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Have a hot - and sweet - time in downtown Rehoboth

August 24, 2018

Much of Rehoboth’s history is chronicled by the succession of restaurants that come and go. But, aside from the Atlantic Ocean and perpetually hungry parking meters, there are few things more fundamentally Rehoboth than entrepreneur and all-around likeable character Chip Hearn. Bigger than life in most every way, this guy will sell you hundreds of bottles of hot sauce (all different), dish up ice cream with names like “Booger,” “Motor Oil,” and “Looks Like Viagra,” and feed you award-winning barbecue - certified in nationwide competition after nationwide competition.

A Delaware boy through and through, young Chip spent every free moment at his grandfather’s house (built in the ‘20s) on the ocean block of Olive Avenue. He worked at the family business in Wilmington, which in the early ‘30s covered a city block and included a baker, a candy store, a butcher and an ice cream parlor. The word “supermarket” wasn’t yet a household word back when Chip’s father and grandfather consolidated all the stores into a single building.

As a high schooler, Chip set out to find his fortune where Olive Avenue intersects the ocean. His first venture was a no-frills affair: a table on the Boardwalk from which he sold Italian water ice. These were the days when 17-year-old Dominick Pulieri himself was tossing pizzas at Grotto, and Tim and Tony Gouvas weren’t much taller than the counter at George’s Lunch (the current Louie’s Pizza).

Chip’s first Rehoboth storefront was a Dairy Queen located near the Boardwalk on the south side of Rehoboth Avenue. In the mid-’70s, a larger space just a few doors to the east became The Ice Cream Store that he still operates today. The Hearn ice cream empire eventually grew to seven stores in Delaware, including the landmark Dairy Queen on Lewes Beach and several Tastee Freez franchises.

In the late ‘70s, Chip’s family took over the Country Squire restaurant located in the space once occupied by Seaside Thai and now the home of Semra’s Mediterranean Grill. Diners flocked to the bloody mary smorgasbord and its famed collection of hot sauces. (A foreshadowing of things to come.)

In the mid-’80s, the Hearns moved the operation to the Starboard in Dewey Beach, continuing the tradition of the do-it-yourself bloody mary. Loyal customers donated their favorite pepper sauces to the ever-increasing collection. They accumulated so quickly that Hearn started selling them out of a utility building in the Starboard’s parking lot.

When the first Peppers store opened, Chip was already a celebrity in the world of chiliheads. His collection-gone-wild became the definitive source for everything spicy and pleasingly painful. He sold the Starboard in 1999, and since then, Peppers.com and the current storefront in Lewes have become mandatory destinations for pain aficionados the world over.

Hearn’s pepper prowess extends to national barbecue competitions. He has appeared on “Good Morning America” and numerous Food Network specials, including Bobby Flay’s Throwdown and Unwrapped, and it’s no secret that Chip will do just about anything to charm a TV camera. The stakes are in the multi-thousands of dollars at national barbecue competitions, and he can always be found smoking octopus, fruit and even ice cream to keep the cameras pointing at Peppers.

I’ve always loved the old saying, “The ice cream scoop doesn’t fall far from the tree.” (OK, I made that up....) And nowhere is that more true than just a few steps from the Rehoboth Boardwalk. Chip’s daughter Aileen Hearn and partner Kyle Ten Eyck’s Mug & Spoon is all about cookies, curb appeal, croissants, floorplans, caffeine, milkshakes and cakes. Chip is the chief advisor to his daughter as this spot has matured since its opening last year. In fact, he’s quite familiar with the neighborhood, since his iconic The Ice Cream Store is just a few doors to the east.

It’s not just about a cuppa joe at the Mug & Spoon. Aileen and Kyle have brought some hi-tech processes to Rehoboth in the form of nitro coffee: a special brew infused with nitrogen (not unlike a beer keg with CO2) to create a tiny-bubble foam experience similar to Guinness beer - but it’s coffee. And you can certainly taste the difference. Mug & Spoon also offers cold-brewed coffee. The difference? A surprisingly non-acidic and smooth experience. Another hi-tech tchotchke made an appearance at Mug & Spoon early this season in the form of a coffee/espresso foam printer! There’s not enough room on this page to describe that little machine, so you’ll just have to go down by the Boardwalk and check out how coffee can be a visual experience.

One of my funniest moments with Chip was on my radio show a couple of years ago. During his rather scientific on-air explanation of the effects of the pain-producing pepper extract capsaicin, he calmly described how the chemical activates pain sensors that alert the brain to send protective endorphins throughout the body. When they get to the mouth and discover there’s no injury, they apparently exclaim ... and at this point Hearn shocks both me and my listenership by waving his hands in the air and speaking like a loud, high-pitched endorphin: “Oh well, we’re already here, so let’s just have some fun!” Those of us who love hot sauces crave that fun.

Cape Region and online chiliheads everywhere know it’s never boring when Chip is around. I’m proud and delighted to be able to join in on the fun – and the pain. And you can always chase it with Motor Oil ice cream.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.