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Custard shop that survived COVID and car crashes finds sweet success on Instagram

Updated August 14, 2023 at 10:40 AM ET

When Jamal Jawad bought a low slung cinderblock building on a busy intersection in Dearborn, Mich., he never thought the location would be a problem. His dad owned a gas station across the street for years.

A former diner built in the 1940s, it seemed perfect for his dream: slinging soft serve. Jawad painted the building a cheerful pink and hung a sign: The Custard Company. But the timing was terrible. The doors opened in summer 2019, less than a year before the pandemic. And that wasn't even the worst thing that happened.

The Custard Company in Dearborn, Mich., has survived two car crashes since it opened in 2019.
/ Jamal Jawad
Jamal Jawad
The Custard Company in Dearborn, Mich., has survived two car crashes since it opened in 2019.

"We had not one, but two cars crash into the building," Jawad recalled ruefully. "Somebody ran the red light over here on Monroe and Outer Drive, T-boned another car. And the other car went straight towards us."

Fortunately, a huge steel bench was standing between the car and the customers. The car slammed into the bench and no one got injured. Then only a few months later, another car hit Jawad's custard shop. It was winter and icy. A driver lost control and skidded right into the building.

"The poor police called me and said, 'Hey Jamal, come over here. There's a car that ran into your building." He pauses for emphasis. "Again."

These days, Jawad can laugh. About 1,000 people show up at the building for frozen custard on a typical summer day. Gary Dean, snappy in a straw fedora, is relaxing on the patio with a cone. "Mine is black cherry custard. Delicious!" he says.

The Custard Company has made its own good luck. It's developed an enthusiastic following on social media around the world. Jawad, who trained as a software engineer, still works full-time at Ford Motor Company. His main innovation is especially Instagram-friendly and involves injecting soft serve cones with fillings. One is based on a Lebanese dessert called ashta. It's popular with Dearborn's large Arab community.

"The flavoring is rose water and orange blossom water," Jawad explains. "I mix it with vanilla custard, inject it with a pistachio sauce that's imported from Turkey and roll it in fresh pistachios."

His concoctions are so popular,the Detroit Pistonsasked The Custard Company to sell soft serve at its arena. Jawad has now opened two more stores, rebranding his operation as JJ's Custard. (Neither of the two new stores have been hit by speeding vehicles so far.) And he is collaborating with other local food entrepreneurs. ReShawn Wilder runs a Detroit cheesecake company and appeared as a contestant on FOX's MasterChef. Standing in Jawad's West Dearborn location, the two are brainstorming a new treat, possibly for Thanksgiving.

"It's gonna be called Sweet Potato Pie," Wilder explains. Imagine, he says, sweet potato frozen custard, in a graham cracker cone and injected with marshmallow filling. "Oh my God. It's gonna be so fire."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.