Tony Chanthavong of Snoh Ice Shavery on Gratitude and Renewing Creativity | Phoenix New Times

Tony Chanthavong of Snoh Ice Shavery on Gratitude and Renewing Creativity

An interest in visual art led Tony Chanthavong first to a career in radiology, and now to ice shaving. Seems unlikely, but it's hard to argue with the success of Snoh, one of the Valley's most popular dessert destinations.  Founded and operated by owner Chanthavong, Snoh offers a variety of...
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An interest in visual art led Tony Chanthavong first to a career in radiology, and now to ice shaving. Seems unlikely, but it's hard to argue with the success of Snoh, one of the Valley's most popular dessert destinations. 

Founded and operated by owner Chanthavong, Snoh offers a variety of Asian sweet treats in an entertaining environment that has attracted throngs of excited patrons for nearly three years. Chanthavong moved to north Phoenix more than a decade ago, and hit the ground developing relationships with people across town, specifically in the local hip-hop scene. He had always loved hip-hop and graffiti art, and says he spent a lot of time at the Blunt Club in his early years in town. The friendships he built later became invaluable to the knock-out popularity of Snoh. "I spent a good time building a social network," Chanthavong says. "I knew nobody."

Being a pro ice shaver was not Chanthavong's first career. Coming from the San Gabriel Valley in east Los Angeles, Chanthavong first worked as a radiologist. "I've always been a visual person. I love the arts," he says. He liked the visual aspect of taking and reading radiographs, and it's that affinity for visuals that comes through in aesthetics of Snoh and its products. 

Chanthavong explains that when shaved ice arrived in the U.S. from Taiwan in 2010, it became wildly popular in the Asian community in Los Angeles. He credits Taiwanese restaurant Class 302 as introducing it to diners. After witnessing its success, Chanthavong knew shaved ice could take off in Phoenix, too.

"It was a hot day in Phoenix, and there was this new dessert that came up in L.A. that was blowing up — it's 120 degrees in Phoenix, and I knew people would love it," he says. In 2012, Chanthavong began to look into what it would take to open his own shop locally. 

After realizing it wouldn't cost as much as he thought it would, he began to move forward in developing plans for Snoh. After quitting his radiology job, Chanthavong took an entire year to work on realizing his business. "Some places take three months to open," he says, "but it took us a year." Dealing with city permits and contractors took time, and he says he didn't have much of a budget to work with either. There is pride in his voice as he says this, and it's clear that Chanthavong is proud of having built Snoh himself and with his two business partners. 

The network Chanthavong spent time building over his early years helped jump start Snoh, he says, as he leaned on his friends and acquaintances to join him at the shavery during its early days. "I trusted on my social network. I owe [my success] to my local community." But when Snoh finally opened, Chanthavong felt compelled to hit the streets once again to build up his constituency in the city. 

"I started going out to festivals like Matsuri and pass out cards and show people pictures on my phone," Chanthavong says. He would go to every festival possible, and made a heavy hustle his modus operandi. He spends a good amount of time updating Snoh's social media in order to spread the word, too. "I still post to Snoh's Instagram account once a day," he says. "I don't spam it, but it's worth it. We never paid for marketing."

When Snoh finally took off, Chanthavong says the feeling was one of happy disbelief. "I can't believe this is happening ... I'm bringing Asian food to Phoenix where there's a lack. The day we opened, it felt good because we did it on our own. We didn't take out loans," he says. "I kind of miss that feeling." 

During Snoh's first year, Chanthavong worked nearly 70 hours a week to keep up with the demands of the fledgling shop. "What keeps me going is I have something good," he says of his busy schedule. "The first year was crazy. I had guys asking to franchise. But no, we wanted to see where we could go with this," Chanthavong says happily. "But the second year was even crazier," he continues. "People were starting to adjust, and we had the loyalty of returning customers. Now people know who we are and so we're going to do what we meant to do." 

Chanthavong's first major clientele was the local Asian community. He says it was a given that Asians would come to Snoh, but wasn't sure how much of a given. He's grateful that Snoh now appeals to a wider demographic, and has regulars that come from all parts of Phoenix. 

It's true that the snoh itself is worthy of the repeat business. Chanthavong says the snoh he serves is more like second-generation shaved ice than the traditional version that originated in Taiwan. Making it is a straightforward process, he explains. "Everything is made in house. It's actually my recipe," he says. The Snoh team first tried a recipe given to them by their distributor, but after testing in out in California, Chanthavong says he knew it wasn't for them. 

Snoh Ice Shavery makes their snoh by first infusing flavor into ice and letting it rest overnight. After the flavor has been sufficiently infused, the ice is shaved into thin ribbons. "Shaved snoh is like cotton candy [in] texture, but frozen," Chanthavong says. Snoh maintains a creaminess but is somehow feathery light and defies the density of heavier Western ice creams. "You can have a regular size and not feel like you indulged in something heavy," he says. "It should melt in your mouth and burst with flavor." 

Three years into business, Chanthavong says his major challenge is trying to maintain his innovative edge. "Now, it's trying to be creative about what to offer. I don't want to feel like a trend. I want to keep and set standards where I'm here to stay. I want to create what people want," he says. "That's why we're creating a chocolate flavor snoh," he laughs. "It's our goal to always try to do something creative for customers, for their taste buds."

Chanthavong can't express his appreciation for his regular customers enough. He works hard to make sure Snoh has an atmosphere worthy of hanging out in for a while. "You're not just coming in for froyo," he says, "there's art here. When you look at Snoh's Instagram, it's not like other places that are spammed with all food. It's of people, too. I try to offer a hangout shop." He is thankful for the support of his regulars, and doesn't look much past them for validation of a job well done. 

Chanthavong is also proud to add his Asian American heritage to the diversity of the Phoenix food scene. 
"Our culture has a lot of good food and I think we could offer more," he says. "I try to let people know if they want to open something innovative to open in Phoenix." He wants to inspire the Asian community to add to the culinary community in bigger and better ways.

So what's in the future for Snoh? Chanthavong isn't sure yet, but he has a few ideas up his sleeve. "A second spot? I'll leave it in the air for now," he says. "If I move forward, I'm going to stay in Phoenix. I was born and raised in California, but I'm an adopted Phoenician." And with the following Chanthavong has developed over the last decade, it's clear he and Snoh Ice Shavery are here to stay. 

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