New Recipe: New sign adds to Polar Bear’s retro feel

Apr. 24—Oneonta’s “oldest name in ice cream” is bringing back a taste of the classics with a new retro neon sign.

Positioned in the place of honor on the wall behind the main counter is a neon polar bear, animated to look like he’s licking the ice cream cone in his hand, sitting atop neon block letters spelling out “Polar Bear Homemade Ice Cream.”

The sign was introduced at the start of the 2021 ice cream season after years of customer demand, according to Heather Ross, who co-owns the business, now on state Route 28 in Franklin, with her husband, Michael.

“We don’t know what happened to the original sign, but one of our goals was to bring it back,” she said. “We just took it to the next level.”

Though not an exact replica of the neon sign that marked the entrance to the original ice cream shop, at 457 Main St. in Oneonta, the new bear pays homage to a later hand-cut wooden logo and sign now hanging on display above the restroom.

The sign, handmade by Howie Cohen of Just Neon Sign Company in Utica, took nine months to complete, Ross said.

“It doesn’t look complicated, but it really is,” she said, pointing to a network of wires and fixtures at the back. “Not just anybody makes these anymore.”

The original sign was likely made sometime in the 1950s or ’60s, Ross said, possibly around the same time as the signature neon animation of a butcher chasing a chicken that marks the entrance to Brooks’ House of B-B-Q.

“The Polar Bear following — I’m not going to say it’s at the same level as Brooks’, but there’s just that excitement for it,” Ross said.

Since taking over the Polar Bear trademark in 2015 from Janet Powers and Jamie Potter, who served ice cream from the original recipes at their Otego country store, Pie in the Sky, for 18 years, Ross said she and her family have worked hard to maintain the retro feel.

The Franklin parlor features a soda jerk from 1954 and a Rich’s Root Beer barrel from 1957. Ice cream is made in two of the three original Custard King batch machines — constructed in 1947 by Tom Carvel, the Greek-born inventor of soft ice cream — following some of the original recipes from the 1949 original handwritten recipe book, now on display alongside other Polar Bear memorabilia between dipping freezers.

“We’re trying to keep the nostalgia going and have a family-oriented place for people to enjoy themselves,” Ross said. “It’s been tough on everybody the past year, finding things to do.”

While the family’s fleet of carnival eats trailers stayed grounded amid the cancellation of local and county fairs last year, Ross said the storefront business wasn’t particularly impacted by the pandemic, and even saw a surge of new customers at its walk-up service window.

“People were still eating ice cream during the pandemic — it was comfort food,” she said. “We’re very fortunate that our grounds allow for social distancing.”

Also making its debut this season is a new Italian bakery, with its own take-out entrance on the right side of the building and soon to be joined by an outdoor patio.

D’Urzo Old World Bakery, a tribute to her husband’s old family name, will offer old-fashioned cannolis, cookies and other Italian pastries, as well as pizza and other baked items made from original family recipes, Ross said.

“When the weather’s nasty,” she said, “people want the pizza, they want the loaded fries, they want the burgers — all the comfort foods.”

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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