Food by VICE

NYC Ice Cream Trucks Use Private Investigators to Spy on Competitors

The turf wars between the city's mobile ice cream purveyors is only escalating.

by Jelisa Castrodale
Jun 1 2017, 2:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Scott Beale

There have been fistfights caught on camera, with bare-knuckle brawls taking place on crowded city streets. Employees on both sides have been known to carry wooden baseball bats to work, in case someone jumps them—or they need to jump somebody else. And now, private investigators are getting involved again, tracking the movements of certain individuals and having the occasional lead pipe waved in their faces.

Is this a battle between organized crime families? Color-coded street gangs? Nope, it's just the start of New York's soft serve season. Who wants ice cream?

Summer is almost upon us, and Mister Softee and its chief rival New York Ice Cream are already out selling chocolate-dipped and sprinkles-topped cones to dairy-starved tourists—which means that the city's Ice Cream Wars are going to rage for another summer. According to the New York Post, Mister Softee has already stepped up its animosity, hiring a team of private investigators to keep their eyes on New York Ice Cream's men and women.

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"It's like a Mafia turf war,'' Darrin Giglio, the head of North American Investigations, told the Post. "My staff has been threatened. [New York Ice Cream workers] tried to grab cameras, came out with pipes. Of course, it didn't work—my guys are former detectives."

Mister Softee, a franchise-based company currently run by second-generation ice cream man James Conway, Jr., has had beef with New York Ice Cream for several years. New York Ice Cream was actually started by a group of former Mister Softee drivers who were pissed at the company's high franchise fees. In 2013, Dimitrios Tsirkos, the head of New York Ice Cream, severed his ties with the familiar cone-head, added sprinkles to Softee's logo, and started calling his trucks 'Master Softee.'

Mister Softee sued for trademark infringement, and won. Tsirkos was banned from using the Master Softee name, banned from selling ice cream in his former franchise territories until last February, and ordered to pay Mister Softee $767,000 in damages and legal fees. (He did none of those things, and last summer, was held in contempt of court; Mister Softee says that Tsirkos has paid a whopping $2,426 so far.)

"These guys are bad guys on all levels," Conway told the Daily News in 2014 – and even then, he was using private investigators to keep an eye out for illegal Master Softee trucks, making sure they weren't using that copycat logo or playing Mister Softee's jingle.

Despite being the little guy, New York Ice Cream refuses to back down. After Tsirkos' territory ban ended, New York Ice Cream took over Midtown Manhattan and it is doing everything it can to keep Mister Softee from selling a single scoop anywhere nearby. "You will never see a Mister Softee truck in Midtown," an unnamed driver told the New York Times. "If you do, there will be problems, and you won't see him there very long."

Best case, New York Ice Cream's drivers will box in Mister Softee trucks so they can't sell to anyone. Worst case, they get physical with the other drivers. "It's just the way it is," Conway said. "Life on the street."

It's barely June, and if Mister Softee's private eyes are already out, this is gonna be one long, hot summer. It's too bad we can't even count on ice cream to cool this thing off.