The bear sign has a new coat of paint, the boards are off the windows and the soft-serve machines sit waiting to dispense their first ice cream cones in 18 months.
On May 1, after hibernating through the uncertainty of a pandemic that now seems to be loosening its grip, Polar Bear Ice Cream in North Riverside will reopen its doors on May 1.
“It definitely means more this year,” said Shawn Hwang, the son of longtime Polar Bear owners Jason and Kelly Hwang. “We’ve definitely missed our customers and friends.”
The Hwang family, who have lived in North Riverside since 2005, has owned the mid-20th century ice cream stand at 7901 Cermak Road for the past 22 years, keeping its vintage look, classic flavors and familial atmosphere constant throughout that time.
Shawn, 28, said his parents were drawn to the ice cream stand as a business opportunity, not only because they are natural entrepreneurs, but because it also reminded them of Taiwan, where they grew up.
“My parents are immigrants from Taiwan, but they’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit,” said Hwang, adding that his parents were in their late 20s when they immigrated to the U.S. “They saw the opportunity here [at Polar Bear] and asked, and they were selling, so we were there at the right time.
“In Taiwan it’s really hot in the summer, so ice cream was really popular there, so they came here and saw something they were familiar with.”
Jason and Kelly Hwang also like that the ice cream stand maintained its late 1940s vibe – the building housed a flower shop and a candy store before becoming a local institution as a soft-serve ice cream business.
They’ve retained that feel, keeping the neon signs and equipment and dotting the stand with vintage décor. While the iconic polar bear sign is not the original, Hwang said his grandfather used the original sign as a template to saw out a new one many years ago.
Hwang, who attended Hauser Junior High and Riverside-Brookfield High School before getting a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and an MBA at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he grew up at the ice cream stand.
As a middle schooler he remembers going there after school, having a cone and playing with friends in the parking lot. As he entered high school, he started manning the counter, making cones and other treats for customers who’d return year after year.
“People watched me grow up and I’m also watching other people growing up,” said Hwang, who has seen generations of families – grandparents, parents and children – come through the door since he was a middle schooler.
Some of the kids he used to serve up cones to are now coming to him asking for summer jobs – Polar Bear has long been a summer landing spot for local high school and college kids.
Garrett Foy, who was helping Jason and Shawn Hwang spruce up the place last week in preparation for opening, is a North Riversider who is finishing up his first year in college, but has been working at Polar Bear since he was a sophomore at RBHS.
“They come and they say, ‘Do you remember me?’ You used to take my order all the time,’” Hwang said. “And I’m like, ‘That was you, coming in with your mom? My goodness.’”
It’ll be a bit of reunion when Hwang flips the switch on the neon lights May 1. A little more than a year ago, the Hwangs were cleaning up the business, getting it ready to open in April when the COVID-19 pandemic swept through and the business shutdowns began.
By last May, as loyal customers wondered whether they’d be able to savor a funnel cake sundae or some cheese fries, the Hwangs announced on Facebook that they would remain closed.
“Just monitoring everything, we felt like the uncertainty was still in the air,” Hwang said. “And because we serve a community of all ages, we thought that just for everyone’s safety, we’d just hibernate another year.”
When you visit Polar Bear this summer, you’ll notice a few differences. First off, they’ve shortened their hours a bit. Monday through Friday, Polar Bear will be open 2 to 10 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday hours from 1 to 10 p.m.
Patrons will also be asked to wear face coverings and maintain social distance while waiting in line outside. There are now blue markings on the pavement giving guidance to those standing along “Polar Bear Drive” as it wraps around the back of the building.
They’re also limiting the number of people inside the tiny order/pickup area, and they’ve erected plastic screens between the customer and the work areas.
“We’re prepared for it,” said Hwang.