It’s been 15 years since Winnie Crocker pulled a custard cone from the machine at Lar’s Fruit Market, the mom and pop shop she and her late husband, Larry, owned and operated on the corner of Gower and Queen in downtown St. John’s from 1954 until 2003.
On Thursday afternoon, as part of the grand opening weekend celebrations for the Newfoundland Embassy, Chris Andrews and Tom Nemec’s new pub and restaurant located in the same 140-year-old building as Lar’s, Crocker was back behind the counter wearing her white smock and slinging cones.
“It's so wonderful to see everyone and hear their kind words and sentiments,” Crocker told The Telegram in between serving old and new patrons with the same infectious smile she sported for nearly five decades.
“The first thing they say, "I remember," and they talk about little things. I'm enjoying it, I feel like I'm at home.”
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a fond memory of the little shop, revered not only for its one-of-a-kind creamy cones, but also its chocolates, candy apples and wide variety of fresh fruit.
St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen can vividly recall seeing Lar out on the sidewalk writing the day’s specials in bold white lettering on the store’s windows, visible day and night thanks to the iconic globe bulbs bordering the window frames.
“Walking up New Gower and Water Street with my father when I was a little boy and we'd come by Lar's and you'd have an ice cream cone or some fruit from outside on the tables,” recounts the mayor. “It's a piece of our history that's not here anymore and it's great to see part of it celebrated again.”
For a lot of parents, Lar’s and its cones were used as a bargaining chip to keep their kids in line. Crocker tells the story of one customer who would come in with her kids after mass on Sunday.
“A woman said to me one time, ‘I tell them if they're good in church, we'll go down to Lar's to get a custard cone. I never had a problem,’” Crocker, 91, recounts with a laugh.
Kevin Parsons says that when he was a kid growing up in Flatrock, his father would load the family into the car on Sunday afternoons and head to Lar’s.
“If we were bad along the way, we weren't getting one, so we were all good along the way because we loved our custard cones,” he reminisced. “It was a Sunday treat we enjoyed so much.”
It was a similar situation for Andrews. While he was raised in Logy Bay, both his parents hailed from St. John’s and a stop at Lar’s was the norm during childhood trips to visit his grandmother in the city.
“As kids, it was a big deal for us. Three of us would be in the back of the car and Mom and Dad would be happy because it was the only time we all shut up for 20 minutes or something,” says Andrews, frontman for famed Newfoundland traditional band Shanneyganock.
When he and Nemec decided to open the Embassy — a name inspired by the moniker for a trailer stocked with Newfoundland beer and food that often accompanied the band on tour — they didn’t have to include a soft serve ice cream machine or build a separate counter within the operation, appropriately dubbed Lar’s Custard Cones.
But because the Crockers were so well-known and well-loved, it just felt right.
“You've got to go with your gut and when something feels right you gotta go for it. We couldn't be happier that we included Lar's in this venture.”
Asked what Lar would think of this tribute, Crocker says she knows her husband is looking down on the little shop and calling it “a job well done.”
“It was a wonderful life, a full life, and Lar loved people and he loved his work, no doubt about it,” she says.
Making the occasion even more special was that Crocker brought down one of the stark white aprons Lar wore at work. Andrews plans to mount it on the wall next to Ray Fennelly’s iconic photo of the grocer standing outside the shop.
With the change of season, the Lar’s Custard Cones side of things will be shuttered for the winter months, though pub and restaurant patrons will still be able to get one.
As for the rest of the grand opening celebration, the Newfoundland Embassy will offer food and drink specials all weekend, and there will be live music and even some Newfoundland Growler ticket giveaways.
“This is our time to say, 'We're here, come down and check us out and we think you'll enjoy it and want to come back.'”