The Ice Cream War

It's a hot, sweaty, cutthroat business. And in most city neighborhoods, it's illegal. A report from the front lines of the battle of the Bomb Pop.

 Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

Do your ears hang low?
Do they wobble to and fro?
Can you tie them in a knot?
Can you tie them in a bow?
Can you throw them o'er your shoulder
Like a continental soldier?
Do your ears hang low?

As the white van crawls down De Soto Avenue in north St. Louis, the sound of a young boy's voice comes bellowing from an open window. It's a desperate cry directed at the white van. "Wait! Hold up! Wait!" To judge from his tone, the four-year-old could be a parched castaway on a desert island chasing a rescue plane passing overhead.

Tom Carlson
"It ain't what you do. It's how you do it": Washington Park, Illinois, is Von Harrell's territory
Jennifer Silverberg
"It ain't what you do. It's how you do it": Washington Park, Illinois, is Von Harrell's territory

Victor Montgomery pulls over, stops ringing his bell, turns off his music and waits. Sometimes bowing to children's urgent cries is a mistake, because they want what their parents are unwilling to provide: ice cream before dinner. A driver can waste a lot of time stopping for kids whose eyes are bigger than Dad's wallet.

Soon enough, though, this particular customer swings through the door and makes a mad dash for Montgomery's truck with a baggie full of change. "What's up, Little G?" Montgomery says softly.


"What you want?"

"All of them," the kid laughs. "I got a lot of money." He hands his plastic bag to Montgomery, who counts out nickels and dimes while the child admires the ice cream man's Air Force Ones. Perusing the van's decaled-on menu, the boy points to a Jolly Rancher Bomb Pop: $1.25. Montgomery compliments him on his choice, snags one from the freezer and returns the bag, now holding mostly pennies. The boy cracks open the wrapper and gets to work, and Montgomery rolls on.

Victor Montgomery has just broken the law.

According to a three-year-old ordinance, street vendors in the city of St. Louis, including ice cream truck operators, are prohibited from selling their wares outside designated districts. Initially the law went unenforced. But this past spring, police in three wards began stopping vendors. They pulled over one truck, then another, and informed the drivers that they were violating the ordinance. The vendors were let off with warnings, but Mary Perkins, a branch manager for Kansas City-based Frosty Treats, Inc., the 800-pound gorilla of local ice cream bar distributors, is worried. "Enforcing it citywide would shut us down," Perkins says. "That would shut me down."

Which would be fine with 20th Ward Alderman Craig Schmid. In Schmid's view, ice cream vendors parachute heedlessly into neighborhoods and dispense products that belong in corner groceries. Schmid jots down license numbers of the trucks that roll through his ward and calls the police on them. "There's no accountability to the community," the alderman argues. "You've got a business that blocks your street with music and bells and stuff, and kids running all over the place."

Von Harrell's route encompasses downtown St. Louis and Washington Park, Illinois. His first stop is always the Dobbs Tire Center on South Broadway, a stone's throw from Busch Stadium. On this summer afternoon, just past lunchtime, Harrell flips the switch on his music box as he drives into the parking lot, and Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" starts up. As if by magic, the mechanics are drawn out of the garage, pulling singles from their wallets. "You're early today," says Craig Dickherber, who orders a Jolly Rancher Bomb Pop. To everyone's relief, Harrell turns off the music.

Dickherber says he sticks to only a couple of treats, the other being the three-tiered fudge Bomb Pop. "He talked me into one of those watermelon Bomb Pops once," the mechanic says ruefully. "And it has candy seeds in it. I thought I had bugs in my mouth."

One of the tire guys advises the ice cream man to stop by the convention center, where thousands of fans are awaiting that evening's Metallica concert. Before the ice cream man leaves, Dickherber points over to the cylindrical edifice that houses the Millennium Hotel. "You should go on by there," he suggests. "There's a guy on the roof, and he's getting ready to jump."

"Maybe he should buy some ice cream," Harrell quips.

Harrell is pretty much his own boss. He leases his truck from Frosty Treats, Inc. and sells ice cream from mid-February straight through to October 30. (The ice-cream season officially ends the day before Halloween. Drivers don't risk going out on the holiday, Frosty Treats manager Mary Perkins says, owing to the chance a masked robber will make off with their loot.) At the start of the year, Frosty Treats stocks Harrell's van with frozen confections and bills his account $770, his cost for $1,100 worth of ice cream -- a 30 percent discount off the retail price. Out of his daily profits, Harrell must restock his freezer and also gradually pay off the $770 advance. Harrell pays for his own gas, but Frosty Treats takes care of the upkeep on the truck. He's also given a territory, from which he's not permitted to stray.

"I like the type of jobs where the harder you work, the more money you make," says the 40-year-old vendor. "Some jobs, no matter what, all you're going to make is nine, ten bucks an hour." Harrell has been a driver for sixteen years, the last six of which have been on his downtown/Washington Park territory, where he turns one of the region's most downtrodden areas into one of the company's most profitable routes.

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