He said his name was "Jose Rodriguez," laughed, then added the caveat, "even though I'm Greek." This was my first hint about the weird secrecy that surrounds the ice cream truck trade—a business of tinny jingles and something much darker than chocolate soft serve hiding under the rainbow sprinkle exterior.
In a city that bears little resemblance to the graffiti-covered hustle of New York City in the 80s, it's ice cream that regularly harkens back to the grimier past. Stories abound of brake-cutting and turf wars that have occasionally escalated into violence.
Today, there's more competition than ever, according to Alex, who wouldn't give his last name but says he's been driving for five years. "Before there were just a few trucks in Manhattan and now there are trucks everywhere." The truck he drives isn't his, but belongs to the owner of the company he works for, a guy who owns multiple ice-cream-dispensing vehicles but keeps a low profile. When I asked Alex if I could contact his boss, he looked left and right, as though someone could be standing behind him eavesdropping.
"Look, I'm answering your questions to do you a favor, but I really can't do that."
Most ice cream trucks you see on the street are members of a fleet—at least five to ten, but potentially more. The Greek Rodriguez said of his boss and other owners, "The way they run things is like the Mafia."
Ice cream dons often have had the business in their family for decades, and everyone knows everyone else. There are two things you need to join the club—a mobile food permit and a list of good spots where you can sell—and both are almost impossible to come by. New York City put a cap on the number of permits in the 1980s, and the wait to get one is between ten and 20 years by most counts. While this theoretically keeps the ice cream market from getting oversaturated, it also eliminates room for growth.
Hilary Guishard, the distributor for Mister Softee in Brooklyn, says it's stagnated the business: "You find somebody who wants to grow in the business and they're not able to grow." This has left owners scrambling to get as much money as possible out of a finite number of trucks.
Mister Softee is unique in the NYC ice cream market for being the only large franchise. Drivers don't work for the owners, exactly, but rather purchase their own truck and are given a territory to drive in rather than the stricter routes of a "competition truck" like Alex's or the Greek's. Guishard says that each territory is mapped out based on the population—areas of about 50,000 people on average. In a twist from most business models, it's the richest areas that make the least amount of money and where a franchisee would be least lucky to get assigned.
"People there can go to Häagen-Dazs or other stores, while in a less rich area you usually find kids that are on their stoops at night," Guishard explains. That's why in an area like Brooklyn's still-gentrifying Flatbush neighborhood, you're more likely to see ice cream trucks parked on the blocks where the streets abruptly switch from pristine and tree-lined to hot and dusty, trashcans overflowing and plastic bags buffeting around in the wind.
On the other side of the cone you get the competition truck. Both drivers I talked to told me that they are assigned routes at the beginning of the day when they go to pick up their truck at the garage. These routes, consisting of streets to drive or a list of intersections to park at, are similarly hereditary. Someone's grandfather may have sold ice cream in the 70s, and before he left the location, told the next in line that the spot belonged to him now, says Alex. "That's how you get a location and start a business—either with or without the truck."
The routes are the most valuable part of the business and every year the news is filled with scuffles—or worse—over a truck allegedly parking in a spot that doesn't belong to him. "Everybody who owns one truck pretty much knows everybody else and their business," Alex says, "Nobody tries to park in someone else's spot—not in Midtown." Or, perhaps you could say, nobody does it twice.
While the money is still good ("It's cash money and we do pretty well," according to Alex) it's not as good as it used to be. The Greek says it's a dying business and that too many people want organic: i.e., "This stuff is all artificial." Alex blames the influx of artisanal ice cream and frozen yogurt trucks.
Guishard notes climate change as another major issue. "Weather patterns have changed tremendously and that has created a problem for us," he says. "Spring is usually the best time for us, but this year we didn't have a spring."