In 1956, a young Jewish kid from Stamford, Connecticut, applied for a permit to open a diner tucked among the tomato crops and antique shops in the sleepy town of Dania.
Monroe Udell got the permit, but there was one condition:
He was told that he was not allowed to hire or serve black people. But that didn’t deter Udell. He promptly and quietly hired a black cook and soon welcomed black customers because, he would say later, it was the right thing to do.
Udell, owner of one of South Florida’s most iconic landmarks, Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant, was often ahead of his time. Whether it was bucking segregation or discovering a new way to make better ice cream, Udell worked tirelessly almost until he died Sunday morning, at age 86.
“His impact was so huge in South Florida. Not only did he found this landmark business — but he had a huge commitment to the community,” said Jerry Smith, Udell’s restaurant manager for the past 16 years.
Today, Udell has a street named after him in Dania Beach, and was recognized by President Barack Obama earlier this year for voluntarily raising the minimum wage of his workers from $7.93 to $10.10 an hour.
Five generations of families have grown up around Jaxson’s, a name that Udell settled on because it seemed to fit better with the farmers and other Southerners who in 1956 still didn’t welcome Jews in Dania and Hollywood.
“It was a lot of hard work, and in order to make a living my dad had to work seven days a week,” said Udell’s daughter, Linda Zakheim.
Her friends often assumed she had all the ice cream she ever wanted, but Zakheim said that in the early days, her father worked morning, noon and night to keep food on the table. There was little time to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
When Zakheim was older, she too, worked in the store, which eventually morphed from a diner into a kitschy, homespun eatery offering homemade ice cream, comfort food and an old-fashioned candy shop.
Her father always came up with new ideas and inventive recipes.
“He would wear a different hat all day long. He made everything from scratch. One minute he was making ice cream, the next, he was cooking roast beef or making soda,” she said.
But it was Udell’s ice cream, and his secret recipe, that made him and his restaurant world-famous. He has been featured on just about every food show in the country, and was a finalist in 2008 for Good Morning America’s Best Ice Cream Shop.
Udell made fresh batches every day, creating new and more unusual flavors with heaping helpings of every ingredient from berries and chocolate to spicy red peppers.
He dished up some of it in a huge concoction he called “The Kitchen Sink,” festooned with sparklers and arriving at the table with the blast of a siren as loud as a fire engine’s.
Despite all his imaginative flavors, Udell’s favorite was pure and simple. Vanilla.
As his business became more famous and prosperous over the years, Udell quietly emerged as one of Broward County’s most noted philanthropists, raising tens of thousands of dollars for charities and anonymously helping countless people who crossed his path and needed his help.
He donated and helped raise more than $78,000 for Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, as well as other charitable groups, churches and schools too numerous to list.
If he didn’t give money, he gave ice cream, often to schoolchildren at nearby Collins and Dania elementary schools, as a reward for scholastic achievements.
“He was a man of principles. Despite all his success, all the things he could have done for himself, he did good for others,” said Smith, the manager.
Udell hired people who most employers would turn away, just to give them a second chance, his daughter said.
“He bucked the system in a very quiet way to do the right thing, and didn’t make a lot of noise about it.”
Udell, born Feb. 24, 1928 in Stamford, lived a quiet life in a Hollywood beach condo in his later years. He would stroll each evening, taking time to stop and talk to anyone who came by.
“My father had a philosophy: Anybody who walked in that door, he would give 10 minutes to — even if he wasn’t interested in buying,” Zakheim said. “People would come back to talk to him; they enjoyed being with him.”
His customers Sunday were sad to hear of his passing.
“It’s sort of a tradition in our family,” said Rita Salerno, who has been coming to the shop with her children since 1968. The family usually comes once every couple of months from Cooper City.
Her 16-year-old grandson, Michael Lynn, said he has been coming since he was a baby.
“We love that it’s vintage,” he said. “Nothing’s really changed.”
Udell’s daughter intends to keep it that way. She will take over for her father.
“How many businesses do you remember that since you were a little girl are exactly the same? There just isn’t many,” Zakheim said. “Jaxson’s will always be the same.”
In addition to his daughter, survivors include son-in-law Scott Zakheim, son Mark Udell, and grandchildren Rachel and Josh Zakheim.
A funeral service at Temple Kol Ami Emanu-el, 8200 Peters Rd., Plantation, is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday. Burial will follow at Hollywood Memorial Gardens Cemetery (Star of David), 6301 Taft St., Hollywood.
The family asks that instead of sending flowers, friends make donations to Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, 1005 Joe DiMaggio Dr., Hollywood, FL 33021.
Miami Herald staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this report.