Opinion: Give Toll Gate a New History, Deserving of its Old One

If you know anything about me, you know I’m an extremely opinionated person. I have opinions on pretty much everything, but like everyone, some are louder than others. Some are kept quiet even if I think they should be loud. This is not one of those times. Things that matter to me are where I get the loudest. That’s me right now, and I’m not about to mince words.

Here I’m going to talk about Toll Gate. It was dropped in the Times Union Saturday that the landmark ice cream shop, which ceased business this month in 2017 after the owner–Rob Zautner–fell ill, is on the cusp of a renaissance. To me, Toll Gate isn’t just a story in a newspaper or a place where I fondly got cones as a kid after school concerts and plays.

Toll Gate was my first job. I started in the summer before my junior year of high school. It was where I worked for 10 years… I worked the last shift, or the penultimate one before those doors closed. I even jokingly take credit for getting Rob to get himself to the hospital. Toll Gate isn’t just my first job, or even my longest job (which it is). Toll Gate is where I’ve met and made some of my closest friends, and the ones who aren’t part of my intimate circle are still part of my wider circle. I care about each and every one of them. Toll Gate is where I’ve done some of the stupidest things, it’s where I have some of the best (and weirdest) stories. It’s where I’ve clutched my stomach from laughing so hard, had cash thrown at my face by angry customers, and where I fondly remember regulars and their usual orders. It’s where I gave the appliances names so I had something to curse at when it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to. John, the milkshake machine, was on the receiving end of my cursing. The place has literally seen my blood, sweat, and tears. 

Toll Gate is a place I’ve (accidentally) referred to as “home.” It’s more than just a local landmark to me. It was and still is the best job I’ve ever had. So you can imagine how elated I felt when one of those Toll Gate-fostered friends slipped me this news about a week before it made the TU. It’s hard to keep a secret like that, if even for a week. When a place like that, so pregnant with history, and memories, and recollections of first (and last) dates, means so much to so many…I’m glad I didn’t have to keep that secret for long.

However, when I saw the renderings, I deflated a little lot. There are pieces I can fully appreciate of the business plans. I love that the plan includes still making ice cream in the basement, and using the original recipes with our good man Rob at the consulting helm. Damn right you will use those recipes. No chocolate will ever compare to the magic that was the Toll Gate chocolate. I like the idea of keeping the old building intact and just giving it a facelift and preserving its history, and I support making the lot in the back of the new location complete with the much-deserved patio seating. But I absolutely abhor the design of the new building. When I see that design, all I think of is Stewart’s. I think of the chain store Toll Gate rivaled for decades. It makes me think that turning it into a Stewarts is the developer’s endgame. This (probably) isn’t true, but that is the association I make. 

I look at the proposed facade, and I feel my stomach lurch. What is this absolutely banal, cookie-cutter, belongs-in-a-retirement-community unremarkable shitbox of a design? A little harsh, sure, but sometimes we artists need to hear the harsh truth about our works to put us on the right track. Are you listening, P4 Architecture? This sails far beyond the structural integrity of a building. This is a place that needs passion. It needs TLC. It needs you to activate the rest of the creative brain cells that you may have not used since college. As someone who worked there for a third of my life, as someone who redesigned the menus and started and ran the Facebook & Instagram until really recently, I’m gonna need you at P4 to take a second, or third, or hundredth look at your blueprints and say, “hm, maybe Elissa is right.”

Source: Toll Gate Ice Cream

It’s ok, P4. You didn’t work there. You don’t understand the love we have for the place. You didn’t slam your fingers in the cooler door, or the dread of a hand-packed quart of PBJ. You didn’t hear the hundreds of customers over the years walk in, and with a nostalgic sigh exclaim, “this place hasn’t changed at all.” You didn’t get to meet all the old employees and customers who came in and offered their stories; the histories remembered by the old, cigarette smoke-stained walls and cracked linoleum floors. You didn’t repeatedly have to say, “yes, that payphone actually works.” By keeping the old building intact, you are preserving its past—-from the day it opened on July 3, 1949, to the day its doors closed in the last week of January 2017. 

That said, keeping its past intact, which it should be, does nothing for its future. It seems you want the Toll Gate legacy to continue, and I’m not saying you need to build a full-scale replica. God no. That’d be awful too. I’m not that much of a purist. I’m hella glad you’re gonna tidy up and clean up the original. But I actually give a shit here, and so I’m blatantly critical of your C-grade design ideas. P4, you’re going to need something a little less glossed-over gated community general store and something that carries a little more effort. Something that radiates a smidge more chutzpah. Give it something unique, give it character and charm to withstand another 70 years. In 30 or 40 years I want to walk in, release a nostalgic sigh, and say “this place hasn’t changed at all since it was rebuilt.”

Look, I know everything I’ve said is mean. I really do. But I’m not doing it to be mean, I’m doing it so you can see how much love the Toll Gate family has poured into that place, and how much love the community has poured into the place. And sometimes the only way to communicate that, at least if you’re me, is through some sass and snark and free of sugar coating. And I would hope that, as a local architecture firm, you want to see the place be reborn into something nouveau and beautiful and memorable. Read between the lines. Let’s give it something with spunk. 

Pretty please, with sprinkles and a cherry on top. 

  1. Mike DeAngelis says

    Right on the mark! At the very least, keep the front of the building/sign intact. What great memories. Bring back “THE DONUT DELIGHT”. Great job on the story

  2. Charlie Redmond says

    I hear what you’re saying and yes I’m a TG kid too, though I never worked there, just had many a burger, cone and hot chocolate as a kid growing up in Delmar. But it would be helpful to see a link or some pics of the new plans – the “banal, cookie-cutter, belongs-in-a-retirement-community unremarkable shitbox of a design” before I join you in a stomach lurch.

  3. Dennis G Radliff says

    What you said is mean but you did not intend it to be mean ??? If you did not intend it you should not have sais it that way.

    That being said I agree with you!

  4. Craig R. Waltz Jr. says

    I agree with you completely. I was ecstatic to hear that the place I loved and feared was gone forever was actually going to re-open…but when I saw the proposed design for the new building my immediate, visceral reaction was “What soul-less drone dragged the Stewart’s/CVS clip-art out of the template file and sold the owners on this flavorless piece of goods?” My sincere hope is that they will listen to public feedback and not only go back to the drawing board (and preferably set fire to the old drawing board) but engage actual creativity in the revised design.

  5. Glen Grossman says


  6. Barbara Vink says

    New design looks like Friendly Ice Cream stores. Now dead. The original TG design is so unique and so belovved it should not change! Does this also mean gutting those gorgeous old booths? Can’t bear it. They will be demolishing the priceless memories of so many patrons and the demeanor of the neighborhood. Please consider this again. Long live Toll Gate chocolate.

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