Auntie JoJo Serves Up Shave Ice and Sweet Love
Growing up in Hawaii, Joana (rhymes with Moana) Zebroff, owner of Auntie JoJo's Hawaiian Shave Ice, called every adult "auntie" and "uncle" whether or not they were related.
"It's a way of showing respect," she said.
She may have moved to the foothills 10 years ago, but she still enjoys being called "Auntie JoJo" by the young people in her life.
She has a lot of young people in her life.
That's because her heart is as big as the bright and sweet confection she serves from her tiny tiki hut at the corner of Highway 49 and Dry Creek Road.
JoJo laughs and chats with all of her customers, calling them "sweetie" or "darlin'" as she learns about their lives while spinning her block of ice into magic. She's likely to hug her customers goodbye when they go.
She's even blowing kisses and calling hellos to people passing by on the street, as if they're old friends.
You'd never guess there was a time when this small business owner was guarded and jaded, a tough girl in the foster care system who was always getting into trouble.
She's not sure how many foster homes she lived in before she was adopted at the age of 11.
"My husband and I tried to count them once," she said with tears in her eyes. "I think it was close to 40."
But that all changed when she met her adoptive family: Mom, dad and four-year-old brother.
"We kind of all fell in love with each other," she said.
Still, it hasn't been easy. JoJo and her husband, her high school sweetheart, moved to Auburn to be closer to his family. They took in his two younger brothers for a while, and now they're raising three children of their own, ages 2, 4, and 7.
After being a stay-at-home mom for several years, JoJo wanted to help out financially while still being able to spend time with her children, but without a high school diploma, she wasn't sure what was available to her.
Then one day she saw a "shaved ice" stand at a local event and couldn't wait to enjoy the treat she so loved while growing up in Hawaii.
But it wasn't shave ice at all; it was a sno-cone.
"They're totally different," JoJo laughed.
A sno-cone is made up of crunchy ice bits, while shave ice is more like soft and fluffy snow. Traditional shave ice has a scoop of ice cream at the bottom.
Also, Hawaiian shave ice doesn't have a 'd' in it.
"I can see why people want to call it 'shaved ice,'" she said, shrugging. "The ice is shaved."
After that sno-cone, JoJo knew what she needed to do. She needed to bring shave ice to Auburn. She created a four-page business plan, bought an ice shaving machine, took out permits and insurance, and then . . .
She was out of money.
She wasn't sure where to go from there, but her community rallied to support her. The owner of Beach Hut Deli offered JoJo a space in the sandwich shop. There, she was able to save enough to buy a tiki hut trailer she found on Craigslist.
After that, Syndicate Tattoo offered her a space in their parking lot Monday through Wednesday. Their neighbor, All Stars Auto Industry, offered their parking lot for the second half of the week.
JoJo is very grateful to her community, and in the Hawaiian tradition, she offers kama'aina (or a discount) to return customers who reuse their plastic shave ice container.
"Kama'aina means 'take care of the land, take care of the people,'" JoJo said. "It means 'take care.'"
On the weekends, JoJo and her family bounce around to various venues and festivals.
From 5 to 11 p.m., Thursday, July 20, she'll be at the first Downtown Auburn Co-Op.
"On the weekends, my husband comes, we bring the kids and my mother-in-law; we've got the whole family out there."
Fans follow Auntie JoJo's Hawaiian Shave Ice on Facebook or Instagram to track where to find the deliciousness each weekend.
Meanwhile, JoJo is dreaming big. She plans to buy a few more traveling shave ice trucks and eventually work her way up to a small, permanent building.
Her personal goals are to buy a house in two years time and finally earn her GED.
"I think it's important to show my children what you can do with hard work."