Did This Bougie California Beach City Actually Once Ban Ice Cream?

Ice cream and idyllic seaside towns go hand in hand, so it's difficult to believe stories about the California beach community that once banned ice cream. Let's dig in to get the real scoop. 

Reports of the frozen confection embargo stem from a 1980s planning division decision. According to a 2022 report in Monterey County Now, it all began when the planning division for the city of Carmel, California declined to grant a permit to an applicant who wanted to open an ice cream window. While the 1985 decision was legally sound, the applicant took issue with the board's reasoning — especially their decision to cite an obscure regulation stating that all take-out food in the city of Carmel must be delivered in secure packaging with a cover. A take-out ice cream cone in a box? C'mon now.

The petitioner also questioned the planning division's claim that an ice cream shop — going into space previously occupied for 15 years by Swensen's Ice Cream and Orange Julius — would violate a city-wide ordinance by using more water than the business it was replacing. The applicant wasn't buying it. Instead, he went to the media, telling The Los Angeles Times the planning division's ruling based on water usage was "absolutely a total red herring" and scoffing at the board's alleged out-of-bounds reach to apply rules established for take-out food to single ice cream cone orders fulfilled through a take-out window.

To cone or not to cone?

Here's the catch: While applying the take-out ordinance to ice cream cones may have been a stretch — especially since other places were already selling ice cream cones — the rule itself was well established, the result of a decades-long battle between preservations hellbent on maintaining Carmel's charm and local business owners intent on catering to the city's growing tourism. As reported in The Los Angeles Times, city planners maintained the rule, and its application to the proposed ice cream window, was all part of an initiative to protect Carmel's dignity and neatness. The report also cited a privately published tourism brochure that warned — in all capital letters — "Eating on the street is strongly discouraged."

When news of the planning division's decision got out, other media outlets jumped on board, naming Carmel "Scrooge City" for its anti-ice cream cone stance. Even mayoral candidate Clint Eastwood (yes, that Clint Eastwood) got in on the action, running on a pro-ice cream cone platform. And when Eastwood was elected in 1986, one of his first official acts was to set the record straight on rules relating to take-out ice cream. Ultimately, the Carmel City Council passed a resolution to clarify language in the take-out food ordinance and create an exception for businesses that "primarily serve frozen desserts."

"There never really was a ban on ice cream," Carmel Mayor Dave Potter told Monterey Now in 2022. "It was a ban on [unpackaged] take-out food, but ice cream became the stalking horse for the whole thing."