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Cold war

For two Newton ice cream vendors, closeness is no comfort

In the world of ice cream, this is war.

Cold Stone Creamery, the ice cream retail giant, is slated to open next week in Newton Centre, challenging J.P. Licks, which sits just 50 steps away.

Cold Stone's entry violates an unwritten rule in the ice cream business -- that stores will try not to compete directly with one another -- and it has other local owners watching to see how New England customers who cherish loyalty and fight for the little guy respond to the head-to-head matchup.

''Cold Stone Creamery is a whole different concept than J.P. Licks," said Lynda Utterback, publisher of the National Dipper, an ice cream trade magazine based outside of Chicago. ''It will be interesting to see what happens."

J.P. Licks is satisfied catering to locals, with a jovial but understated style and an emphasis on creating its own flavors. Cold Stone has a staff that sings to customers and serves up a cream that goes heavy on the toppings.

''It's like Stepford ice cream," Vince Petryk, the owner of J.P. Licks, said of his new competition. ''It's pretty, it's slick, but there's not much substance to it. Homemade ice cream, when it's done right, is about substance, your memories from childhood, your family. The world gets blander if everywhere you go, you can get Cold Stone Creamery.

''If I didn't own J.P. Licks," he added, ''I would be saying the same thing."

Donald and Susan Sutherland opened the first Cold Stone Creamery in Tempe, Ariz., in 1988 -- seven years after Petryk opened the first J.P. Licks in Jamaica Plain. Cold Stone Creamery opened its 1,000th store last month in Columbus, Ohio. J.P. Licks opened its eighth store last week in Mission Hill.

Issam Krieche, who owns the new Newton franchise of Cold Stone Creamery, said that before settling on Newton Centre, he looked at locations in Boston, Wellesley, Waltham, Framingham, and Marlborough. This is the first business Krieche, a software engineer who lives in Marlborough, has owned, but he says he ''is thrilled to be a part of Newton Centre."

When asked if he was targeting J.P. Licks directly, he said, ''Competition breeds excellence, and I think we are going to do well."

''J.P. has good ice cream," Krieche added. ''But by far, Cold Stone is the best. It's the ultimate ice cream experience. We sing for tips; you watch us mixing the ice cream. When you come, everybody is happy. It's not just the ice cream; it's the whole climate."

Krieche who began and ended the interview by saying ''Remember, it's a great day for ice cream!" --had planned a massive opening for Sunday that included Mayor David B. Cohen in a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and some proceeds going to the Newton public schools' PTO Council.

But the store has been plagued by construction delays -- it was originally supposed to open last weekend -- and it now is slated to open sometime next week.

A grand opening celebration will take place after the Fourth of July weekend, but no date has been set. And it is unclear whether Cohen's schedule will permit him to attend.

''It's funny. Mayor [Thomas] Menino in Boston kind of likes the fact that we're a local business and tries to support us," Petryk said. ''So I find it somewhat disappointing that the mayor of Newton is supporting a national chain."

When J.P. Licks came to Newton in July 1997, then-mayor Thomas B. Concannon did not attend the ceremony, Petryk said. But Menino was at the store's grand opening of a franchise last week in Mission Hill.

The Newton store is Cold Stone's 10th in Massachusetts, but none of the others is so close to another ice cream parlor.

''Everybody is watching it," said Gus Rancatore, the owner of Toscanini's Ice Cream in Cambridge. ''I sometimes think this is this year's Krispy Kreme. They come in, have high sales initially, but I'm not sure if they have any durable appeal."

Rancatore said his bet is on J.P. Licks, in part because New Englanders tend to be loyal to locals. There are few pizza chains, for example, and no doughnut chains have been able to break the grip of Dunkin' Donuts.

''Quite honestly, they're going to have two things going for them," Petryk said. ''First, they're new. Second, they're going to have more seats."

The J.P. Licks in Newton Centre has only six stools, while the Cold Stone Creamery has 12 seats total, inside and outside. Both stores will be open seven days a week.

Ice cream stores frequently come in clusters. Harvard Square at one point had five stores, and store owners say this is not always a bad thing, because it piques the palate, and the competition could actually end up increasing the total number of ice cream eaters.

But in New England, where ice cream season typically is only eight months long, ''generally ice cream stores don't open up next to each other," said Utterback, who monitors ice cream trends nationwide for her trade magazine. ''I have not seen two stores being that close -- ever. I am surprised that is happening."

Still, this is not the first time J.P. Licks has faced competition. Last year at about this time, another local ice cream store, Emack and Bolio's, opened just blocks from the J.P. Licks flagship store on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain. But because that competition was between two independent-minded, anticorporate entities, there was a lightheartedness to it.

''I don't like the whole war thing," Adam Goldberg, owner of Emack and Bolio's, told the Globe just after opening his store. ''Call us hippies if you want; we're pretty mellow." With Cold Stone, the mentality has been different, in part because it is a chain whose stores all look the same.

Cold Stone specializes in an ice cream style in which ice cream is mixed on a frozen stone slab with candy, nuts, and other mix-ins. It is a concept popularized in the 1970s by Steve Herrell at Steve's Ice Cream in Somerville.

Scoops at Cold Stone are more elaborate, with flavors like birthday cake remix (cake batter ice cream, rainbow sprinkles, brownie, and fudge) and berry berry berry good (sweet cream ice cream and berries).

J.P. Lick's has flavors like cake batter, maple butter walnut, and cherry Francona (cherry ice cream, chocolate chips, and chunks of cherries).

''If you want candy, people should go to Cold Stone," Petryk said. ''If you want ice cream, you should go to J.P. Licks."

When told of the comment, Krieche said in response, ''Everybody knows that Cold Stone is the number one ice cream in the world."

Six months ago, J.P. Licks started offering mix-ins, but only if customers ask for them.

''I don't think that's the best way to eat ice cream, but if one out of four people in the family needs the nut or the candy mixed in, we'll do that," Petryk said.

''I don't want to give a regular customer of mine any reason not to come in."

''It seems like if there's one constant in Newton Centre, it's that there's always ice cream stores closing and opening," said Charles Eisenberg, chairman of the city's Economic Development Commission.

''I'm absolutely not surprised by this, not in the slightest. There's a lot of ice cream consumed in Newton," he said.

''People are very, very serious about their ice cream experience," Utterback said. ''It's not something they take lightly. It's a tradition. It's an American dessert, and it includes a whole experience."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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