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.

The Bomb Pop line produces the company's ten Bomb Pop varieties, utilizing a machine that spews rows of eighteen at a time. For, say, the Tear Jerker Bomb Pop (so named for its exceptionally sour flavor), eighteen gumballs are dropped into eighteen cylindrical stainless-steel tubes, which are then filled with white, flavored ice, creating the core. Next comes the straw-like plastic stick. Then on to a new mold, complete with fins, into which a tangle of clear plastic hoses pump colored goo. Finally the pops are wrapped, placed on a conveyor and boxed. The process is fully automated; human intervention is minimal. "Kids love sour, and these are really sour," offers Blue Bunny marketing manager Jill Feuerhelm. And indeed they are. [See "Cold Comfort".]

Much of what's manufactured by the Impulse Division is made exclusively for ice cream trucks. You cannot, for instance, walk into Schnucks and purchase an Extra Sour Double Bubble Tear Jerker Bomb Pop. You have to buy it from an ice cream man. This, says Blue Bunny's 44-year-old executive vice president Mike Wells, is a Blue Bunny innovation. Nationwide, the company contracts with 100 distributors such as Frosty Treats, who agree to stock their trucks with a preponderance of Blue Bunny products. In return for the exclusivity, Blue Bunny offers a line of items that aren't sold in stores, including the Tear Jerker. (Frosty Treats trucks also carry Good Humor and Popsicle products, but not many.)

Even if a bar is available at the grocery store, it's a smaller version. "If you look at a Bomb Pop sold off a vending truck," says Wells, "it's much larger than the piece that's in retail. It creates a better value. You can't do the price comparison of, 'Gee, I paid a buck and a half for it off the truck, but I can get six of them for a dollar and a half at a store,' because they're really not the same items."

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That said, it doesn't take a genius to do the math: A Bomb Pop bought from a truck will run you $1.25. It weighs 4.5 ounces. You can buy a two-ounce version of the same pop for $2.49 a dozen at Schnucks.

Still, that Bomb Pop is a major weapon in the hands of Blue Bunny. What, after all, is an ice cream truck without a Bomb Pop? The rhetorical weight of that question is not lost on Blue Bunny executives, who this year are celebrating a "relaunch" of the Bomb Pop. Wells Dairy purchased the iconic red-white-and-blue rocket bar in the early 1990s from Kansas City-based Merritt Foods, which created the Pop in the late '50s. "Technically, the Bomb Pop license is a six-finned, three-stage water-ice, and that shape is trademarked," Wells notes. Then he adds earnestly, "The change this year has been an amazing transformation."

Explains Jill Feuerhelm: "We wanted to add innovation to the Bomb Pop line -- add different color configurations, using different flavors. We have a new machine that gave us the ability to do various different things: You can have different-colored fins versus the core, which in the past was limited. It's still our patented six-fin shape; however, instead of it being quite so wide, we elongated it."

Back to Wells, who points out that the old Bomb Pop design required a fins-first eating approach in order to render the core small enough to fit into a kid's mouth. "The bomb pop was so big that it tended to melt quicker than they could eat it," he says. No more.

Big deal? This year, Mary Perkins reports, her branch has seen a 40-percent increase in Bomb Pop sales.

St. Louis city ordinance No. 65061 was passed on September 29, 2000, by a vote of 25-0. Its aim was to sort out the previous Byzantine, often-contradictory system of vending laws. And in a way, it did: "No person shall sell....any goods, wares, merchandise, flowers, horticultural products, services, food or beverages upon any public sidewalk, street, roadway, or roadway median within the City of St. Louis except in those areas designated by ordinance as Vending Districts," the law reads in part.

The ordinance delineates seven districts. Four of those -- the Meramec Street Vending District (which permits only the sale of agricultural products and flowers), the City Parks District and the Downtown and Wharf districts -- actually exclude ice cream vendors. The other three: an area that includes Dogtown and the neighborhoods directly south of it; a swath of far-south St. Louis south of Chippewa and west of Grand that includes the Bevo Mill and South Hampton neighborhoods; and a stretch of North Grand between Natural Bridge Road and Interstate 70.

In effect, the ordinance prohibits ice cream vendors from operating in any area of the city besides a small industrial section of North Grand and in the city's 14th and 24th wards. (Although a few municipalities impose their own restrictions, it remains legal to operate an ice cream truck elsewhere in St. Louis County, provided one acquires the proper permit.)

Like a lot of ordinances, No. 65061 is typically enforced only after complaints are received. "Because of the priorities and the amount of radio calls we handle, we normally [don't investigate] cases of street vending, whether it's for pretzels or ice cream trucks," says Major Roy Joachimstaler, commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's south patrol division. "Unless we have a report of a complaining witness, that's not one of our high priorities."

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