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A Brief History of Mister Softee

Summer in America is punctuated by the song of the ice cream truck. When that twinkly melody plays, children turn — as if guided by Pavlov himself — in the direction of the frozen treats, mouths slightly agape, a drunken longing in their eyes. Thousands of ice cream trucks roam residential streets in the US, but no truck is as ubiquitous as Mister Softee, the quintessential summertime cheap eat. Here is its story, told through the eyes of its founders and one of Mister Softee's current drivers.

"Sometimes I don't think I'd like ice cream so much if my dad hadn't been a Mister Softee driver." Shevonne Guishard-Lambert — a young lady with a quick laugh and strong will, born and raised in New York City — owns and operates a Mister Softee truck, which she drives around Brooklyn seven days a week and eight months out of the year, "except when it rains." Guishard-Lambert grew up in the business; her father Hillary Guishard is the owner of Brooklyn's only Mister Softee franchise, which serves both Brooklyn and Queens. The elder Guishard personally owns about eight trucks; the other dozen or so that park in his East New York lot are operated by individuals who rent space and purchase his Mister Softee-branded ingredients and supplies.

"Selling ice cream is like fishing. Sometimes you catch something, and sometimes you don't, but you always have to go out."

"I started with one truck, this was back in the 1980s," the elder Guishard says, "and then I bought another. Then I saved up and bought the franchise from the guy who had been running it." He lets out a long, determined sigh. "It gives you what you put into it." Guishard works seven days a week, like his daughter, from about 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. To say Guishard's two daughters grew up on his ice cream trucks wouldn't be far from the truth.

During a recent five-hour ride on Shevonne's truck, ice cream sales were steady but slow. I imagined crowds of children emanating from the open window, clamoring for a cone, dollar bills in raised hands, parents trying to keep some sense of order. Instead, Guishard-Lambert drove steadily through her route, stopping at homes where folks were out front or hanging out on their stoop. Mr. Guishard noted, "The thing about when it's hot like this is that people stay inside, in the air conditioning. Or they go to the pool." Though there were a few kids playing basketball in the street, or riding bikes with training wheels on the sidewalk, selling ice cream is "like going fishing. Sometimes you catch something, and sometimes you don't, but you always have to go out."

Photo: Daniela Galarza

After high school, Shevonne studied autism diagnosis at a college in Florida. She moved back to New York five years ago, and "this truck was a wedding gift from my dad," she explains. The "small" truck is about the size of a postman’s van. Inside, it’s outfitted with a wall of freezers; a counter; a two-basin sink; a row of containers for sauces, dips, sprinkles, and jimmies; a soft-serve ice cream machine (with three nozzles, one for vanilla, one for chocolate, and one for a swirl of the two flavors); and a slushie machine. Mister Softee offers about 10 unique creations — including vanilla cones with cookie crumbles, blue raspberry slushees, and banana boats (basically a banana split) — but also keeps a stock of ready-made frozen "novelties" like colored pops shaped into Minions and Spidermen, a favorite among toddler boys. There’s a blender on the truck for whipping up milkshakes, too. Mister Softee, the parent company, doesn’t dictate each truck’s menu beyond soft-serve ice cream. Slushees are very popular, and so all trucks offer those too, but some trucks also carry neighborhood-specific favorites. In certain parts of Brooklyn, fans ask for ice cream mixed with Grape Nuts cereal or rum raisins — a Jamaican specialty — so Shevonne keeps these in stock, too.

Soft-serve ice cream has always been a cheap eat, something sweet to indulge in on a hot day. When the Conway family, the founders of Mister Softee, started selling green-colored ice cream out of their first truck on St. Patrick’s Day in 1956, they charged the citizens of West Philadelphia just 10 cents per cone.

Mister Softee started in Pennsylvania, but is now based in New Jersey and operates in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Illinois, Virginia, Maryland, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. At its height, in the late 1960s, there were 1,000 Mister Softee trucks rolling full-time around pools and parks across 15 states. Today, that number has shrunk to about 600 trucks, mirroring the country’s decreased ice cream consumption and due, somewhat, to competing businesses.

Alexis Lamster/Flickr

Photo: Alexis Lamster/Flickr

A Brief History

The business of the most famous soft-serve ice cream truck in America, Mister Softee, started auspiciously on March 17, 1956. In 1955, brothers William and James Conway worked at a company called Sweden Freezer, one of the largest manufacturers of ice cream machines in the US. The concept of the ice cream truck started at least a century earlier, but in the early ‘50s, people started coming to the company to buy ice cream machines to install in trucks. Not having done this before, the Conways, reps for Sweden Freezer, were happy to sell ice cream machines to these jury-rigged trucks.

Jim Conway, William's son and the current co-owner and vice president of Mister Softee, explains why this was problematic. "At the time, they were taking the ice cream machines and bolting them to the truck, but for a lot of reasons, that doesn’t really work well," he says. "You need shock absorbers, and you need to be able to keep the machine cool." Eventually the machines wouldn’t work properly, and would be returned for repairs and warranty work. The elder Conways came to the conclusion that if Sweden Freezer was going to sell ice cream makers for trucks, they needed to invest time and money in a separate division that would specifically service and supply ice cream trucks. But people at the company didn’t agree with this vision. In 1965, the Conways left Sweden with the idea to start an ice cream truck business, using their technical knowledge and skill to build an ice cream machine that would work well on a truck. The two men went to an uncle who was a successful restaurateur in Philadelphia at the time — Pat Cavanaugh, whose name remains a fixture in the local hospitality circuit  — and borrowed money. That’s how Mister Softee was born.

The name "Mister Softee" was developed in cooperation with an advertising agency. Talent there also designed the logo, which hasn’t changed since the company’s inception. At first, the Conways' original idea was to manufacture and sell unbranded ice cream trucks. According to Conway, the brothers ended up doing "a lot of handholding with the people they sold to... that's when they decided if they were going to make any money, they should start a franchise so they could get a stream of revenue from each sale."

When it comes to the franchisees, the history of ice cream sales in America mirrors its immigration patterns. In Ice Cream: A Global History, author Laura B. Weiss writes ice cream's rise in America came thanks to immigrants from Italy and France who had mastered smooth ice cream and silky sorbets. Having no start-up capital, these immigrants purchased wooden wagons and sold ice cream from hand-pushed carts to pedestrians and passers-by. Mirroring the rise of ice cream trucks in America, since the 1950s, Mister Softee’s business has attracted what Conway affectionately calls "the immigrant of the moment." In the early 1960s, most of Mister Softee’s franchisees were Irish, Italian, and Greek. Over time, the company began selling more to African-Americans or people of Caribbean descent. Minorities reaching for the middle class have often turned to niche businesses in service or transportation, but what American dream is better than one that involves a sweet swirl of ice cream? In the late 1990s, persons of Hispanic descent, particularly those from Puerto Rico, became some of the biggest franchise owners. Today, Conway says families from the Middle East are buying into the soft-serve dream.

And while the social economics of an ice cream truck are complex, the financial economics of a Mister Softee truck are fairly simple. Mister Softee’s proprietary ice cream machines can be set to churn a mix with either six or 10 percent butterfat. The higher the butterfat, the more air, or overrun, the mix can hold. But a lower butterfat mix also means the mix is higher in sugar. Conway says Mister Softee offers vendors two different mixes catering to regional variations in taste: North of Pennsylvania, customers prefer a higher butterfat ice cream; in the Carolinas and further South, they go for the sweeter, lower-fat mix.

Photos: Daniela Galarza

A Day on the Truck

Today, Mister Softee is based in Runnemede, NJ and the average price of a cone from New Jersey to Miami, from Arizona to Chicago is about $2. (Because everything is more expensive in New York City, trucks in Manhattan start cone prices at $2.50 or $3.) "I have some blocks where I'll sell small cones for $1, because I can tell things are hard for these families," Shevonne Guishard-Lambert says. Indeed, Guishard-Lambert’s business doesn't just ebb and flow with the seasons — demographics play a large part in each summer's sales. Riding along with her one recent weekend afternoon, as we drove down a street shaded by tall oaks, Guishard-Lambert explained, "This used to be a $40 block for me," meaning she used to sell at least $40 worth of ice cream on the block. The reason for the low turn out today? "They tell me the guy that used to buy ice cream for the block got picked up by the cops for selling drugs." He's in jail now, and the people who still live on the block might not have money for small luxuries like an ice cream cone.

"The lady who has that block has kids, too. She wouldn't take my business and I wouldn't take hers."

On an average day, Guishard-Lambert stocks her truck with about six gallons of vanilla soft-serve base, plus additional chocolate base. She estimates that for each gallon of base she makes about $100. The truck pulls over at a barber shop where a few guys are hanging out outside. It's a hot day, but there’s a slight breeze. "This is where I stop if I have to use the bathroom," Guishard-Lambert says. Everyone's tired and hungry after five hours on the truck; there are still six hours left in the day. Guishard-Lambert asks her aunt to count the cash. "Me and Kyle [her best friend, whom she brought into the family business], we have a competition going to see who can make the most money. He usually wins." But, Guishard-Lambert is an exacting businesswoman. She makes ice cream cones with the same precision that she gives out change. Every inch of her truck is spic-and-span; the moment anything gets out of order, she sets it right again.

And, like any good business woman, Guishard-Lambert is out to make a profit. "When you get into this business, you buy the truck and with it you get a territory," she explains. Some territories are better than others, with pools and parks, schools and busy intersections. And though she could drive down a busy street that isn't in her territory when the competition isn't around, Mister Softee drivers respect each other’s turf. "I've got a mouth to feed now," she looks into the distance, "and I know that lady that has that block has kids, too. She wouldn't take my business and I wouldn't take hers." Guishard-Lambert's son was born a year ago. Like her, he's doing some of his growing up on a Mister Softee truck. It's not an easy life, but at the end of the day, it sure is sweet.

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