“In South Texas, you see trucks. As a kid I was always going to the stand to buy me a raspa. I loved it, and when we moved away from Texas to here, there was nothing. I wanted to bring something different and unique to the Tri-Cities,” Esmeralda said.
Every day but Sunday, Sam wakes up early in the morning, loads her SUV with 10-pound blocks of ice and boxes of fruit, and heads to her South Roan Street location to begin prepping. As she pulls into the parking lot, she often passes customers waiting outside to beat the lines.
Sam doesn’t make traditional snow cones, which are flavored syrup added to granular ice. Sam uses finely blended ice that resembles snow, hence the name, and combines it with chunks of fresh fruit, whole scoops of ice cream and toppings like Oreos, pretzels and Pirouette wafers.
People love the variety, and a chance to eat from somewhere other than a national chain.
“I had a Candy Crush inside of a pineapple! It was amazing and definitely worth the money. I like that it’s family operated, too,” said Chesnee Hammons, student at Northeast State Community College.
Sam’s unique combination of flavors has earned her loyal customers. She has over 5,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 2,000 on Instagram.
Family and business have always gone hand-in-hand for the Lopez family. Esmeralda and Miguel met while he was working at Scott’s Farm in Unicoi. Esmeralda was working for her parents' business at the time. After marrying, they started Lopez Lawn Service, based out of Jonesborough.
Sam has four siblings, two brothers and two sisters. She has had to hire a few employees, and a couple of siblings, to keep up with demand. During her summer peak, it can take up to an hour to wait through the line.
Part of her success, and that of food trucks in general, can be attributed to the cultural obsession with social media and sharing daily experiences with everyone. According to an Informate Mobile Intelligence report, the average American spends over an hour and a half on social media every day. Sam knows this and uses it to her advantage.
Sam’s colorful and elaborate snow balls make for social media gold. Her Instagram page, “samssnoballs,” is food porn at its best: exotic, playful dishes that drive customers to her location. She also encourages people to share photos of their favorite menu items with the hashtag “#samssnoballs.”
Sam studies business at East Tennessee State University when she isn’t busy working. She doesn’t pay for traditional advertising; instead she chooses to use social media to bring in customers. Her dad is the same way. He doesn’t advertise his lawn care company, instead he relies on word of mouth.
Sam’s Snoballs, although the name makes it sound like it’s just one person, is really a Lopez team effort. Led by Esmeralda, the whole family pitches in when Sam needs help. If she’s running low on fruit, her dad will make a run for her, even after a long day’s work himself.
“In the summer, I would get up at eight in the morning and literally I wouldn’t stop until midnight or one in the morning, and then I had to do it all over again,” Sam said.
Although she says she gets help from her parents, Sam doesn’t take a paycheck.
“It’s not for the money. I just love it. I love what I do,” she said.
But when she first opened in 2011, she wasn’t too thrilled about the idea of running a snow cone hut on the side of the road.
In the beginning, the challenge is that no one knew who she was. And since she didn’t advertise, it took a little while to get the ball rolling.
“Of course, you have to start out small before you can grow. I mean any franchise or any big company, where do they start?” Esmeralda said.
“I wasn’t embarrassed by it. I was just like ‘This is a joke, I’m just sitting here and I’m not making any money,’” Sam said. “We invested all of this money into this, and we’re not getting anywhere. So my biggest challenge was starting, just having to put ourselves out there.”
But Sam is tenacious, and after a couple summers, business started to pick up.
“I think my proudest accomplishment is that I didn’t give up,” she said. “I could have easily backed out, but I didn’t and I’m not giving up.”
Recently, Sam was approached by a couple interested in helping her expand to more locations. This is a common food truck formula: start small and then open up more stands if people love the food. But Sam declined the offer because she wants to set up a permanent location first.
She’s had people wait in line for nearly two hours, only to have to turn them away because she ran out of ice. Her current setup, a small metal trailer that fits about five people inside, just isn’t big enough for what she needs. It’s a sign that business is good, but she’ll have to grow in order to meet all the demand.
Sam thinks she will have to move out of the food truck and into a larger brick-and-mortar location by next summer to keep up with the public’s appetite. She plans on moving into a building next to her current location. It used to serve as a church, but now it’s empty and needs some renovations.
“That’s our winter project,” said Sam. “Everything has to be taken out, from the floors to the carpet, knocking down walls, literally everything.”
Photos: Stuart Humphreys
Top left: Sam preparing one of her special pineapple treats for a hungry customer.
Middle right: Exterior view of Sam's Snoball Paradise, located at 809 S. Roan St. Johnson City, Tn 37601
Lower left: Sam chatting with a happy customer.
Bottom right: Sam preparing a lemon-lime snoball.