Tara Kojsza had a couple questions for the customers who stopped by her ice cream stand for a mid-week afternoon pick-me-up.
“Everyone good?” she asked. “Everyone happy?”
That caring attitude that goes with each scoop not only made her business popular but also made Kojsza a beloved figure in the local community. For the last 13 years, she has owned Jessee’s Place Ice Cream, 426 Bartel St., Scranton, where she’s known for traditional ice cream and her popular cheeseburger plus specialty sweets, such as her signature Strawberry Crunch treat.
Kojsza has always had a mind for business — she has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in marketing management from Wilkes University — and comes from what she described as “a strong sales background,” having worked for Pepsi, Sanofi and J.P. Mascaro & Sons. She also saw the example her grandparents set as owners of Sterling General Store.
“I grew up in a small business,” she said. “They had a restaurant, bar and general store, so I literally sell the same hoagies that they did 35 years ago.”
Even with that strong business background, though, Kojsza didn’t set out to run an ice cream shop. The idea came from her late brother, Ryan, who suggested they buy Jessee’s Place all those years ago. They partnered for the first year before Kojsza took over on her own, putting in a lot of grassroots work to drive up business and make it succeed.
“You can’t tell me no. You can’t tell me I can’t do it,” she said. “I’ll never quit.”
Jessee’s Place had been around for years and had multiple owners, but Kojsza believes she’s had it the longest. It closes for the winter, but when it’s in season, Kojsza heads there from her full-time job as a supervisor at UPS in Taylor. Watching her business thrive has been exciting, she said.
“I’ll never forget it, the first time walking through the mall, someone had my shirt on. Someone had a Jessee’s Place T-shirt on,” she said, adding that she’s even seen pictures of people wearing the shirts in front of places like the White House.
The ice cream shop has also offered something of a safe haven for Kojsza and her family, too, after they suffered a pair of losses. In 2000, her 21-year-old sister, Valerie Kojsza, died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Her brother, Ryan Kojsza, then died in a 2018 car crash when he was 40.
Their mother, Lori Zepponi, still gets choked up when talking about her kids, and she speaks proudly of their accomplishments as well as those of her surviving daughter. Kojsza “puts so much happiness and light in the world,” Zepponi said.
“We’ve had a lot of tragedy in our house,” she said. “She’s the reason I get up in the morning.”
Zepponi recalled how she struggled to get out of bed for years after Valerie’s death, and Kojsza saw the ice cream stand as something to give her mother a new purpose in life. Kojsza brought her mother to the stand to help out, and while Zepponi no longer works there every day, she “became the heart and soul of the ice cream stand immediately,” Kojsza said. “Everybody still asks about her.”
“The sadness that comes with bearing a child and losing a sibling is horrible,” Kojsza added. “I know that it helps her. I know that it helped me to see that she was OK.”
Kojsza hopes to make her brother and sister proud, and part of that comes from caring for their family’s next generation: her brother’s children.
“I don’t know how I wake up every morning,” she said. “There’s a lot of heartache. But I’m there for my niece and nephew, and I remind them how much their father loved them.” … This is what you do; you work hard. People are there for us, and we’re there for people.”
Aydan, 10, and Giuliana, 8, have already started helping their aunt at the ice cream stand, and Kojsza joked that they make better ice cream cones than some workers who’ve been there a long time. She sets an example of hard work for them, and reminds them that “people are there for us, and we’re there for people.”
“They’re the best. They come down here, (and) they start stocking stuff. … They eat me out of house and home,” she said with a laugh. “They’re the coolest kids in the neighborhood.”
Zepponi said she has never seen someone who could make lemonade out of lemons like her daughter. When her children bought the business, they ended up getting more of a shell than a full business, Zepponi said, and “Tara has crawled every inch of the way to make these giant steps.”
“Tara’s the one who has kept us standing up,” she added.
Kojsza joked that she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, but running the ice cream stand is “the longest thing that I’ve ever done in my life besides sales.” And it brings her joy.
“There’s nothing greater than watching the expression of handing someone an ice cream, whether they’re 6 or they’re 60,” she said. “There’s a lot of gratitude in it.”
Kojsza seems to have a natural knack for remembering the faces who show up at Jessee’s Place, too.
“People enjoy that they can come here and talk to us,” Kojsza said. “We’re very customer-based. We know our customers. If we don’t know them, we get to know them. … People come back because of that.”
And that love extends beyond the confines of ice cream cones. Kojsza has hosted fundraisers at the stand, most recently a pop-up vendor shop with basket raffles last weekend to support a local young woman with cancer. She also sponsors two Little League teams.
“Anything for the kids, I’m a sucker,” Kojsza said. “The kids keep me in business. I have to support the community — they support me.There’s just no other way.”
Zepponi said her daughter empathizes and sympathizes with others, and people return the favor.
“They all came back and support Tara because of the person she is and what she does,” she said. “And … she reaches far, and her heart goes out to those people.”
In addition to serving ice cream and items like Italian hoagies, cheesesteaks and her grandmother’s Sausage and Peppers, Kojsza also has to handle the business side of things, from hiring and training staff to ordering supplies and handling marketing. And then she has her other ventures, too, including a taco stand she takes to Montage Mountain for events such as the Peach Music Festival and Camp Bisco.
She recently added another business, the soy candle company Klean Kandles. Customers can pick up her small-batch, clean-burning candles at the ice cream stand, and she is working to set up a website, too. Kojsza also partnered with another local businessperson to work events such as weddings, showers and bar mitzvahs. She sets up candy and ice cream buffets as well as nacho bars, cotton candy machines, hot dog stations and more.
Others tend to tell her she needs a break, but Kojsza believes she’s better off working at this pace.
“People constantly will be like, ‘You are the hardest-working business woman that we know,’” Kojsza said. “I’m just nonstop. I go right from work right to my business.”
Building Jessee’s Place into the community hub it is today took a lot of hard work and included some scary times, but Kojsza has enjoyed watching it succeed.
“There’s a lot of times where I was like, oh, gosh what did I get myself into?” she said. “But I have bills to pay, and you know what? I have to make it work. I didn’t know any other way.”
Caitlin Heaney West is the content editor for Access NEPA and oversees the Early Access blog in addition to working as a copy editor and staff writer for The Times-Tribune. An award-winning journalist, she is a summa cum laude graduate of Shippensburg University and also earned a master’s degree from Marywood University. Caitlin joined the Times-Shamrock family in 2009 and lives in Scranton. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5107; or @cheaneywest