IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR, that miserable period in which one’s only fantasies are of tearing off suffocating Windsor knots or itchy pantyhose, of trading both for a life spent carving snowfall from giant blocks of ice. Summer, in short.
In this way, Alexx Nanez is just like the rest of us, with the notable exception that he did trade his Windsor knot for snowfall. Just a year ago, Alexx led a fast-paced existence working in—what else, this is Houston—the oil and gas industry. Not only was he on call 24 hours a day, he was forced to spend long hours away from his family and endure a frustratingly long commute down the Southwest Freeway. This is par for the course for many Houstonians, whose workweeks amount to over 45 hours on average, plus three more spent in the car—figures that recently led Forbes magazine to call the Bayou City the third-hardest working in America (behind San Francisco and Washington, DC). Things changed for Alexx, however, once he began having visions of snowiness. That was in 2012, he explained, sitting with his wife Rhonda in the couple’s tidy living room on a tidy cul-de-sac in Richmond.
“On our second date—and I don’t know why she’s still here—I started telling her about this snow cone idea that I had,” laughed Alexx, who is 42. As it happens, Rhonda (“39, as of this interview,” she chuckled) has kind blue eyes, delicate hands that flutter when she talks, and a penchant for do-overs and second chances. Perhaps the only humans on record to have ever moved to Houston for the weather, Rhonda and her young daughter left behind a home in DC and a failed first marriage to start over here in 2012. Rhonda’s mother followed not long afterward, and soon three generations of women were busy making new lives for themselves as Rhonda got a plum job working in—what else, this is Houston—the oil and gas industry, as an assistant to a big-shot executive.
Thanks to a chance meeting in—what else, this is Houston—the oil and gas industry, Rhonda met Alexx, who was himself divorced with children. “She was actually the one who said, ‘go for it, you can do it,’” he recalled. “She was the first person I met who actually believed in my crazy story”—that is, to open a snow cone shop, or rather a shave ice trailer.
The two treats are similar blends of ice and syrup, although shave ice is made not with crushed ice, like a snow cone, but the snowy, splintered fragments produced by an ice plane. Alexx’s parents gave him just such a plane—a Gilchrist No. 78, to be exact—when he was 8 years old, and soon he was selling shave ice cones out of his family’s Rosenberg home for $1 apiece.
“That’s how we made our money to go to the movies, because allowance was unheard of then,” recalled Alexx, his eyes still in possession of a child’s twinkle on Christmas morning. Each day, he told us, lines of neighborhood kids would form outside the Nanez family front door for young Alexx’s finely shaved masterpieces, which he continued to turn out over the next seven years, until his parents asked him to get a better-paying job to help support the family. The Gilchrist No. 78 was put away for the next 20 years, patiently waiting for Alexx to meet Rhonda.
“We just took it step by solid step,” she told us, her hands forming tiny stair steps in the air. The pair saved up money for months for a Snowie 3000 Ice Shaver, which cost $3,000 but shaved ice both faster and finer than Alexx’s boyhood plane. “I can make a snow cone every three seconds,” he grinned. “You can just buzz through a line.”
Today, folks are still forming lines for his creations—albeit much longer ones—at Alexx’s shave ice trailer, Just Chill Out. Indeed they’ve been doing so ever since the Nanezes’ first gigs last year, at Katy Summerfest 2014 and a Porter High School fundraiser. From that day to this, Alexx and Rhonda have been hooked. In shave ice, they’ve found their calling, and a surprisingly lucrative one, thanks to generous profit margins and a minimal up-front investment. All that’s required is a shave ice machine or two, a trailer to put them in (Alexx bought a used one on Craigslist), some syrups (or the ingredients to make them) and—last but not least—the fortitude to do battle with Houston’s broiling heat and humidity.
Rhonda and Alexx possess all of these in spades, which is one reason why Alexx was able to quit his oil and gas job just three months into Just Chill Out’s existence. These days, the couple employs five shave ice teams with Snowie machines and trailers, mobile oases for heat-exhausted, festival-attending Houstonians, enticing them with flavors like the top-selling Tiger’s Blood or Rhonda’s favorite, Banana Yo’ Bizness. (“It’s a really subtle banana flavor,” she says, contemplatively). The work never ends—Houston’s shave ice season is 11 months out of 12—and yet Alexx spends more time with his family than ever. Alexx and Rhonda’s kids, nieces and nephews love shaving their days away, just as Alexx himself once did, and while he still pores over spreadsheets, now he does it with his wife.
Rhonda, meanwhile, hasn’t quit her own day job yet, but otherwise life only spins forward for the Nanezes, who are prepping to move into a new home to accommodate their growing business, and their growing family—their first child together is on its way. “The first half of our life was just practice,” said Rhonda, gently patting her stomach. Even the old Gilchrist No. 78 has found new life. As soon as it’s shadowboxed, she’s planning to display it prominently in their new home, a testament to do-overs and second chances, not to mention proof that there is indeed life after—what else, this is Houston—the oil and gas industry.