Popular ice cream stand has been in the family for four generations

Jake Dienert gobbled his "Dirt Sundae" with ease on a recent trip to Page's Dairy Mart on the South Side. Finishing the soft-serve ice cream dessert topped with crumbled Oreo cookies and gummy worms was a sure sign the 8-year old was on the road to recovery after a recent tonsillectomy.

Jake's grandfather, Ken Zmuda, brought the boy and his older brother Justin, 11, to the roadside ice cream stand as a reward after the surgery.

Page's Dairy Mart has been serving such treats to Pittsburghers on the busy corner of East Carson Street and Becks Run Road for nearly 60 years. Members of the Page family have owned property at that same location since the late 1800s, where they've also operated a general store and Sunoco station.

Since 1951, four generations have helped run the ice cream stand. Chuck Page, 55, is the current proprietor, taking over the operation in 1986 from his father.

"I've been coming here all my life," Mr. Zmuda, of Carrick, said.

That's typical of most customers, Mr. Page said. He says such loyalty has a lot to do with nostalgia for the past. Many clients started coming with their parents and grandparents. Now, they bring their own children and grandchildren. Most are from Carrick, South Side and Baldwin borough and township.

After graduating from Robert Morris University, Mr. Page had no plans to get involved in the family business. But when jobs were scarce, and he wanted to remain in the area, he changed his mind -- and said he is glad he did.

"This is a happy business, and I'm glad I'm my own boss," he said.

Mr. Page also enjoys the seasonal nature of the dairy mart, which is open March through October.

"As a business, you want excitement. Customers tell me: 'When Page's is open, spring is here.'?"

The winter months are spent repairing equipment that breaks down during the busy summer season when the business is open seven days a week.

On this day, Mr. Zmuda and his grandsons, also from Carrick, chose Page Dairy Mart over a Dairy Queen closer to home. Mr. Zmuda says the national chain doesn't offer the same taste and variety as Page's.

The busy intersection nearby provides plenty to watch as customers enjoy their cool treats in parked cars and open tailgates.

Mr. Page said he estimates that some 140,000 cars a day pass by.

The owner has become somewhat of a historian, keeping boxes of pictures and photo albums documenting the family's history at the corner site.

Among them is a 1918 photo showing the family's general store with Mr. Page's maternal grandparents, George and Hannah Butterweck, standing outside.

A 1936 flood and other circumstances over the years eventually led to the construction of the current building.

Except for an occasional coat of paint, the small, cinder block building has remained relatively unchanged since 1951. It offers only counter service and little rear storage. Despite that, Mr. Page has never seriously considered expansion.

"Everyone has a memory of Page's, and I want to keep the same image. Besides, it's efficient this way," he said.

He does wish for more parking sometimes, though employees have counted more than 30 cars parked under the train tracks behind the stand at busy times.

Joanne Gifford, of West Mifflin, stands at the counter ready to dig into a large sundae featuring chunks of chocolate chip cookies.

Ms. Gifford stops by twice a week on her way to work as a bus driver for Lenzner Tours.

"It tastes better here. They give you a lot and it's cheap," she said.

Whenever possible, Mr. Page tries to use local products and believes it gives him an edge over the national competition.

Page's also offers grill items, such as hot dogs and hamburgers.

The business remains very much a family affair. Mr. Page's sister, Patti Page Zapf, still works there, along with four of Mr. Page's six children. His son, Alexander, 23, has expressed interest in taking over someday. Mr. Page's two brothers chose other professions.

Page's business remained steady despite the steel mill closings in South Side and Hazelwood during the 1980s. And he's actually seen an increase in sales during the recent economic recession.

"It just proves that people buy more sweets when they're nervous," he said.

The most popular menu items include milkshakes and Arctic Swirls, similar to a Dairy Queen Blizzard, with various candy and cookies mixed into the soft-serve ice cream.

As a concession to the times, Mr. Page did not raise his prices this year. Menu items range from $1.26 for a baby cone to $21.90 for a half sheet cake.

Although the family has remained in the same location for 200 years, Mr. Page has no predictions about the future.

"It could be another 58 years," he said. "It could change in an instant."

For more information, call 412-431-0600.

Freelance writer Jennifer Goga can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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