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The world’s first waffle cone maker is in Norfolk, Virginia.
Story by Abby Stewart
In downtown Norfolk, Virginia, sits a timeless drive-in: Doumar’s Cones and Barbecue. Here, carhops still come out to your car wearing soda jerk caps, serving up the best fresh-squeezed limeades and scratch-made barbecue sandwiches in town. This nostalgic gem was founded by Abe Doumar, the man who created the world’s first waffle cone at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904 (a fact backed by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History). When you step through the doors of Doumar’s, you walk right past the original machine that Abe designed over a century ago, and that’s still being used today by the Doumar family to serve fresh cones curbside.
Abe was a traveling salesman who was vending paperweights at the Fair. He was working near an ice cream vendor who ran out of containers to serve his dessert. Not far away was a waffle salesman. Inspiration struck: Abe rolled up a warm, fresh waffle and offered it to the ice cream vendor as a way to continue selling his treats. For the remainder of the Fair, Abe helped sell the world’s first waffle cones and changed ice cream cones ever since.
Abe took the idea back home and created the machine that stands inside Doumar’s doors today, a four-iron waffle cone maker. Doumar’s ice cream stands started opening in 1905, eventually stretching from Coney Island, New York down to Jacksonville, Florida. Abe’s business success allowed him to bring his parents and brothers to the U.S. from Damascus, Syria, so that they could help him launch the new family business. Little did he know he was laying the foundation for thousands of families to one day walk through the doors or pull their cars up to the legendary cone shop in Norfolk, Virginia.
The Doumars enjoyed much success in Norfolk and eventually settled in the city, first operating a cone stand in Ocean View Amusement Park then opening their present location in 1934.
It’s a surefire bet that anyone from Norfolk has their own Doumar’s story to tell. Born in “Nawfuk,” myself, into a family rooted in the area, Doumar’s was basically a rite of passage and has been a staple in my life for as long as I can remember. As a child it was always a thrill when my mom’s car pulled up to the curbside service spots in the large, welcoming parking lot, a friendly carhop coming out to the car to take our order, dropping a number on our window, and telling us to just flip the headlights on if we needed anything else. Two limeades, a barbecue sandwich with special homemade sauce, and an ice cream cone!
When I’d come home from college and spent the day in Norfolk with my mom and Great Uncle Kirby, that same sense of excitement would (and still does) fill me up when we pull into that lit-up wonderland of a parking lot. My mom remembers bringing her grandmother to Doumar’s, where her childlike excitement would bubble up as she enjoyed her barbecue sandwich and got a kick out of feeding French fries to the seagulls in the parking lot. Memories like these come by the truckload at Doumar’s Cones and Barbecue.
In days past, if you went inside to eat, you would always see the friendly, bow-tie-donning Al Doumar, Abe’s nephew, who worked at the drive-in for 68 years before passing away in 2014 at the age of 92. Today, Thad Doumar, Al’s son, carries on his family’s legacy as owner of the Norfolk landmark and, just like his father, you can find him there just about any day of the week. (Except Sundays, when the shop is closed.)
Ice cream sundaes in tall fountain glasses slide along the diner-style counter, photo albums of the family get passed around among customers, and patrons young and old arrive dressed up from the symphony or dirty from a day on the baseball field, laughing and reminiscing in familiar surrounds.
That scene has endured to today. Doumar’s is a Norfolk mainstay with a retro vibe that serves up world-famous waffle cones. It’s a place where time slows down. It’s almost as if when you pull into that parking lot you step back in time to when family always comes first, when neighbors share long conversations in their yards, and when the simple pleasures in life, like an ice cream cone on a hot day, are enough. Take a trip back to the good old days and visit this one-of-a-kind diner and cone shop in downtown Norfolk. It’ll put a smile on your face!
Plan A Trip
When visiting Norfolk, Virginia, road-trippers might enjoy:
Chrysler Museum of Art—A beautiful and culturally-stimulating museum of art in downtown Norfolk that is free to the public and adjacent to the artistic district of Ghent.
Battleship Wisconsin—One of the largest and last battleships ever built by the U.S. Navy; you can tour and even spend the night on the ship in the summertime.
Town Point Park—A seven-acre waterfront park that routinely hosts festivals and live music.
Waterside District—An indoor/outdoor dining and entertainment complex located in the center of the central business district on the city’s waterfront.
The Norva—A performance venue in downtown Norfolk that’s been voted one of the top music venues in the country in Rolling Stone magazine.
The Virginia Zoo—A 53-acre zoological park in downtown Norfolk first opened in 1900.