Here’s the scoop on Pittsburgh’s oldest ice cream parlor

Because July is National Ice Cream month, we thought it was only fitting to feature Pittsburgh’s oldest, most beloved ice cream shop, Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor. This Pittsburgh favorite has been scooping up sweet treats in the Strip District since 1923.

📜 Serving sweet treats since 1923

The original Klavon’s Pharmacy (📸: Photo courtesy of Jacob Hanchar)

Going way back to the start of the building, Mary Schenley (yes, like Schenley park) built the building in 1885 as her office. When the wealthy philanthropist died in 1903, the building fell into her trust. 

James Klavon, the original owner of Klavon’s, purchased the building from the trust after he graduated from University of Pittsburgh’s pharmacology program. James and his wife, Mary, opened Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor in 1923 as both a neighborhood apothecary shop and soda fountain. James worked as the pharmacist, providing prescriptions and medical aid, while Mary worked the soda fountain and gave out penny candy. The pair worked every day except Sundays. 

To this day, Klavon’s is known for their old-timey look. With the tin ceiling, Coke cap bar stools, original marble countertops, and famous wooden phone booths, the shop is still reminiscent of  the day it opened in 1923. 

The Klavon’s shop was a neighborhood favorite and even had a run-in with the law in 1933. During prohibition, James bootlegged for a time, resulting in a police raid at the shop. According to Ray Klavon Jr. in an older article by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, James was selling quite a bit of cough syrup. When the police came to investigate, James claimed the soot and smoke from the industrial business affected the community’s lungs. And that was the end of that conversation. 

Another notable story and landmark of the shop is how the water line above the phone booth marks the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936. As the story goes, James and Mary’s only child, Raymond, went into the shop early that day to move stock and equipment from the basement to the first floor in preparation for the spring thaw with the help of his cousin. It was common to get about a foot of water in basements once the spring thaw set in. That year in particular it flooded with much more water and much quicker than normal. The flooding drove Raymond and his cousin to the first floor, specifically on top of the phone booth. The two crawled through the window as a rowboat came by, ultimately saving their lives. Meanwhile, James was stranded on the top floor at the time of the flooding, forced to wait until it slowed. 

The flood mark is now decorated and remembered with this cutesy mural (📸: Zoey Angelucci)

Raymond grew up in the Strip and married the girl next door. He became a doctor and often saw many patients at the shop. The pair had eight children and eventually moved to Bloomfield where Ray opened a medical practice. The children would often visit their grandparents and the ice cream shop for days at a time, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In 1979, Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor shut its doors. James had passed away in January of that year. Between his death and the collapsing steel industry, the best business option was to close the shop.

In 1999, the oldest Klavon grandchild, Ray Jr., decided to reopen the shop after he retired from teaching art in Mount Oliver. With the help of family members, they transformed the shop back into a full-serviced ice cream parlor. 

“When he (Ray Jr.) reopened the place, it was like a time capsule,” Jacob Hanchar, present day Klavon’s owner, said. “There were still cups just sitting on the table and stuff like that… He did not renovate it. He just basically cleaned it up and polished it a bit.” 

In 2013, Ray Jr. died of lung cancer, forcing the ice cream parlor to close its doors, yet again, and seek potential buyers. 

🍦 The ice cream legacy

Rick Sebak enjoying his vanilla ice cream cone (📸: Zoey Angelucci)

Every Pittsburgher seems to have a story about this Pittsburgh treasure, including WQED producer and Pittsburgh icon Rick Sebak. Back in 1996, Rick and WQED did a documentary featuring the Stip District called “The Strip Show.” Ray Klavon, prior to his reopening, insisted on showing off the family shop, despite it being boarded up. Once Ray reopened the shop in 1999, he called Rick back to feature the reopened parlor on the Extras segment of “The Strip Show,” which you can watch in this WQED documentary

As a lifetime friend of the business, one of Rick’s favorite memories and stories of Klavon’s actually didn’t even happen in the parlor. In 2018, Rick fell and ruptured his quadricep tendon. He was in the hospital for seven weeks. Jacob Hanchar, current day owner, brought Rick two banana splits to help sweeten things up in the hospital.

Like Rick and most other Pittsburghers, I’ve been going to Klavon’s ever since I was young. Around the age of 13, I started taking pointe ballet classes. My family and I would make trips down to The Dancer’s Pointe dance apparel shop right next to Klavon’s to buy pointe shoes. We discovered this ice cream treasure and stopped after every trip. I remember hearing about the flood and different stories from Ray in his last few years at the shop.

My sister, Audrey, and I enjoying our sweet treats at Klavon’s around 2011 (📸: Zoey Angelucci)

As two Klavon’s fans, Rick and I met up at Klavon’s to share our favorite flavors, vanilla for him and mint chocolate chip for me. We chatted for quite a while and talked about the beauty of the shop. 

“I think primarily just that time capsule feel [makes it so special],” Rick told me. “The fact that you walk in here and you’re in a different era. And they have not changed a thing.” 

🍨 Today’s scoop

The neon sign outside of Klavon’s was an addition made by Ray Jr. (📸: Photo courtesy of Jacob Hanchar)

In 2011, as Ray Jr. was still running the shop, Jacob Hanchar, his wife Desiree, and their two children (at the time) discovered Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor and fell in love with it. 

Two years later, the couple heard of the closure and knew they had to preserve the Pittsburgh treasure. Desiree had been interested in a kid-friendly business because she was concerned she was going to be a stay-at-home mom with nothing to do. Now, the Hanchars have six children, so they’ve got their hands full with sticky fingers, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Jacob Hanchar was born in Johnstown and grew up in Ebensburg. He did his undergraduate in biology at Penn State University, then got a degree from UCLA in neuroscience. Eventually, he came back to Pittsburgh to get his MBA from Carnegie Mellon, which is when he was introduced to Klavon’s.

The Hanchars bought the store in 2013 and put in a management team. They started serving Penn State ice cream, which has a fanatic following locally and throughout the state. 

“So there is a legend that you can only get Penn State ice cream if you’re in Penn State,” Jacob said. “That’s not true. You can. You just have to go pick it up by the pallet; have a forklift, put it in a refrigerated truck then bring it down. After a while, that became extremely price prohibitive. So we just started making our own. We got certified for food production. We’ve been making our own ice cream now since 2015.”  

The Hanchars have done their best to keep the originality of the place. When they bought it, there was a developer who planned to gut the whole thing. Jacob recognized the shop as a Pittsburgh treasure and immediately knew that wasn’t an option. For their takeover, they added a new coat of paint and that was that.

Recently, Klavon’s received national media attention for paying its workers $15 an hour in order to deal with staffing shortages after the pandemic. In response, they received tons of applications and great worker morale. Jacob’s thought process behind this was to find a solution for staffing shortages but also to combat the low minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The market, meaning most restaurants, are already paying their employees $12-$13 an hour. 

Klavon’s staff member serving Rick his ice cream (📸: Zoey Angelucci)

“What I would say to lawmakers is we need to be done with this once and for all,” said Jacob. “I hate having to revisit it every 10 years. So what they should’ve done when it was $7.25, back almost 15 years ago, is tie it to the Consumer Price Index. That way it would keep up with inflation.”

The Hanchars are doing their best to keep the Klavon’s legacy. They plan to continue expanding the Klavon’s brand, possibly by licensing it nationally for what’s called a white label (That way they can have a Klavon’s brand ice cream distributor). Jacob explained that is the logical next step for the brand. Franchising is an option, but he doesn’t find that idea appealing because the shop is so unique. They can’t open five shops like it or it would dilute the history. 

“I see Klavon’s as a public good,” said Jacob. “To me, it’s not about trying to make money because there really isn’t that much money in ice cream. It’s about having people go to a spot for memories and remember bits and pieces of the past because most places have been destroyed.”