WEST VILLAGE — Whenever John Chakalis and Raul Ortega visit New York from their home in Texas, the couple always stop for cones at the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop.
So Chakalis, 31, didn't suspect anything was up when Ortega suggested they go to the gay-friendly soft-serve spot's Grove Street location on their latest trip to the city Saturday afternoon — until he saw the message board out front, which is usually devoted to the flavor of the day.
"John, will you marry me?" the sign read, with an illustration of one love-struck unicorn proposing to another.
"Raul says, 'Look at the sign,'" Chakalis recalled on Tuesday. "And I turned back to him and he was already on his knee."
"He tried to put the ring on the wrong hand so I corrected him," Chakalis added.
Ortega, 33, a logistics coordinator for a railway company, reached out to the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop for help getting the proposal sign ready for their visit.
"I'm a really nervous person so I was like, 'I hope he can't figure it out [in advance],'" Ortega said.
He and Chakalis, who works as a geophysicist for an oil company in Houston, had discussed marriage and looked at rings, but Ortega insisted that the proposal be a surprise.
Kathy Jimenez, 20, the shop's assistant manager, said that once customers saw the sign, they hung around waiting for the couple to arrive. She texted Ortega that the sign was done and was ready with a camera when the pair showed up.
"It was definitely exciting," she said. "It's a great thing."
After Chakalis said yes and accepted the platinum ring from Ortega, the crowd cheered. They then got two cones of their favorite flavor, Salty Pimp, a combination of vanilla, dulce de leche, sea salt and chocolate, and went out to a park bench to text and call their friends and family with the news.
The couple are planning a Boston wedding next year, since gay marriage is not recognized in their home state. They will celebrate this weekend with an engagement party in Houston, where Chakalis said they have a "big gay community." Houston mayor Annise Parker married her partner Kathy Hubbard in California this year.
Big Gay Ice Cream owner Doug Quint said this is the fourth engagement his team has facilitated since they first launched an ice cream truck in 2009.
"After watching them all play out, I have a word of advice to the proposer," Quint said. "Keep your cool...Sneak a shot of vodka before you pop the question."
Ortega said things feel different post-proposal.
"We knew we were going to get married, but it finally feels real now we are engaged," he said. "Now we're making lists of people to invite, registry, venues. Now it's real."