Photos By Alex Cason
Asking Pelican’s SnoBalls co-CEOs Gregg Fatool and Randall Wright about the difference between a snowball and a snow cone leads to a hearty round of laughter. “That IS the difference,” Fatool says. “One’s a snow cone, one’s a snowball.”
Not to be mistaken with the icy, crunchy rainbow snow cones often served in paper cones — which always seem to be dripping with a pool of sticky syrup at the bottom — traditional snowballs hail from New Orleans. The best way to think of it, Fatool adds, is as the consistency of an actual ball of fluffy snow with syrup distributed evenly throughout.
Snowballs made their first appearance in The Big Easy in the 1930s when natives George Ortolano and Ernest Hansen used the first ice-shaving machines to create the frozen concoctions. They can now be found in just about every neighborhood in the city.
The Pelican’s SnoBalls empire stems from the dreams of Ansley Johnson, then a Garner teenager who enjoyed the mouthwatering snowballs while visiting her grandparents in New Orleans. The problem was that she only got to enjoy the frozen treat in Louisiana, far from her family’s home.
So she persuaded her dad, Adrian, a kitchen-cabinet builder, to open the first Pelican’s SnoBalls nearly 20 years ago in the Wake County town just south of Raleigh. The pelican, which is the state bird of Louisiana, was a natural choice for the name of the tiny brightly colored snowball stand.
Pelican’s changed ownership in late 2017 when Fatool and Wright took over as co-CEOs after owning seven total Pelican’s locations of their own for several years. They moved the headquarters to downtown Gastonia.
Fatool first met Adrian Johnson at Pelican’s original Garner location, where he would often stop for a snowball after hitting the local driving range. He had some food-industry experience having driven a tractor-trailer for Domino’s Pizza Inc. for 15 years.
“There was always a line,” Fatool says. “I thought, ‘This is crazy!’ I kept thinking, ‘Man, I wish I could get into that.’”
He purchased his first Pelican’s store near UNC Charlotte in 2012. It was tiring work, but Fatool says it was “the good kind of tired.” He took “an old, piece-of-crap building and turned it into something that everybody loved. … And Adrian always said, ‘Love your customer.’”
Wright previously worked as an operations manager at a manufacturing facility for 15 years and as a pastor before he bought into the business in 2014. He and his family used to frequent Fatool’s store in Charlotte. Like his partner, he fell in love with both the family atmosphere and the frozen concoction.
Since the opening of the initial Garner location, more than 170 Pelican’s franchises have sprung up along the Eastern Seaboard and beyond in 15 states as far west as California. Fatool and Wright won’t disclose financial details except to say franchises cost $60,000 to $100,000 to get up and running. There has been exponential store growth every year since 2014. Pelican’s season typically runs March through October, depending on the location, enabling the franchisees time for other business ventures or a winter break.
You’ll never find anything quite like a Pelican’s snowball, according to Fatool and Wright. That’s because the owners are tight-lipped when it comes to the process of actually making a snowball. It’s tucked into the confidential 126-page owner’s manual.
“I don’t want to get into too many details of the process, but you can say we have a machine that makes the snow, and we catch it in a cup and add flavor,” Wright says. “I know it sounds simple, like it’s just water and flavor, but it’s not.
“And I know it sounds silly… but you’re able to put smiles on kids’ faces… and that was very important to us. … My dream of owning my own business evolved into so much more.”
Since the opening of the initial Garner location, more than 170 Pelican’s franchises have sprung up along the Eastern Seaboard and beyond in 15 states as far west as California.
Pelican’s SnoBalls co-CEOs Gregg Fatool and Randall Wright bought the business from founder Adrian Johnson in 2017. Both previously ran their own Pelican’s franchise locations.
Pelican’s SnoBalls’ 170 stores boast more than 100 flavors, including more traditional options such as black cherry, peach, passion fruit and mango, and more off-the-wall flavors like toothpaste, wedding cake, egg custard and pink champagne.
Pelican’s SnoBalls rebranded in 2018 with a newlogo, vibrant color scheme, and mascot, “Mardi” the pelican. “We wanted to give it more of a New Orleans feel,” co-owner Randall Wright says.
And I know it sounds silly… but you’re able to put smiles on kids’ faces… and that was very important to us.
Pelican’s SnoBalls employees use special machines to create the fluffy shaved ice in each snowball.
Then they use a variety of sugary syrups to add flavor and color to the frozen concoction.
A scoop of ice cream or gummy candy can be added to any dish. Prices range from $2 to $6, depending on the size.