Here’s what one Patch reader said in nominating this week's “Faces of New Canaan" subject:
How about the lovely woman who works at Baskin Robbins —dark hair, in her forties? She always has a smile on her face!
You’d be hard-pressed to find a New Canaanite who’s never enjoyed a scoop of ice cream from Baskin-Robbins. And for 21 years, the downtown fixture has been owned and operated by lifelong town resident Anna Valente-Krolikowski.
After chatting one afternoon this week—our full interview is transcribed below—two words in that nomination email stand out to me: 'works' and 'smile.'
We met at the shop just after I picked up my 7-year-old nephew from his bus stop, just down the road, and during our conversation the seating area inside Baskin-Robbins quickly filled up with nine children, three teens and six adults.
While those people enjoyed their ice cream (inlcuding my nephew, who scored a bonus waffle cone), Anna told me about a memorable childhood accident involving a Good Humor ice cream truck (true story, sounds crazy), her own favorite ice cream flavor (sounds really good) and what's changed most about downtown New Canaan in two decades (sounds about right).
Anna had a smile for each customer in the place, and as you'll see, the smiles she got back are a big part of what motivates her to get up each morning and go to work so that Baskin-Robbins can serve New Canaan residents and visitors, 363 days a year.
Patch: Where are you from?
Anna: New Canaan. On Forest Street.
You were born in New Canaan?
No, I was born in Norwalk Hospital.
So your parents were living here then.
Right, my parents were off the boat. They moved to New Canaan when they got here. Forest Street.
When was that?
When were you born?
November 10, 1968.
And you spent your whole childhood on Forest?
No, just as a toddler. I grew up on Crystal Street, right down the road from South School.
What were the street numbers on those streets?
It was 15 Crystal and 88 Forest.
Do you slow down and look at the houses when you pass them now?
They’ve knocked them both down. Well, my parents did. (Laughs.) They own the property.
OK. So you have siblings?
Brother and a sister. My sister lives in the Crystal Street house.
You mean Dominic and Donna, the twins? I went to high school with them, same year.
Right. We grew up on Crystal.
What about nieces and nephews?
Five nieces and nephews.
And you’re married with children?
Married with three children. Married 19 years.
When’s your 20th anniversary?
I don’t know. It’s next year. This year we do our 19th.
How long have you had this Baskin-Robbins?
It’ll be 21 years on August 17th. A customer just came in and said, ‘Anna, I remember when you were up there.’ (Points up toward the top of Elm Street.)
So you went to New Canaan High School?
Class of ’87. And I’m holding our reunion at my house this year.
At your house?
Yes. But I’m not giving the address. I don’t want to get egged. (Laughs.)
That’s nice you’re hosting the reunion. What made you want to do that?
We couldn’t find a place in town to do this reunion. Everybody is looking at the bottom line and you need a deposit and all. There’s no deposit at my house. It’s just a barbecue. Casual, the whole class.
You like going to reunions?
This is my first one.
You never went to one high school reunion before?
What are you looking forward to the most about it?
Nothing. I guess just seeing where people are. What they’ve done with themselves.
They must know, a lot of them, that you own the Baskin-Robbins.
Some of them know that when I was a kid, I got hit with a Good Humor truck.
Wait. The ice cream man hit you?
When I was on Crystal Street, the Good Humor truck would come up and down the street. I loved it. I was fascinated by it. It would ding-ding-ding up and down the street. My grandma would give me money. One time I thought I would miss the guy, so I ran out and he hit me. It knocked me into a bush. It was going so slow, he didn’t hurt me. My grandma she comes out screaming. She was mad at me. (Laughing.)
So you get hit by the ice cream truck, and now-
-Here I am now. Ice cream shop owner.
How old were you?
I was 6, 7 years old. I was little.
So you think that left an impression of some kind on you way back then?
It’s funny, even the other day, someone said to me, ‘Didn’t you get hit by the ice cream truck?’
How did you come to own this Baskin-Robbins?
I used to work for the man who had it before, Steve.
Steve Timinsky. He owns Sweet Ashley’s in Norwalk. I worked for him in high school. My sister ended up working for him in high school, too, and she came home one day—I was working in corporate America at the time—and she said, ‘Guess what? Steve is looking to sell.’ I was done with corporate America at that point, ended up buying it from him.
You were done with corporate America. What were you working in at the time?
You a CPA?
No, I was a secretary. Administrative assistant.
What made you make the jump?
You know what, I wanted to own my own business, because the way I got treated at the office, I knew I would never want to treat my employees like that. I wanted to never talk down to them, I wanted to work with them. I wanted to be the best boss ever.
How are you doing at that?
I’m pretty good.
How do you know?
I’ve only fired two kids in 21 years. I’ve been to six weddings of people who have worked for me. I’ve seen their children born.
You know, when you got nominated for this series, the person who nominated you said something about how you are always smiling, like they knew you personally.
People see me here. I wash the sidewalk outside in the mornings, soap and water. People will honk as they pass or stop and talk early in the morning. Plus, I walk. Me and this girl. We walk all over town.
Baskin-Robbins is very much a part of New Canaan. It was the thing to do, like after a middle school band concert or the Cub Scouts Pine Wood Derby, to go there. Tell me something about Baskin-Robbins that I don’t know.
You know what 31 means?
I thought it was because of 31 flavors.
It means in a month that has 31 days, you can have a different flavor each day. We actually carry 34, 36 flavors. Some stores carry 46. People think there’s only 31 and just go on that assumption, but we have more.
What’s your favorite flavor?
Which is what.
Coffee ice cream with slivers of chocolate in it and chocolate-covered Rice Krispies.
What’s this town’s favorite?
Definitely Mint Chocolate Chip. Blows every flavor out of the water.
What’s the most unusual customer request you ever had?
Oh my god. (Thinks.) Well, we sell ice cream sandwiches that are called ‘chilly burgers’ and someone came in thinking it was hamburgers. They started saying, ‘Can I get it medium well?’ I’m like, ‘A chilly burger is an ice cream sandwich.'
In 21 years managing workers here, you must have heard some wackadoo excuses for people not coming in. What’s the most memorable excuse you had?
I don’t know, I’ve heard it all. It’s funny, one of the kids who used to work for me had parents who would ground them but would still make them come to work. That always struck me, that they came to work even though they were grounded.
When did you move down to this location?
It was in 2008.
What’s the biggest change that’s come to New Canaan in your 21 years in business?
It’s the disappearance of the mom-and-pop shops and now there's more corporate stores. It’s hard to explain. We’ve lost our foot traffic in New Canaan. Used to have a lot more. I’m a mom-and-pop shop, even though I’m a franchise person. I had to leave the space up the street because of the rent. I’ll tell you, this is one of the corporation’s best stores on the east coast, here in little New Canaan. I thank my customers for that. It’s been a lot of work. Seven days a week. I’m here early in the morning and we’re only closed two days a year.
Thanksgiving and Christmas.
So what sustains you in this job?
I love the people. I like it when I can make people happy, see the smile on their faces. I like what I can do. Remember Mikey Czech? (Points to a photo of the boy on the wall.) I used to drive to NYU once a month. For two years, bring three types of ice cream and a pizza. He was getting therapy and stuff done and I’d bring it for everyone.
You’ve been recognized for your charitable work.
By the New Canaan chamber last year. (Points to a framed certificate on the wall.) And I just got nominated for Philanthropist of the Year for Dunkin brands.
You mean the whole company, with Dunkin Donuts and Baskin-Robbins? Wow.
Just for doing charity work through town, helping organizations here. We’re the place everybody comes to for a donation.
So what’s your vision for this Baskin-Robbins? Do you have a whole plan mapped out where you have the shop for however many more years and then do something else?
Nope. My thing is to make sure that everybody has a great experience when you come in. This is a unique store, a totally different build-out from what we’re supposed to do. My vision is to have that, ‘Ah’ when you come in. You smell the candy, it looks like Willy Wonka’s factory. When I built it up on Elm, I had TCBY and Haagen-Dazs right there. We were serving frozen desserts too. So, it has to be about the experience of the stores. That’s what will help us survive, all of us.