New owners plan to keep The Vanilla Moose intact
AZTEC — For 15 years, owner Pam Shenton ran this town's ice cream parlor, The Vanilla Moose, but as time passed, she wondered who might carry on the spirit of a place that's known as much for its moose cake as it is for being one of the only after-dark hangout spots.
Shenton, who, at the age of 63 was looking to retire, found worthy heirs in Ryan and Nicole Lane, she said. Last month, the Aztec couple took over operations at the popular roadside ice cream stand.
"They are so great, and their kids are a part of it, too," she said. "It's definitely been a generational thing, not just for them but for the community."
Shenton said stepping back from the ice cream business wasn't easy, mostly because, through the years, the enterprise has been fun. Her time was filled with laughter, and making friends went along with making frozen treats.
"As far as The Moose goes, it's more the experience than the ice cream," she said. "The ice cream's great, of course, but it's the people who make it special."
The Lanes grew up in Aztec and have fond memories as kids of cooling off on hot summer days sitting on picnic tables out front, a shady oasis that draws families, passersby, tourists or carloads of teens looking for a cool-down spot after a ball game or practice, they said.
The Lanes met in high school and married. Ryan Lane is a third-generation "Aztecian" and considers himself a “small town kid at heart."
Shenton said the Lanes embody the kind of community spirit and small town values so important to her and her mother, Annie Barnes, who founded the ice cream spot in 1983.
The parlor's slogan phrase — "spoiling dinners since 1983" — is a nod to Shenton's desire to delight kids and crack up their parents with every visit, she said.
"The fact that it's an Aztec community institution is important to us," Ryan Lane said. "It's a way to still serve to still serve the community that's still enjoyable. Whatever's going on in life, ice cream's that common moment."
And they want to help their sons — Claudio, 13, and Evan, 10 — develop a good work ethic, he said.
"Another part of this was to get our boys involved in business, to teach them hard work, responsibility, how to run a business," Ryan Lane said.
The couple's parents also are chipping in, as was, until last week, Shenton, who wrapped up her run at the ice cream parlor the same way she started, with lots of laughter and fun, she said.
Shenton said that for years she decorated the parlor walls, from floor to ceiling, with stuffed animals, photos and plenty of moose images.
"It's just a quirky, goofy little place," she said, laughing. "I could be as goony as I want to be with all my stuffed animals. It just adds to it. It's a good thing I'm old now because I could never work for anyone else."
Shenton said her mom started the ice cream spot by asking a simple question: "What does this town not have?"
Originally called the Ice Cream Machine, Shenton's mom ran a contest to rename the business and the Vanilla Moose was born.
"I like telling kids this one, that I was out sweeping the driveway one early morning and I heard the 'clip-clop' of the sacred albino moose of New Mexico," she said. "I love telling little children that story."
The business sells classic soft serve and frozen treats topped with New Mexico chiles or fresh picked fruit, but it may be its curb appeal as a backyard-style hangout for the community that helps it endure, Nicole Lane said.
"The biggest draw for me is the community involvement," she said. "I love that people can come here, get some ice cream and sit with others for hours. It's one of the only places you can do that in Aztec."
They also employ nine part-time workers to keep up with demand, she said.
"It's something that we learned pretty quickly, to make sure we're adequately staffed, especially in the evenings," Lane said.
The ice cream spot has ample patio space on the building's west side and in back, but many people, some who have been customers for years, might not be able to claim they've ever seen it, Shenton said. The bucolic back patio shaded by towering cottonwood trees has been the site of two weddings and countless baby showers, she said, but, to her, it's a quiet place with a water fountain and flowers that offers her guests tranquil downtime to go with a shake or soft serve.
The Lanes said they are striking a balance running an ice cream spot while keeping up their other commitments.
In 2013, the couple started the Matthew Bardwell Memorial Scholarship Fund in honor of an Aztec classmate who lost his battle with cancer. The nonprofit provides scholarships for graduating Aztec High students.
Nicole Lane is an educator in Aztec schools and Ryan Lane works by day as Bloomfield's city attorney. He also runs his private practice on Main Avenue in downtown Aztec. And he coaches baseball for the Aztec Youth Baseball League and is the assistant coach for the Aztec Tigers varsity team.
While the majority of each week is devoted to his legal clients' business law, personal injury or estate planning cases, Ryan Lane said he manages to come by most nights and on weekends to help serve up frozen treats behind the counter with his family. But because Nicole Lane runs the parlor most of the time, he said her sundae and shake construction skills far exceed his own.
"She does refer to me as her worst employee," he said while making a pair of mint chocolate chip shakes as she checked his work. "You should see my employee file."
The couple said they plan no significant changes to the place.
"We grew up as kids coming here and know what that experience is like, and had that experience of wanting to take our own kids here," he said. "So we want to leave that intact. We don't plan any major radical changes."
The Lanes said they plan to keep the place as it has been — down to the creamy yellow paint and secret recipe ice cream.
The couple will introduce a few subtle tweaks, however.
The ice cream spot and its drive-up window will stay open an hour later until 10 p.m.
Nicole Lane said the parlor's array of ice cream floats now include new flavors — retro key lime cream, orange cream and grape courtesy of Zuberfizz sodas, made an hour's drive north of town by the Durango Soda Co.
During her reign as the county seat's best known ice cream lady, Shenton offered dogs free helpings of soft serve. Babies get free mini cones, too.
Lane said the ice cream spot's tradition of offering free soft serve cones to babies and canines continues.
At times, dogs nearly outnumber the people cooling off in the shop's outside patio areas, she said.
For years, Layla, Shenton's adopted shelter dog, roamed the ice cream shop freely, a walking, wagging advertisement for the complimentary doggie cones at the parlor.
"You know Pavlov's Dog, there's a reason for that. I see it all the time," Ryan Lane said. "The dogs get so excited when they see The Moose. They know it's coming."
Aztec varsity softball players Avery Adair, 14, and Autumn Peterson, 15, came by after early morning summer league softball practice at Tiger Park.
Baren, Avery's five-month-old French bulldog, sat in her lap vigorously lapping up his first vanilla soft serve cone.
"The ice cream's good. It's amazing," Peterson said.
The two said the ice cream parlor is often the last destination before home after a softball practice. Like the Lanes, the two friends said they consider the ice cream spot a central part of their lives and will support it well into the future.
"I want to share what I grew up doing and that includes this," Adair said. "I think it's made a big impact on town. It has with us and our friends."
Shenton said to honor the changing of the guard, Judge Carla Dial, a friend of Shenton's, has agreed to perform an adoption ceremony for the new owners.
The most important part of the business sale agreement was a particular clause, she said.
"Free ice cream for life. It's in the contract," she said. "What good is a contract without free ice cream for life?"
James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.
What: The Vanilla Moose
Where: 1721 W. Aztec Blvd. in Aztec
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week