The economics behind the ice cream man

Marketplace Contributor Aug 29, 2012

The economics behind the ice cream man

Marketplace Contributor Aug 29, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: In observance of the passing of summer that’s soon to be upon us, a story now about one of the mainstays of this season: The neighborhood ice cream truck.

Sure, it can be a little slice of heaven on a 97 degree day. But while you’re thinking about chocolate éclairs or bomb pops, your ice cream driver — he’s thinking about a complicated economic calculus.

From WBEZ in Chicago, Lauren Chooljian reports.

Sound of ice cream truck music

Lauren Chooljian: Ice cream truck driver Johnny Macx has been playing this song out of his antique ice cream truck through downtown Chicago since the 1970s. Macx is a traditional ice cream guy through and through. He wears all white and even calls himself the good humor man. But he says his job isn’t as fun as some people think it is.

Johnny Macx: They think it’s all a bowl of cherries. All they wanna do is drive the ice cream truck. They think, “Oh, we can run around, ringing bells, selling ice cream, eating ice cream, making a million dollars.” But that’s really not the case.

Ice cream drivers like Macx need to stock up on specific flavors for specific neighborhoods. Last year’s route might not work this year because neighborhood kids may have gotten too old. And then there’s the encroachment of the far more mobile ice cream push cart. Macx says there are no guarantees in this business. That’s why day after day, summer after summer, he drives the same route.

Macx: Same old, rigamaroo — downtown in The Loop. My spot at Canal and Monroe. Shouldn’t have said that!

He shouldn’t have said that because there are actually fights over territories.

Macx: There are people going in the same areas, and if a newcomer goes into an established area, established by someone else, then they’re going to get very mad, maybe hostile. 

Alex Sadeghi: Some drivers are really aggressive. Some of them aggressive but in professional way and protect the route.

That’s Alex Sadeghi, co-owner of Pars Ice Cream on Chicago’s west side. He’s the one supplying drivers like Macx with ice cream, helping them get licenses, and leasing out trucks. He’s sort of like the ice cream godfather. When there are fights between drivers, he steps in.

Sadeghi: You bring them in, you talk to both of them, explain to them that end of the day they’re the same ball[game]. We need to help each other and the industry. And fighting is not going to help at all.

Sadeghi says he brings the drivers to a map in the back room to remind them how large the city is, and how many people there are to sell ice cream to. Of course, it’s not that easy — It’s Chicago, and there are rules. In fact, there are a lot of rules. For the last 20 years, ice cream trucks have been restricted in some of the city’s 50 wards. And in some of the wards, the rules go street by street. I was going to read them to show how detailed they are, but they’re best heard in a good Chicago accent. So I recruited my colleague, Jason Marck.

Jason Marck: Thence east on West John Paul II drive to Southwestern Boulevard, thence north on to Southwestern Boulevard to West 34th Street.

And this summer, even more rules went into place. The City Council passed a food truck ordinance that also covers ice cream trucks. Now ice cream drivers have to install GPS devices, trucks can’t park near restaurants, AND they can’t sell treats too close to official “truck stands.” The city contends that the new ordinance actually gives all mobile food vendors more parking options. But all of this has some drivers wondering if it’s worth all the hassle for next year.

For now though, you can still get your —

Sadeghi: Strawberry shortcake, chocolate eclair, giant vanilla sandwich.  

But only until the weather gets cold.

In Chicago, I’m Lauren Chooljian for Marketplace.

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