On a hot night in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, Jaime Cabal had a line of customers at his Mister Softee ice cream truck. He blended smoothies, topped bowls of vanilla ice cream with strawberries and dipped cones in cherry peel and blue raspberry. One boy, as soon as he finished his sandwich, begged his parents for more, pointing to the lollipops on the menu shaped like SpongeBob SquarePants, Sonic the Hedgehog and Tweety Bird.
Crowds like these are becoming increasingly rare for ice cream vendors across the country as high fuel prices fuel inflation, leaving some ice cream truck owners questioning their future in the business.
Owning an ice cream truck used to be a lucrative proposition, but for some, the expenses have become unsustainable: the diesel that powers the trucks has surpassed $7 a gallon, vanilla ice cream is $13 a gallon, and now a case of 25-pound chips cost about $60, double what it cost a year ago.
Many vendors say the end of the ice cream truck era is years in the making. Even the garages that house these trucks are evolving, leasing parking spaces to other types of food vendors as ice cream truck lines thin out.
Parks, swimming pools, and residential streets used to be prime territory for the ice cream man. But now, more often than not, a soda truck’s jingle sounds to a no-man crowd, as prices for some cones with add-ons like swirled ice cream and fudge sauce hit $8 at some trucks.
Although no organization appears to have hard numbers on how many ice cream trucks are currently working on the streets of New York City, some owners said they would likely go out of business in the next few years. It’s a sentiment being felt across the country, where mobile ice cream vendors face higher costs for city permits and registration, and stiff competition from other ice cream businesses, said Steve Christensen, executive director of the Association. of North American Ice Cream.
The ice cream truck, he said, “is unfortunately becoming a thing of the past.”
New delivery methods are proliferating, through third-party apps or ghost kitchens. Traditional ice cream outlets are focusing on providing a fun experience, she said, serving dozens more flavors than a traditional ice cream truck can offer, driving lines away.
“It’s horrible,” said Mr. Cabal, the ice cream vendor in Queens, who has worked in ice cream trucks for the past nine years. Inflation has even raised the cost of mechanical truck parts. Last year, when his slush 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 the part almost doubled, to $3,000. Now the slushie is off the menu and the machine is in his garage.
In 2018, Mr. Cabal thought the business at 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, New York, and bought a franchise. by Mr. Softee. He won a contract with the city to operate the park.
Despite the tens of thousands of dollars he pays each year for that permit and others, Cabal has faced unlicensed vendors selling fruit, empanadas, and Duro wheels in baby strollers, and even ice cream from carts placed strategically around his truck. He said that they lowered the price so much that it is impossible for him to compete.
In Lower Manhattan, Ramón Pacheco is struggling with his recent decision to raise his prices by 50 cents to offset some of his biggest daily expenses, like $80 on gas ($15 before the pandemic) and $40 on diesel ($18 before). He now pays about $41 for the three gallons of vanilla ice cream that used to cost him $27.
He has sold ice cream for 27 years, and since the pandemic, he said he has noticed a drop in demand. He now earns as little as $200, before expenses, selling ice cream for nine hours. Sometimes if a regular comes to him with $2 for an ice cream, he will just sell it at a loss.
“I am 66 years old and I am tired,” Pacheco said in Spanish, adding that he is thinking of selling his truck next year.
Carlos Cutz decided to quit his job at a deli two years ago to work in an ice cream truck to support himself, his wife and three children. He took out a loan and bought his own truck in May.
The ice cream man he bought it from had a store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Cutz has resisted raising prices to avoid alienating his customer base, though his expenses have doubled for items like a 250-pack of cake cones.
“These have been the worst years for ice cream trucks,” he said in Spanish, adding, “I’m going to try to do my best to continue this business. I’m feeding my family and I can’t leave a business I haven’t tried.”
The price of gas has been the most impactful expense in recent months for Andrew Miscioscia, owner of Andy’s Italian Ices NYC, which operates three trucks for private catering events. He spent $6,800 in June on gas alone. Miscioscia turned to catering during the pandemic when sales fell on the Upper West Side.
“People are not going out like they used to,” he said. “And there’s a lot of competition out there.”
Still, the appearance of an ice cream truck on a hot summer day is still exciting for many. At Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Domenica Chumbi, of Hillside, NJ, held up a vanilla cone dipped in cherry peel for her quinceañera photos. The pink ice cream not only matched her dress and the cherry blossom theme of her party, but also evoked memories of childhood visits to the park.
“It’s something that reminds me of New York,” he said.