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.

Victor Montgomery says he was robbed a few years back, when he was working as an independent. A man approached while Montgomery was pumping gas, showed a gun and demanded money. Montgomery gave the gunman the $13 in the truck's change box. The vendor says he is resigned to this aspect of his job and is philosophical about the threat: "If it happens, it's going to happen."

Frosty Treats' Mary Perkins is reticent about discussing the topic of robberies, citing fears for the safety of her drivers. According to Perkins, robberies involving her trucks have declined in recent years, though they remain a constant concern. "Years back we had problems," Perkins says. "Every now and then one would get robbed. And we'd report it to the police, and maybe they'd get someone, maybe not."

Early this summer a lone assailant robbed Valickas Paulius, a 22-year-old student from Lithuania who was driving a Frosty Treats truck in north county. According to police, a man approached Paulius' truck while it was stopped at an intersection in the Glasgow Village area southwest of the Chain of Rocks Bridge. The man got in the van, ordered Paulius to lie down and then shot him, execution-style, numerous times. After driving Paulius' truck to the intersection of Grand Avenue and Broadway in north St. Louis, the gunman left the driver for dead.

"Enforcing it citywide would shut us down," Mary Perkins, manager of Frosty Treats' north side branch, says of the city's vending ordinance
Jennifer Silverberg
"Enforcing it citywide would shut us down," Mary Perkins, manager of Frosty Treats' north side branch, says of the city's vending ordinance
Major Roy Joachimstaler of the St. Louis Police Department
Jennifer Silverberg
Major Roy Joachimstaler of the St. Louis Police Department

Miraculously, Paulius survived. A St. Louis County police spokesman says the vendor has since returned to his native Lithuania, where he is recovering.

In St. Louis, if you sell ice cream from a truck, chances are you deal with Frosty Treats, Inc. The company holds local distribution rights to every Bomb Pop, Mickey Mouse fudge bar, Monsters, Inc. Mike bar, Goofy Scoop, Tweety bar, Powerpuff Girl bar and Ninja Turtle bar sold on any truck in town -- not to mention a handful of cups, freezes and ice cream sandwiches.

Frosty Treats' Broadway outpost, one of the company's two local branches, isn't much to look at. Given the joy that accompanies the arrival of a truck, you'd expect a Willy Wonka palace, or at least some streamers or balloons. Instead, the business is located in a nondescript single-story building with an attached parking lot, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Mornings, the company's eighteen vans are parked outside in neat rows. Frosty Treats prefers late-'80s Chevy vans, purchased used. It costs about $6,000 to transform a van into an ice cream truck; most of the money goes into the cost of the freezer. Once converted, the vans are driven until pieces start to fall off or they start to look shabby. Then they're patched together and driven some more. It's not uncommon to see a Frosty Treats driver behind the wheel of a van with 250,000 miles on the odometer.

Mary Perkins has managed this branch for two years and has been here in some capacity for another sixteen. She's worked the books, stocked the freezers, driven the trucks and placed the orders. Even on a St. Louis summer day, Perkins dresses for the cold life, in thick coveralls and a knit cap. When she emerges from the enormous freezer, the crystallized fog rolling out along with her, it's as though she's exiting a dream, or Heaven.

Closer to Heaven, ice-cream-wise, is Le Mars, Iowa. Le Mars, population 10,000, is about a half-hour north of Sioux City, amid rolling hills and farmland. There's not much to it, in a good, clean, American way -- a charming prairie town that has retained its local retailers, a town whose best restaurant serves its entrées with salad, a vegetable plate and choice of French fries or baked potato. Le Mars owes much of its existence to Blue Bunny Ice Cream, a division of Wells Dairy, a privately held company founded in 1913 by Fred H. Wells and still owned by the Wells family. If Anheuser-Busch were located in Festus rather than in south St. Louis, the brewery would subsume the burg in a similar fashion. No need to ask for directions; visitors are greeted at the town line by a big sign welcoming them to The Ice Cream Capital of the World.

Tourists hankering for a glimpse of the ice cream-making process must trek a mile north onto the main drag of Le Mars, where the Blue Bunny visitor center and ice cream stand has consumed a small strip mall. Museum director June Ferguson, a native St. Louisan who moved to Le Mars five years ago, collects the three-dollar admission fee from curiosity-seekers. Memorabilia items -- from early stabs at novelty treats to old-time ice cream scoops to antique pamphlets -- are housed in display cases. Two videos shown in a mini-theater trace the history of ice cream and Wells Dairy. One room is given over to a mock production line.

The manufacturing plant is located on a vast plot across Highway 75 from Le Mars' Wal-Mart and McDonald's. This is where Mary Perkins faxes her ice cream order every Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. (A typical order during the prime of the summer, Perkins says, calls for more than 80,000 frozen treats.) And it is here, in Blue Bunny's Impulse Division, that the company pumps out its Bomb Pops, sandwiches, cups, cones and "face bars," these last being products fashioned in the likenesses of various cartoon characters -- Bugs Bunny, Spider-Man and the like -- which are made to resemble ice cream but contain no dairy ingredients whatsoever. Inside, the place looks very 2001: all white and dominated by a loud, rumbling hum. All occupants, visitors and workers alike, wear white smocks, blue booties and hairnets.

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