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The Sweet Life

Business is booming at Mashti Malone's, where ice cream takes on the delicious and exotic flavors of its co-owners' native Iran

July 09, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sign catches your eye first. It stands near the corner of Sunset and La Brea in Hollywood, a giant black square with a scramble of ethnic elements that look like they were blown from the streets below by the winds: There is the delicate scrawl of Persian, some English, a bit o' the Irish. Mashti Malone's Ice Cream, it says. Atop the sign a big ice cream cone leans precariously against a giant clover.

It heralds an Iranian ice cream parlor, with flavors so exotic they sound like poetry, and ingredients that sound as if they must have been harvested from a Persian garden. The flavors, which cost $3.95 a pint, have names like Creamy Rosewater, Rosewater Saffron, Ginger Rosewater, Rosewater Sorbet and Orange Blossom. Then there is the Mashti, a $2 ice cream sandwich--a scoop of ice cream squished between two thin wafers, rolled in fresh pistachios.

The store belongs to two brothers, Mashti, 51, and Mehdi Shirvani, 37, who grew up Mashhad, a small town in northern Iran. "We are not Malones," says Mehdi, the lively younger brother, and salesman of the joint. "Do I look like a Malone?"

The multicultural name is merely a product of the layers of history that accumulate in mini-malls around this city, as owner after owner stamps his personality on the establishment, leaving an erratic record that will confound archeologists of the future when they try to piece together Los Angeles at the turn of the 21st century.

The soft-spoken Mashti, ice cream genius of the duo, bought the establishment in 1980. At the time, it was an ice cream store called Mugsy Malone. "I didn't have enough money to change it, so I just added Mashti," he said.

The brothers do happen to have a sister-in-law by the name of Malone, who lives in Cape Cod and is married to their older brother, Iraj. When Mashti bought the store, he told her they bought it for her, which made her laugh.

Indeed, the name is so outlandish that a group of filmmakers who were shooting in the mini-mall in 1983 and took a shine to Mashti wrote "The Legend of Mashti Malone," whose fanciful verses now grace the walls of the cheerful shop:

"Once in a time and a place little known,

lived an old farmer named Mashti Malone.

And though he worked his poor hands to the bone

Nothing would grow in his hands except stone ... "

The Shirvani family has been in the food and ice cream business for more than 70 years. Mashti has been making ice cream since he was a child. By ninth grade, he was running the family shop in Iran. In those days, they didn't even have old-fashioned ice cream makers. Men with iron bars beat the ingredients in barrels until the ice cream was perfect. "The people who were beating the ice cream had no necks," Mashti recalls. "Just a head and shoulders."

He came to the United States in 1978 to study electronics. He worked as a chef in various restaurants and even opened a restaurant of his own, but he had to return to ice cream, his first love.

"Ice cream is much better," Mashti says. "Ice cream is happy business."

Initially the store sold almost all of its ice cream wholesale, to more than 300 Persian and Armenian restaurants whose customers love the Rosewater flavors that reminded them of home. ("Rose water is the No. 1 dessert flavoring in the Middle East," said Mehdi, who joined his brother here in 1988. "It's just like vanilla here.")

But sometime in the late '90s, after an intense one-on-one marketing push to persuade every non-Iranian who walked into the ice cream store to try it, people in the neighborhood started catching on. "We didn't take the retail part of our business very seriously until we saw them react," said Medhi. "Everyone thinks of their grandmother's perfume, of soap, of air fresheners. Now we tell them, 'We know this is going to remind you of your grandmother's perfume....' Once they try it, they are hooked." Indeed, 60% of the shop's retail customers are non-Persian, up from 5% just three years ago.

Hollywood has been through ups and downs in the last two decades, and the Shirvanis weathered years when many small businesses went under. Today, Mashti Malone's, which is two doors down from the Lava Lounge, is a fixture in the neighborhood, satisfying locals who flock to the store on weekends. Over the years, the little shop has become a community center of sorts for immigrants missing the sweet tastes of home. The Shirvanis said Hollywood redevelopment has boosted business, which has never been better.

After the Food Channel did a segment on Mashti Malone in April, calls poured in from all over the country--Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Alabama--demanding shipments of the exotic flavors. The brothers have launched a Web site (www.mashti.com) and will mail the ice cream anywhere in the U.S.

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