On a steamy evening at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, Jaime Cabal had a line of customers in his Mister Softee ice cream truck. He was mixing milkshakes, filling bowls of vanilla ice cream with strawberries and dipping cones into cherry and blue raspberry shells. One boy had no sooner finished his treat than he begged his parents to, pointing to menu pops shaped like SpongeBob SquarePants, Sonic the Hedgehog and Tweety.
Crowds like these are becoming scarce for ice cream vendors across the country as high fuel prices fuel inflation, leaving some soft-serve truck owners questioning their future in the business.
Owning an ice cream truck was once a lucrative proposition, but for some the expenses have become unsustainable: the diesel that powers the trucks has exceeded $7 a gallon, vanilla ice cream is $13 a gallon, and a box of 25 pounds of nuggets now cost about $60, double what it cost a year ago.
Many sellers say the end of the ice cream truck era took years. Even the garages that house these trucks are evolving, renting parking spaces to other types of food vendors as the ranks of ice cream trucks dwindle.
Parks, swimming pools and residential streets were once the favored territory of the ice cream man. But now, more often than not, the jingle of a soft-serve truck plays to a crowd of people as prices for some cones with add-ons like swirl ice cream and chocolate sauce hit $8 on some trucks. .
Although no organization seems to have specific numbers on how many ice cream trucks are currently working on the streets of New York, some owners have said they will likely leave the company in the next few years. It’s a sentiment reverberating nationwide, where mobile ice cream vendors face higher costs for city permits and registration, and stiff competition from other cream businesses. ice cream, said Steve Christensen, executive director of the North American Ice Cream Association.
The ice cream truck, he said, is “unfortunately becoming a thing of the past.”
New delivery methods, via third-party apps or ghost kitchens, are proliferating. Brick-and-mortar scoop stores focus on providing a fun experience, he said, and serve dozens more flavors than a traditional ice cream truck, moving lines away from those vehicles.
“It’s awful,” said Mr. Cabal, the ice cream vendor from Queens, who has worked on ice cream trucks for nine years. Inflation even increased the cost of the mechanical parts of the truck. Last year, when his slip machine broke down, a part he needed cost $1,600. He decided to wait a few more months to fix it, but the cost of part nearly doubled to $3,000. Now the slushy is off the menu and the machine is sitting in its garage.
In 2018, Mr. Cabal thought the business in Flushing Meadows Corona Park would be good enough to support 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 this license and others, Mr. Cabal has faced unlicensed vendors selling fruit, empanadas and Duro wheel strollers, and even chicken. ice cream from carts placed strategically around his truck. He said they undercut it so much on price that it was impossible for him to compete.
In Lower Manhattan, Ramon Pacheco is grappling with his recent decision to raise his prices by 50 cents to account for some of his increased daily expenses, like $80 gas ($15 before the pandemic) and $40 diesel ($18 earlier). He now pays around $41 for the three gallons of vanilla ice cream that used to cost him $27.
He’s been selling ice cream for 27 years and since the pandemic, he said he’s noticed a drop in demand. He now earns as little as $200, before expenses, selling ice cream for nine hours. Sometimes if a regular customer comes to him with $2 for ice cream, he will sell it at a loss.
“I’m 66 and tired,” Mr Pacheco said in Spanish, adding that he plans to sell his truck next year.
Carlos Cutz decided to quit his job at a grocery store 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 parlor he bought it from had a route in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Mr. Cutz resisted raising prices to avoid alienating his customer base, even as his spending doubled on products like a pack of 250 cake cones.
“These are the worst years for ice cream trucks,” he said in Spanish, adding “I will try to do my best to continue this activity. I feed my family and I cannot leave a company that I haven’t tried.
The price of gas has been the most shocking expense in recent months for Andrew Miscioscia, the owner of Andy’s Italian Ices NYC which operates three trucks for private catering events. He spent $6,800 in June just on gasoline. Mr. Miscioscia turned to the restaurant business during the pandemic when sales plummeted on the Upper West Side.
“People don’t go out like they used to anymore,” he said. “And there’s a lot of competition there.”
Yet the appearance of an ice cream truck on a hot summer day remains a thrill for many. At Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Domenica Chumbi, of Hillside, NJ, held a vanilla cone dipped in a cherry shell for her quinceañera photos. The pink-hued ice cream not only matched her dress and the theme of her cherry blossom party, but it also brought back memories of childhood visits to the park.
“It’s something that reminds me of New York,” she says.