The Doumars

Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Blog

An ambitious and determined man, Abe Doumar, was born in Syria in 1881. After immigrating to the United States from Damascus, Abe Doumar is said to have invented the first ever waffle ice cream cone.

At age 15, Abe sailed to the United States on a third-class ticket and found work as a travelling souvenir salesman at fairs around the country. He spent his days selling paperweights to fairgoers, and at night, he joined the camaraderie of salesmen in selling zalabia, a popular dessert originating in the Levant. At Missouri’s St. Louis Fair one year, Abe decided to run a novelty shop with his partner, Nick Sargie, in the fair’s “22 Streets of Jerusalem.” They dressed in native Arab costumes and sold souvenirs from the Holy Lands. Abe’s memories of the Middle East were vivid and he became known for his unending and enchanting stories about his homeland. As a young boy, he had wandered up and down the seven streams of Damascus, had seen the places where St. Paul had been, and knew many stories that would fascinate the crowds at the fair. Everyone loved his lively and personable character, characteristics that made him a fantastic salesman. 

One night at the fair would change Abe’s life forever. He noticed that an ice cream stand nearby had to close when they ran out of paper dishes, the primary method used to serve ice cream in those days. On a whim, Abe bought a waffle from a salesman down the street and rolled it into a cone, like he had been accustomed to do so with round pieces of flatbread in Syria when making a sandwich, and then topped it with ice cream. The result: a delightful and unforgettable combination of the warm sweetness of a fresh waffle and the taste of cool, smooth ice cream. Abe then encouraged the ice cream vendor and the waffle salesman to work together to keep the ice cream stand operative for the night.

His cones were such a success that he sent an ordinary waffle iron to a factory and had it re-designed into the “four-iron baking machine,” making it possible to roll waffles mechanically. In 1905, he opened ice-cream stands in Coney Island that would later become a chain of Doumar’s ice cream stores stretching from Coney Island to Jacksonville, Florida. Abe moved two years later to Norfolk, Virginia, ahead of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition. He brought over his parents and brothers from Syria to begin the family business he was newly able to envision.  At the Exposition, Abe and his brother, George, experienced rocketing success as they sold nearly 23,000 cones in one day alone at their stand in Ocean View Amusement Park.

After a vicious hurricane in 1933 destroyed much of Ocean View Park, George Doumar reopened Doumar’s Cones and BBQ on Monticello Avenue in Norfolk and added classic sandwiches to the menu. George’s sons, Albert and Victor, both having served in World War II, returned home to help with the family business.  Leaving behind a legacy for his family’s name, Abe Doumar sadly died in 1947. Albert Doumar, Abe’s nephew (pictured), worked tirelessly for 68 years at the restaurant making ice cream cones and greeting customers.  Albert was the catalyst for continuous improvements and promotion of the restaurant over the years, and sadly passed away just last month. At the time of his passing, Governor Terence McAuliffe recognized Albert for his distinguished service to the state of Virginia. Albert’s son, George Doumar, has been a longtime member of AAI’s National Policy Council, and George was the one who brought the incredible story of the Doumar family to our attention, using our “Together We Came: Your Stories” submission form. 

To this day, Doumar’s Cones and BBQ still makes waffle cones with the same recipe and waffle cone machine built by Abe Doumar and has become something of a local legend. In May 1999, the restaurant was awarded a James Beard Foundation Award which honors legendary family-owned restaurants around the country. In July 2002, the restaurant acquired the Gourmet Magazine Award for the best ice cream cones in the United States. The restaurant has also been featured on Food Network’s hit series Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

Abe Doumar’s driven and unwavering spirit as a crafty salesman and ingenuity lead him to create one of the world’s most sought after novelties. The Doumar family’s hard work, innovation and determination illustrate the powerful and limitless potential immigrants possess, whose contributions continue to make America the best nation it can be. 

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.