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Ice cream trucks struggle despite the heat

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A woman reaches for an ice cream cone from a truck. It's a hot day and a line forms behind her.

As inflation heats up, ice cream truck drivers are being forced to raise prices. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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Temperatures have been high around the U.S. this summer, but those who sought relief at their neighborhood ice cream truck may have noticed that prices aren’t what they used to be. A simple swirl cone with one topping that used to cost about $4 can now run as high as $8, according to Christina Morales’ reporting in The New York Times.

Morales spoke with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about how inflation is impacting ice cream trucks around New York City. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: I’m going to jump right in with something that grabbed me as I read this article. A single-swirl cone with maybe one topping now can go for as much as $8 in New York City.

Christina Morales: That’s correct.

Ryssdal: That seems a lot for an ice cream cone.

Morales: It does. But these are, these are the consequences of inflation. And these are the situations that these ice cream truck owners are kind of in, where they have to raise these prices because of the cost of gasoline, of diesel, of everything. And for their ice cream, like the cones, the cups, the sprinkles, the ice cream itself. It’s been crazy.

Ryssdal: Well now, let me tick through a couple of them here. A gallon of vanilla ice cream now costs $13, a 25-pound box of sprinkles now goes for $60. Those are basically double what they were a year ago. How can you make ends meet? I guess the answer is you can’t make ends meet if you’re driving an ice cream truck these days.

Morales: That’s true. And the problem with it is that there’s been such a decrease in demand for ice cream trucks. With all of the brick-and-mortar ice cream places that are opening up, the options are endless. And so that, coupled with the, you know, the increase in costs, have made it really difficult for them to get any sort of business. Some of them feel like they’re kind of stuck in a pickle, where they feel like they can’t increase their prices because then they’re at risk of losing more customers. Or some places will even sell, if somebody comes up with 2 bucks and their ice cream is $2.50, they’ll sell it to them for $2 just to get the sale.

Ryssdal: Yeah, all kinds of cool ice cream places down here in L.A. too. I’m sure it’s happening all over the country. Let me ask you another thing, though, about ice cream trucks specifically. You know, with, like, a regular food truck, it goes somewhere at lunchtime and it parks. The ice cream truck business model is kind of different, right? Because they drive around all the time and they ring those bells and get the kids and everybody to come out.

Morales: Yes, that’s part of it. But another thing around here at least is that there’s a lot of, a lot of competition for parking spaces. And so a truck will park, let’s say, in Queens and then drive down to the Bronx, and that costs a lot in gasoline and diesel. But the thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that these trucks — in order to keep the product cool and keep, you know, things running — have to run the entire time that they’re parked. So if a truck takes off at 11 a.m. and then is finishing up at 9 p.m., that truck is on and operating the entire time, and that takes up gallons and gallons of diesel to be able to do.

Ryssdal: Did you have a favorite when you were a kid when the ice cream guy would come around?

Morales: I am more of a Popsicle person. And I’ve always wanted to try, actually, the Tweety Popsicles. It’s something I’d never had. And I always like as well the vanilla cone with the blue raspberry dip and the sprinkles. Those are my favorites.

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