experience of Super Duper Market overall was one of the most prodigious experiences I've had up to date. All of the vendors were doing their own thing from all over San Francisco, New York City and Brooklyn. I learned something from everyone there, and the people I met were fabulous! Big thanks to Kim Hastreiter for inviting me along.
Do you have any events coming up?
Every Wednesday until Labor Day, we will be outside of the Cynthia Vincent shop in Soho/Nolita to make snoballs for the shoppers. We are also partaking every Thursday night at Hester Street Fair Nights that were started by the MTV news correspondent Suchin Pak and three other awe-inspiring people. We have catered events for Spotify, Tulane Alumni Crawfish Boil in NYC, Loeffler Randall, TBWA Ad agency with Preservation Jazz Hall Band and many others fabulous people/companies.