Behind the Scenes at Mr. Softee's Ice Cream Truck Garage
Each year, an army of Mr. Softee trucks are repainted and refurbished in south New Jersey before ice-cream season. Here's what it's like inside the sweet treat headquarters.
How you know that spring has sprung in the Northeast: Pear and cherry blossoms. College kids bound for Cancun. And for serious kids-gone-wild, the amplified jingle that means one thing: Mr. Softee is right around the corner, and warm weather with it.
An army of Mr. Softee trucks, repainted or refurbished in south New Jersey, is fanning out for ice-cream season. A form of legal drug dealing, including top territories in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, fed by parents' cash and children’s insatiable appetite for swirls and sundaes, popsicles and shakes. It’s a winning formula that hasn’t changed much since 1956, when Irish brothers Jim and Bill Conway rigged an old truck with an ice cream machine from their employer, Sweden Freezer. Mixing in green food coloring for St. Patrick’s Day, the Conways handed out free ice cream around their Philadelphia neighborhood. A business was born.
“They saw a real market for it, but their company didn’t share their enthusiasm,” said Jim Conway, Jr., the son of the company’s late co-founder.
Instead, a restaurateur uncle staked the brothers to a newer GM truck. The Conways began plying Philly streets in their Dairy Van, before landing on the name Mr. Softee. Now led by Jim Conway and cousin John Conway, it’s one of the nation’s largest franchisers of soft ice cream, with more than 650 trucks in 18 states.
Sitting in his office in Runnemede, New Jersey, Jim Conway spent the previous evening celebrating St. Paddy’s day, Mr. Softee’s 60th anniversary.
Conway shows us around the family operation, including the shop where today’s Freightliner trucks are transformed. That includes an industrial-strength Electro Freeze ice cream machine—worth more than $20,000 new—that mechanics load through the back, along with a sink and other hardware, before walling off the truck’s serving area. Out back go a hot-water tank and four-cylinder, 80-horsepower diesel generator, which creates enough power for a typical house. Also this truck’s A/C compressor, refrigeration unit, and ice cream machine.
Officially known as “multi-stop trucks”—or "step vans," in traditional Chevy parlance—they’re go-to’s for everyone from UPS and Fed Ex to bakeries and SWAT teams. In a life spent crawling through neighborhoods, maybe 30 miles a day, a well-tended Mr. Softee truck can last decades. Perusing vintage photos in the wood-paneled office, I spot a Ford Truck ad from 1962, touting the durability of the 600 some-odd trucks Mr. Softee had converted. A handful of Sixties and Seventies models still work the streets, including a 1977 specimen standing proudly outside the shop. It’s freshly repainted, with new decals of the company’s familiar bow-tied mascot, his head a triple-swirl of ice cream.
Five decades ago, a Mr. Softee cone cost 25 cents, Conway recalls from his own childhood, and a fully outfitted truck for $5,000. Since then, the family has stuck with the same trusty flavors—chocolate or vanilla—but a cone now costs about $2. And a new, turnkey Mr. Softee truck will set you back $137,000, more than a Porsche 911 GT3. The latter may satisfy your soul, but not your sweet tooth. Between truck payments, fuel, maintenance, ice cream and ingredients, a good operator “had better gross over $100,000” to make a decent living, Conway says. A hard-working Mt. Softee operator can run through 2,000 gallons of ice cream mix in a six-month season. (For the record, a main difference between soft and traditional varieties is the percentage of butterfat: About 6 to 10 percent for soft, double that for hard). At 40 cones per gallon, that’s 80,000 cones, cherry-dipped, rainbow sprinkled or otherwise. How many of those end up on a sidewalk, mourned by a fumble-fingered child? It’s too sad to think about.
And that famous jingle? Originally written for Sixties radio by a Philly ad agency, the Mr. Softee melody proved an earworm, and the Conway brothers soon installed old-fashioned music boxes to broadcast it from the trucks. On today’s trucks, the amplified boxes have gone electronic. But Ray Dougherty CQ, a mechanic at the shop, locates an analog, NOS music box in a row of parts shelves. Dougherty slowly dials its gleaming brass drum, the bumps on its face plucking the tuned teeth of a metal comb called a “lamellae.” The sing-song tune, which vaguely recalls “Pop Goes the Weasel,” chimes in the shop at surprisingly high volume. The original even features lyrics, preserved on sheet music on the company Web site, and sung at your peril, including:
The creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream
You get from Mr. Softee
For a refreshing delight supreme
Look for Mr. Softee
The jingle, as any New Yorker will tell you, provokes wildly polarizing reactions. Either you get all nostalgic for summertime and lost youth, or you want to rupture your eardrums with a popsicle stick. Back in 2004, then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was clearly no fan; the city actually considered banning the tune, at least when broadcast through the tinny speakers of a Mr. Softee truck. Conway had to hire a lobbyist to persuade City Council members that, without the Pied Piper effect, his family business and franchises would melt like a cone in a toddler’s mitts. A noise-pollution compromise was reached: Mr. Softee and other purveyors can entice customers with music on-the-move, but not while trucks are stopped.
For better or worse, Conway says, the song is the company signature, to the point that people who meet him often begin humming it. Recently, the company successfully sued a pesky Queens-based truck operator, Dimitrios Konstantakakos, for allegedly ripping off the trademarked jingle, in the identical key of E flat major. Mr. Softee might be on its third generation of customers, Conway says, but some things never change: Kids still love ice cream, and they love it even more when served from a melodious truck.
“It’s Pavlovian,” Conway says with a smile. “When they see the truck and hear that music, there’s gratification at the end of that deal.”