Food & Drink

The freeze is still cool – Merlino’s keeps summer heat at bay and tradition alive

Merlino's Freeze remains a tradition at Raley Field

Parents share love of Merlino's Freeze with their children at Sacramento River Cats' games.
Up Next
Parents share love of Merlino's Freeze with their children at Sacramento River Cats' games.

The Merlino’s orange freeze has managed to keep its cool.

For almost three-quarters of a century, the icy treat has remained a Sacramento summer staple in all its refreshing glory. Through bankruptcy, new owners, recipe changes and an increase in competition, the Merlino name still rings familiar to locals and tourists alike looking to tame the sweltering summer heat.

After the original locations shuttered in 2000, the Sacramento River Cats picked up the brand in 2008 and has since been offering the cold confection at every home game Raley Field, as well as at a handful of local businesses such as Mr. Pickle’s Sandwich Shop.

Merlino’s Freeze manager Corey Brannon said he “can’t keep enough made” during games when temperatures soar above 100 degrees. “In July, there’s no days off … The hotter it gets, the more we sell.”

Merlino’s Freeze first opened in 1946 in its humble orange-painted stand at 2790 Stockton Blvd. The business used a few gallons of orange juice a day for the classic freeze. A small freeze sold for less than a quarter.

These days, Brannon said that if the stadium is crowded, the business will use upward of 150 gallons of orange juice. A small sells for $6. That’s far fewer gallons (and a few extra dollars) then when Merlino’s was still a family-owned operation in the 1990s, but more than might be expected for a seasonal business.

“Now the tradition is, ‘We come to the baseball game and we get a Merlino’s, and we can’t wait for the season to start again so we can get our Merlino’s,’  ” said Karen Eckel, a Merlino’s Freeze employee who has been working for the company for nine years.

Merlino’s offers more flavors now to appeal to a wider customer base, Brannon said, including the option of a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But he still chalks up the freeze’s continued popularity in part to the “cult following” the icy icon has generated over the years.

Many of the treat’s most dedicated fans are older and remember their first orange freeze. Brannon said kids order their Dippin’ Dots, the parents make a beeline to Merlino’s.

But on a recent Friday home game, some of Merlino’s youngest patrons were about to get their first taste of the Sacramento tradition.

Teresa Doe, a Sacramento native, bought a strawberry and lemon freeze for her daughter, Bailey, 3, to try for the first time. “I’m getting it for my daughter and my husband, but looking at it , it’s like, ‘Oh my god, I forgot how good it looks,’ ” she said. “I haven’t had Merlino’s since I was a little kid, since they used to be on El Camino and Walnut.”

That location used to be home to a full-time, fast-food Merlino’s that opened in 1965 but closed in 2000 during the bankruptcy reorganization. After a couple years, the property was bought by Temme and Toy Hagen, two former employees of Merlino’s who met while working together.

Now they run Hagen’s Original Orange Freeze, creating the similar orange freeze “exactly” as they did as teenagers. A story by The Sacramento Bee in 1992 reported the “cold, hard facts” of what gave the treat its distinctive taste: fresh-squeezed orange juice, plain Carmichael tap water, and “just a spoonful or two of sugar,” slowly frozen into “a state of shimmering bliss.”

Temme Hagen is tight-lipped about today’s recipe details. “If you’re going to tell everybody how you make it, everybody’s going to be making it,” he said. But those with a sensitive taste palette and a long memory will detect the difference between the freeze at the ballpark and the freeze at Hagen’s.

Merlino’s doesn’t use any fresh fruit save for the watermelon flavor, Eckel said, opting to use orange juice, filtered water and “a lot more sugar in the recipe than people think.”

“Others make it with this,” Temme Hagen said pointing to his temple. He pointed to his heart: “We make it with this.”

Taco Bell and Dairy Queen are just a few of the places in Sacramento that have developed “freezes” over the years, Hagen said, but people still come looking for the original taste.

“Somebody will come in and say, ‘You know what, my grandfather used to bring me in all the time’ and, of course, in the tone of their voice you can hear grandpa’s gone,” Temme Hagen said. “They can still remember coming in with grandpa, and it’s huge to have them come in.”

Even though they don’t serve their freeze with the classic Merlino’s name, Temme Hagen must catch himself when the name slips out as he’s serving at the counter. For many getting a scoop at Raley Field, the name of the freeze alone is enough to be transported back in time.

Taking a bite out of an orange freeze “with a little pineapple,” Elk Grove resident Mike Johnson remembered the first time he visited Merlino’s, 15 years ago when he was in law school. A friend had asked him to go to lunch with him, and though he had class, Johnson went anyway.

“They took attendance that day and we got in trouble, but it was worth it,” Johnson said.

And according to Eckel, the freeze isn’t just worth it, it’s possibly life-saving. Last year, a customer told a Merlino’s employee that at the California State Fair the year before, he was in the middle of a heat stroke with medics on the way when someone handed him a Merlino’s freeze.

“By the time the EMTs got there, he was fine,” Eckel said.

Grace Cook presses down on a scoop of Merlino's orange freeze during a Sacramento River Cats game at Raley Field. Gavin McIntyre

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks: 916-321-1418, @ayoonhendricks