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.

"A lot of people take my job as a joke until they see my car and my house," Harrell goes on. "The people who do know me, they know I'm not joking about this." Harrell doesn't want to get too specific about his income, but he estimates that he grosses about $350 a day. He works seven days a week, and at the end of the season he gets a bonus of ten percent of his gross. "By the first of November, I should have about six or seven thousand dollars to last me until February and the season starts again," he says. Most years, Harrell takes the winter off.

A few minutes after he leaves Dobbs, Harrell spots the hotel jumper. A woman lies perched on a ledge 28 stories up, an arm and leg dangling precariously. Though the ice cream man's earlier comment was meant as a joke, a pearl of truth lay nestled within: It's easy to forget summer days and the feeling of joy that accompanies the bells and music, the leap of the heart that arrives with the truck, the enthusiasm for a gift as simple as something cold that turns wet and sticky and sweet when it touches your lips, that melts its way down your fingers as quickly as it erases, if only for a split second, the sorrows in your heart.

After a few circles around the block, Harrell heads to the convention center. There he finds a mass of metalheads waiting in the hot sun for the Edward Jones Dome to open its doors. Jackpot. The ice cream man flips on "The Entertainer," ding-dings his bell a dozen times. Immediately, he's barraged with sweaty kids who consume his soda and wolf down his frozen novelties. "Gimme a Tear Jerker," says a dude in a T-shirt that boasts "Potential Serial Killer." A fan with a mohawk goes straight for a Tongue Splasher. "What you want, sweetheart?" Harrell asks a bleached blonde hanging on the window. She opts for a Big Neapolitan ice cream sandwich, which she nearly swallows whole.

Victor Montgomery, who works the highly competitive near north side, carries binoculars in his van so he can keep an eye on adversaries
Jennifer Silverberg
Victor Montgomery, who works the highly competitive near north side, carries binoculars in his van so he can keep an eye on adversaries
Blue Bunny's Le Mars, Iowa, manufacturing plant pumps out Bomb Pops, ice cream sandwiches, cups, cones and "face bars"
Blue Bunny's Le Mars, Iowa, manufacturing plant pumps out Bomb Pops, ice cream sandwiches, cups, cones and "face bars"

Having tapped the rockers, Harrell heads for Washington Park. When he flips off "The Entertainer," the crowd roars its approval.

The woman who'd been threatening to jump from the Millennium, meanwhile, has been escorted down to safety, apparently having recalled those wonderful summer days.

Victor Montgomery carries a pair of binoculars in his van. That way, when the 24-year-old Frosty Treats vendor hears a distant bell, he can confirm whether it's coming from an independent driver who's competing for his business.

"Yep, there he is," says Montgomery, peering. "See him back there -- way back." The other day, Montgomery recounts, three rivals passed him on his route, so he had to think fast. (It didn't hurt that he's been in the business since he was sixteen.) "I leaped all the way down to the end of my route, and came back up to the front, because I already know: They're running like I'm running." Having spotted the indie today, Montgomery switches directions. "Last night, after I got done hitting all that down there, I saw a truck coming right up behind me, and I was like, 'Yeah, I already got it. You ain't getting that change!'" he says with obvious satisfaction.

In the ice cream wars, there are two armies: those who, like Von Harrell and Victor Montgomery, lease their trucks from Frosty Treats; and the independents.

Jim and Sharon McMillen used to roll with Frosty Treats, but now they're on their own. After he retired from the construction business, McMillen and his wife started brainstorming a way to make some money and work together. They hit on ice cream and signed on with Frosty Treats. After a time, though, they figured they'd be better off working their northern route without the company's interference. Thus was born Happy Time Ice Cream. Why break with Frosty Treats? "Money," says Jim McMillen. "Why should I give Frosty 75 percent and me buy the ice cream for 25? Now I can make upwards of 65, 70 percent." The McMillens still buy their goods from Frosty Treats (though they're not able to sell a few "exclusives" the firm offers solely to its own drivers), but they're no longer tied to a territory, and they're now responsible for their own overhead.

Another advantage for the independents: Frosty Treats restricts what its drivers can sell. They're ice cream trucks, so they don't sell candy bars, chips or bottled water. They do offer sodas, but only Vess; no big-name brands. Some of the company's drivers complain the restriction puts them at a disadvantage, given that independents can -- and do -- carry whatever they want. If Frosty Treats drivers offer prohibited items on the sly, they risk being fired if they're caught.

Jim McMillen always rides with his wife. In addition to enjoying the company, he says it's safer that way. "You can't be safe out there, one person in a truck," McMillen contends. "With just one person in there, what chance does the guy got? And although they keep it pretty low-profile, they have drivers getting robbed pretty regularly."

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