Flavor of the Season
Tiger’s Blood, Bahama Mama, Silver Fox, Fuzzy Navel, White Lightning. No, these are not the names of the newest pop songs topping the charts; they are flavors, five out of 100 flavors to be exact, and they are all waiting to be poured over some freshly shaved ice.
Stephanie and Jim Rainey are the owners and full-time operators of Southern Tropics Shaved Ice located off of State Line Avenue in Texarkana, Arkansas. Established in June 1988, the couple has worked side-by-side providing their unrivaled seasonal, sweet treats to a community that has grown up in front of their eyes.
Before Southern Tropic’s conception, Stephanie worked in retail management for 12 years while Jim worked at his family’s business, Rainey Construction Company, until his father’s retirement. They knew they wanted to start a business of their own. One day over thirty years ago, some of their relatives returned from a trip to Hawaii and brought the delicious idea back with them. The Raineys’ fates were sealed. “We just kind of fell into it,” said Stephanie. “Opening a business then, you didn’t know if you were going to stay open very long,” Stephanie said. They started small and have made adjustments along the way, including a switch from their original product—Hawaiian Shaved Ice, which they imported for a season or two. Jim chimed in, “They weren’t as good [as ours].”
They nicknamed their first location the “Little Green Building.” It was an eight-by-eight-foot stand with one shaved ice machine, so inevitably they were stepping on each other’s toes. By 2010, they constructed their current building and now have two machines. Southern Tropics is “still just full to the gills.” The newest edition is the walk-in freezer Jim built last year where they have their own ice maker.
“[Jim] comes in between six and seven o’clock in the morning, and I get there about two hours after him,” said Stephanie. “There’s always ice to be done because we make our own. We use filtered water, and we make our own ice blocks, just like we use filtered water to make all of our own flavors. Everything that we do is all done here, on site.” Jim says they use approximately 100-150 pounds of sugar a day for mixing the flavors. But don’t worry, Southern Tropics has sugar-free options too.
Southern Tropics is seasonal; it is active from March 1 through the end of September. “We work here every day, both of us,” said Stephanie. “At least 99.9 percent of the time, we’re here. We are the only ones who touch the machines, so every shaved ice that goes out the window has had, well, I don’t want to say my hands on it, but we’ve touched everything that goes out the window.” “We work, we sleep and we eat. That’s about it,” Jim said.
The Raineys have always employed a staff which is typically a younger demographic, namely high schoolers, as a result of the type of business and its environment. Even their own two children worked at the stand all the way through college. “Another thing we really enjoy is this is an entry-level job position for people that we hire,” said Jim. “[Southern Tropics has] had so many good kids.”
Stephanie and Jim are the only people working right now, which is out of the ordinary. They have been operating short-handed for the first time in 12 years, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stephanie says, “It is what it is, and we will continue on,” a mentality also shouldered by many other small business owners throughout the last year.
“[Customers] have been standing in lines, waiting out there. It is now a little bit longer wait-time than normal for that reason. People have been wonderful.” Locals love Southern Tropics Shaved Ice and Southern Tropics loves them. The Raineys constantly look for ways to be involved in the community. Before COVID-19, they provided sugar-free shaved ice for K. I. D. S. Day Camp, a program that serves children with type 1 diabetes. They have also worked with the local non-profit Pink Behind the Thin Blue Line and College Hill Middle School’s P. R. I. D. E. Camp. They plan to work with them again in the near future.
There is one important philanthropic activity that the pandemic could not disrupt. “We sell bottled water, and we donate the money to the Arkansas Children’s Hospital; we’ve done that for the last ten years or so,” said Jim. “[The bottled water] is a dollar, and that whole dollar goes to the Children’s Hospital and then we match it.” Additionally, Southern Tropics offers a 50 percent discount to servicemen and women who present their active military ID at purchase.
“We’ve been very fortunate with Texarkana,” said Stephanie. “By having the lack of staff, we’ve had some really long lines,” said Jim. “We had a line one day that went out to the road. We appreciate those people that were standing out there so long.”
There is a sense of pride in seeing such devotion from locals for Southern Tropics, but one of Stephanie’s favorite memories was a special moment among family. “[Jim and I] take very few days off. We’re always closed on Easter. Our daughter got married one year, and we closed for that. One of the best pictures that we have of this place was at the Little Green Stand. She and her husband came over for one of their wedding photos and took a picture for us there with the sign we had put up that said we were ‘closed for our daughter’s wedding,’” said Stephanie. “I loved that.”
Jim’s favorite memory is more of a recurring sentimentality he’s experienced over the years. “[Kids] will actually start coming up here before they can see over the shelf where you’re looking into the window to order,” said Jim. “One huge milestone that the kids have when they come up here is the year that they can finally see over the shelf.”
Snowballs, snow cones, shaved ice, whatever you may call it, a person does not outgrow the taste for the indulgence of Southern Tropics. “Texarkana’s home,” said Stephanie, “and we’ve got such a great base of customers. Not only customers that have been coming up since we’ve opened, but who are bringing some of their children and, depending on how old they were at the time, some of their grandchildren, to see us. People who moved away and come to visit family, come back up. We love to see that.”
If you ask the Raineys if they ever expected Southern Tropics to become as successful as it is today, one will hear the humble disbelief in their voice. “We just didn’t know. We didn’t know what it would take to make this a really good, viable business,” said Stephanie. “I think that’s because we weren’t ever sure that it was actually going to be one, and yet here we are, 33 years later.”
With all the hard work and time invested in the business, and after listening to how in unison they are with one another, it is apparent what’s bolstered and nurtured Southern Tropics into prosperity. They both agree their favorite thing about their small business is being able to work together. November will mark 38 years of marriage for the Raineys. Jim says, “We always look at each other and laugh and say, ‘if you die, I quit, and if I die, you’ll quit.’ I can’t do what she does.” “And I can’t do what he does.” Stephanie says, “That’s part of what makes us such a good team.”