Ice cream van Routes

A love for people and attention to safe, ethical operation can help ice cream truck operators stand out.A love for people and attention to safe, ethical operation can help ice cream truck operators stand out.

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If you can drive, you can run an ice cream truck, right? Not so fast. Truck operators face a host of issues, from startup costs and city regulations to potential hostility from competing drivers. Nor do drivers get rich operating ice cream trucks. Still, selling frozen treats curbside has its rewards for drivers committed to operating safely and ethically, said Steve Oscarlece, owner of Benny & Caesars Ice Cream in Poughkeepsie, New York. Noted Oscarlece: “It’s a fun job, because who doesn’t like the ice cream man?”

Cost

It's easy for aspiring truck operators to underestimate the expense involved in getting started, Oscarlece said. It’s not as simple as buying an old van, throwing in a chest freezer and selling goodies. Doing it right could cost $20, 000 to $100, 000 or more, Oscarlece said. Startup expenses depend on how big a route is and how much it costs to buy liability insurance and obtain local health permits. What’s more, truck operators need business licenses from every city in which they work. That can get pricey: The city of Long Beach, for example, charged $369 a year for truck inspection and certification in 2009. Gasoline is also a huge expense. Oscarlece said he spent more than $150 a week on fuel in 2011, when gasoline prices averaged $3.53 a gallon nationwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Income

The industry’s expenses aren’t always matched with big earnings. Income depends on many factors, including market size, driver experience and product lineup, Oscarlece said. Beginners who run small, rural routes make as little as $10, 000 to $15, 000 a year, he said, while experienced operators in big cities such as New York take in $80, 000 a year. In some large West Coast cities such as Oakland, California, novice operators were charging $15 an hour in 2011 to serve parties. In regions with cold winters, the sales season lasts only from April to October, and operators commonly work full-time in other industries to make ends meet. Nor is the industry recession-proof. As unemployment rose and wages fell during the Great Recession, truck sales declined 25 percent or more in some neighborhoods, according to a 2009 report in the Los Angeles Times.

Operation

Preventive maintenance is key to keeping an ice cream truck running during prime, warm sales months. Regardless of how well an operator maintains a truck, fixes will always cost more than expected. So it’s imperative to keep a healthy financial reserve in case a component breaks. A freezer failure can set back an operator anywhere from $500 to $5, 000. And don’t forget the human element. Operating a truck can require long hours working in hot weather. Drivers should also check local rules that limit operating hours, regulate the number of stops and control how often a truck can work a street.

Competition

A combination of personality, research and routine truck maintenance can help operators stand out in a crowded market. Oscarlece advised cultivating patience, an enjoyment of people and a willingness to work long hours. Also, new operators should monitor their preferred route for existing trucks, because a neighborhood with regular ice cream truck visits may not need another seller. Pushing it could hurt the business, or even result in vandalism to the truck of a perceived interloper, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. “It can be very competitive, ” Oscarlece said. “I deal with a group of independent drivers, and we respect each other’s territories. But there are those who don’t. They will just go where they want, regardless of whether they have the proper permits or not. They give the industry a bad name. It’s not as easy as it looks. I recommend people find their own routes instead of trying to steal others’ routes.” A well-maintained truck also helps operators stand out, he said.

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