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The scoop on Baskin-Robbins, Obama's former employer in Honolulu

December 28, 2009 |  1:44 pm
Obama1
There is much to be learned from first jobs: delivering papers, babysitting sniveling children, even scooping ice cream. So it was that The Times journeyed to 1633 King St., where Barack Obama had a job in his teens at Baskin-Robbins.

The president drove by his former place of employment last night on his way out to dinner, and you wonder if he longed to hop out of his SUV and help scoop some Rocky Road.

These days, the ice cream parlor serves kids devouring ice cream and young men eating banana splits who weren’t even alive when Obama worked there. But still, the establishment has lessons for the aspiring politician.

First, there’s the art of presentation. You wouldn’t sign a bill with a sloppy signature, just as you have to make sure the flowers and writing on the ice cream cake are neat and well-formed. Employees are quite good at that, said Sherill Fernandez, a manager and 10-year veteran of the Baskin-Robbins on King Street.

Obama2 Ice cream scoopers serve people, just as the president does, said Dennis, another employee who is originally from the Philippines and who didn’t want to share his last name. Ice cream scoopers need their privacy too.

They also practice the art of diplomacy, he said. Sometimes, Baskin-Robbins advertises a flavor, and then people come in and ask for it and it’s out of season, and then the scoopers  have to convince their would-be customers to get something else. “Whirl of Change” perhaps? It’s the Obama-themed flavor Baskin-Robbins introduced during the election; it includes peanut-nougat ice cream whirled with chunks of chocolate-covered peanut brittle and a caramel ribbon. Probably not the best flavor for keeping off the calories the president has been burning here in Hawaii during his early morning workouts.

Sue Thirlwall, Baskin-Robbins brand operating officer, says kids have learned presidential skills at the ice cream store for 65 years.

"Scooping for America's favorite neighborhood ice cream shop can result in obtaining basic lifelong job skills, like handling consumer care in real time and keeping calm under pressure. As for the ice cream scooping itself -- an actual ice cream scooper is a powerful tool that requires skill and craftsmanship," she said. "The crew member who communicates effectively is both a diplomat and a terrific brand ambassador, serving guests of all flavor preferences."

Obama3 The establishment, and the neighborhood, has changed in the 30 or so years since Obama worked there -- a sign on the wall urges customers not to steal the chairs, and the fountain soda machine is out of order (to the dismay of a panhandler who came in wanting a Coke). The Baskin-Robbins is right across the street from the basketball courts at the middle school where Obama reportedly learned to play – though the hoops now lack rims.

But even decades later, the ice cream parlor is a definitive training ground for at least one presidential skill: dealing with the media. Last year, "Good Morning America" and a TV station from Norway visited the shop, Fernandez said. This year, it was CNN and, of course, the L.A. Times.

“Now I’m used to talking to reporters,” she said. And, with a world-weary tone reminiscent of someone who's seen what it's like in the presidential spotlight, she continued, “It’s always the same question. And the same answers.”

-- Alana Semuels in Honolulu

Photos: Top: Sherrill Fernandez makes a mud pie at the Baskin-Robbins in Honolulu. Middle: Dennis scoops ice cream. Bottom: The exterior of the ice cream store in Obama's old neighborhood. Credits: Alana Semuels / Los Angeles Times
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