By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Kona Ice of Effingham County weathers pandemic storm
Chris Umbelina
Kona Ice of Effingham County owner Chris Umbelina serves a customer at an event at the Brad Cherney Agency in Springfield on June 14. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
Being in the food industry, we were making sure that people felt safe. We put protocols in place to ease people’s fears of catching COVID-19 and still had a happy visit.
Kona Ice of Effingham County owner Chris Umbelina

GUYTON — Chris Umbelina was on the verge of losing his cool 16 months ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing restrictions and school closings that accompanied it caused Umbelina to fear that Kona Ice of Effingham County, a growing business that he started four years ago, would melt away.

“We were really afraid when things shut down,” he said while serving his tasty frozen treats at the City of Guyton’s 2021 Summer Social on June 17. “We got very nervous as a young family with a mortgage and bills. We were very afraid but, luckily, we pivoted.”

Instead of setting up his clean, colorful truck at community and school events as usual, he started driving it through Effingham County neighborhoods in search of customers hungry for a refreshing break.

“We operated like a normal ice cream truck, which is something we had never, ever done before,” Umbelina said. “The community really rallied around us and supported us. We were very lucky.”

As word of Kona Ice’s new business strategy spread, business snowballed.

“We started getting phone calls and Facebook messages,” Umbelina said. “People wanted us to come to their neighborhood because (Kona Ice) was something that the kids were familiar with through their schools. This brought some normalcy to them during a very difficult time as well.

“They were excited to have us out in the neighborhoods and we did a lot of birthday parties and socially distanced events. We were going driveway to driveway and getting as many people safely served as we could.”

Umbelina expressed deep gratitude for the warm response that kept his Kona Ice of Effingham County afloat.

“We’ve lived in Georgia and this area for about five years now” he said. “We wanted to put roots down in a place where our kids could feel, you know, home finally. We’ve moved around a lot.

“We fell in love with this community and for it to embrace us like that felt very good.”

Umbelina also lauded state and local government leaders.

“I think they really supported small businesses and let them work,” he said. “I think that’s what a lot of people wanted — just an opportunity to do things the right way. We were more cautious than we had ever been.

“Being in the food industry, we were making sure that people felt safe. We put protocols in place to ease people’s fears of catching COVID-19 and still had a happy visit.”

Umbelina started Kona Ice of Effingham County after walking away from a corporate restaurant job. 

“There is so much good that comes with being your own boss but it comes with uncertainty,” he said.  “Now there is no one who is going to help you or take care of you and you are on your own, and you have people depending on you — my wife and my kids.”

Discounting the pandemic, Umbelina’s career move has been everything he hoped it would be.

“As the truck becomes more familiar to people and they see what we do and our product, I think we will gain more business,” he said. “I think we are on the same trajectory that we were — minus 2020. We’re pretty much back to normal..

“Hopefully, we will never had to go through another pandemic. That was terrible.”