March-April 2022 | Food & Drink

The return of Clayboy’s Shave Ice

Bethesda brothers bring back beloved summer treat

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Brothers Billy (left) and Danny McKinnon sling shave ice last summer in Bethesda. Courtesy photo

In May 2021, Billy McKinnon was mulling what to do next after returning home to Bethesda following his graduation from Tulane University in New Orleans. With the pandemic persisting, he had begun delivering food to make a little cash. He often picked up orders from restaurants in downtown Bethesda, and when he did, he’d keep an eye out for the shave ice cart that he and his brothers had cherished visiting since they were boys.

“I kept asking myself, ‘Where is Clayboy’s?’ ” McKinnon, 23, says. “Simply because I wanted to buy one.”

A few weeks later, he learned why he hadn’t seen the cart and decided to purchase more than just a cup of Tiger’s Blood (a combination of strawberry and coconut), his favorite flavor. He and his brother, Danny, 21, bought the business from Bethesda native Scott Styer for an undisclosed sum. “We thought it would be a fun business, and we also didn’t want to see something we grew up on and loved so much die,” Billy says.

Their acquisition resurrected an institution that had gone dormant after delighting parched Montgomery County residents for decades. Styer, 68, learned the art of making shave ice while living in Hawaii. When he moved to Silver Spring in 1991, he brought his business, which he named after his oldest son, Clay. (He added the “s” after having two more sons.) At that time, he sold the treats out of a truck.

“Originally it was called Clayboy Toys and Shave Ice,” he says. “I would buy and sell used toys out of the truck. I’d make deals with kids. Eventually that didn’t go too well because moms were like, ‘Wait a minute, I just bought that toy for $20 and you traded it for one shave ice?’ ”

His fortunes began to improve around the mid-’90s, he says, when shave ice became popular in beach towns. He drove his truck to pools and summer camps in the county and eventually built a wooden cart that he set up in front of the building that then housed the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Bethesda Avenue.

Billy (left) and Danny return to their usual cart location on Bethesda Avenue for a wintertime photo. Photo by Louis Tinsley

That’s where the McKinnons, who lived about a mile away, first discovered the brain-freezing pleasures of a $3 small cup—the same price it is today—of shave ice on a scorching day. “We were always riding our bikes down to Bethesda Row,” Danny says. “You can break your piggy bank and scrape up a few coins and go get Clayboy’s.”

Styer kept the business shuttered in 2020 because of the pandemic, and when the summer of 2021 rolled around, he decided he’d had enough. One of his sons posted a for-sale message on Yelp, which was spotted by Billy and his father, Will. “My view was this would be a good opportunity for them to own something and have responsibility for it,” says Will, who loaned money to his sons to complete the deal. “I’m an adviser, but half the time they’re like, ‘Dad, I don’t want your advice.’ ”

The brothers met with Styer, who sensed they were the right people to continue the Clayboy’s legacy. “I was really sad to leave after all those years,” he says. “So when the McKinnons fell into my lap, I thought, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ Danny and Billy are both really sweet guys. You gotta enjoy the moment-to-moment banter with kids and just hanging out.”

Styer taught the brothers how to use the Japanese-made equipment that shaves the ice, and how to create the flavorings from cane sugar, concentrates and preservatives. Clayboy’s offers up to 20 flavors and has kept Styer’s tradition of putting a small Swedish Fish candy in the bottom of every cup. “The texture and the variety of flavors you can get is what makes it special,” Danny says of the ice. “We use extremely sharp blades that shave the ice into really thin flakes that numb your mouth.”

Last July, Billy began manning the cart in downtown Bethesda, and Danny started driving their retrofitted 1996 Ford F-150 pickup to pools around the county. On Danny’s first day behind the wheel, he stopped at a pool in North Chevy Chase. After a year and a half lapse, he wasn’t sure how much cachet the name Clayboy’s still held. He found out after he pulled into the parking lot and started playing the business’s signature song, “Day O” by Raffi, on the truck’s loudspeaker.

“Basically…I got bum-rushed,” he says. “I had a line for an hour coming from inside the pool, wrapping out into the parking lot. It was like 98 degrees out, I’m super nervous, I’ve got people breathing down my neck, and I finally get down to one block of ice left.”

That’s when that last block slipped from his hands and shattered.

“All these kids let out a massive sigh. They were super upset,” he says. “I had to promise everybody that I was going to go home, get more ice and flavoring and come back.”

Danny, now a University of Maryland senior, did just that. He and Billy are making the seasonal business their full-time gig, and they hope to add a second truck and expand throughout the Washington, D.C., area. They’d like to recruit their two younger brothers, Tommy, 17, and Jimmy, 13, to work during coming summers.

“There’s something about being your own boss…that feels really rewarding,” Danny says. “Making kids happy, making their parents happy—it’s cool to give the kids the same experience that I had growing up.”