Business is booming.

Melting Profits Threaten the Ice Cream Man

On a steamy evening at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, Jaime Cabal had a line of clients with him Mister Softee ice cream truck. He mixed milkshakes, doused bowls of vanilla soft serve with strawberries and dipped cones in the rinds of cherries and blue raspberries. A boy had barely finished his treat when he begged his parents for more, pointing to the menu’s pops shaped like Spongebob SquarepantsSonic the Hedgehog and Tweety.

Crowds like these are become rarer for ice cream vendors across the country, as high fuel prices fuel inflation, causing some soft serve truck owners to question their future in the business.

Owning an ice cream truck used to be a lucrative proposition, but for some, the cost has become unsustainable: The diesel that powers the trucks has exceeded $7 a gallon, vanilla ice cream costs $13 a gallon, and a 25-pound box of sprinkles now goes for about $60, double what it cost a year ago.

Many sellers say the end of the ice cream truck era is years in the making. Even the garages that house these trucks are evolving and renting out parking spaces to other types of food vendors as the number of ice cream trucks dwindles.

Parks, swimming pools and residential streets used to be the main area for the ice cream man. But now, more often than not, the jingle of a soft-serve truck plays to a crowd of none, as prices for some cones with additives like swirly ice cream and chocolate sauce reach $8 on some trucks.

While no organization seems to have hard numbers on the number of ice cream trucks currently operating on the streets of New York City, some owners said they would likely leave the company in the next few years. It’s a sentiment felt nationwide, where mobile ice cream vendors face increased city licensing and registration fees, as well as stiff competition from other ice cream companies, said Steve Christensen, the executive director of the company. North American Ice Cream Association.

The ice cream truck, he said, “unfortunately belongs to the past”.

New delivery methods, via third-party apps or haunted kitchens, are emerging. Brick-and-mortar scoop shops focus on providing a fun experience, he said, serving dozens more flavors than a traditional ice cream truck, driving lines away from these vehicles.

“It’s terrible,” said Mr. Cabal, the ice cream vendor in Queens who has worked on ice cream trucks for the past nine years. Inflation has even increased the cost of mechanical parts for the truck. Last year, when his slushy machine broke down, a part he needed cost $1,600. He decided to wait a few more months to fix it, but the part nearly doubled in cost, to $3,000. Now the slushy is off the menu and the machine is in his garage.

In 2018, Mr. Cabal thought the Flushing Meadows Corona Park business would be good enough to service his own truck, so he sold his New Jersey home for $380,000, moved to Hicksville, NY, and bought a Mister Softee franchise. . He won a contract with the city to operate in the park.

Despite the tens of thousands of dollars he pays each year for that license and others, Mr. Cabal has dealt with unlicensed vendors selling fruits, empanadas, and Duro wheels from strollers, and even ice cream from pushcarts strategically placed around his truck. . He said they undercut him on price so much that it’s impossible for him to compete.

In lower Manhattan, Ramon Pacheco is grappling with his recent decision to raise prices by 50 cents to account for some of his increased daily expenses, such as $80 in gasoline ($15 before the pandemic) and $40 in diesel ($ 18 earlier). He now pays about $41 for the three liters of vanilla ice cream that cost him $27.

He’s been selling ice cream for 27 years and noticed a drop in demand since the pandemic. He now gets only $200, before expenses, and sells ice cream for nine hours. Sometimes when a regular comes to him with $2 for ice cream, he just sells it at a loss.

“I’m 66 and I’m tired,” Mr Pacheco said in Spanish, adding that he is considering selling his truck next year.

Carlos Cutz decided to quit his job at a deli two years ago to work on an ice cream truck to support himself, his wife and their three children. He took out a loan and bought his own truck in May.

The ice cream vendor he bought it from had a route in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Mr. Cutz has resisted raising prices to avoid alienating his customers, even though his spending has doubled on products like a package. of 250 cake cones.

“These have been the worst years for ice cream trucks,” he said in Spanish, adding: “I’m going to do my best to continue with this business. I feed my family and I can’t leave a business that I haven’t tried.”

The price of gasoline has been the most shocking expense for Andrew Miscioscia, the owner of Andy’s Italian Ices NYC, which operates three trucks for private catering events. He spent $6,800 on gas alone in June. Mr. Miscioscia turned to catering during the pandemic as sales on the Upper West Side declined.

“People don’t go out like they used to,” he said. “And there’s a lot of competition.”

Still, the appearance of an ice cream truck on a hot summer day remains a sensation for many. At Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Domenica Chumbi, of Hillside, NJ, held a vanilla pod soaked in cherry peel for her quinceañera photos. The pink-tinted ice cream not only matched her dress and the theme of her party, cherry blossoms, but it also evoked memories of childhood visits to the park.

“It’s something that reminds me of New York,” she said.