Labor Day, at least by traditional standards, marked the end of the strangest New York summer in years. There were no (official) fireworks displays on the 4th of July, or outdoor concerts on Chelsea Piers. Still, after a long, frigid spring spent indoors, it was downright revelrous. People fled to the parks as soon as the temperature broke 65, spending long weekend days on blankets with a six-pack from the nearby bodega.
Labor Day was no exception, at least in Domino Park. Built directly under the Williamsburg Bridge on prime real estate along the East River, the brand-new $50 million park is an ode to the city, and a tourist magnet: sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline, pristine lawns, and even an upscale taco stand by Shake Shack’s Danny Meyers.
Even though outdoor dining opened in New York a few months before, many still preferred to take their food to Domino. A cottage industry of food trucks had emerged around the two entrances to provide dining options: a Halal cart, a truck hawking chicken fingers, and, of course, the ubiquitous ice cream truck. That Monday, I counted three.
labeled ice cream trucks as essential businesses
Ice cream trucks are an undeniable hallmark of summer. The image of children rushing out of their homes at the sound of the jingle conjures the season as much as a night game at a ballpark, or a backyard cookout. This is especially true in New York, with its iconic Mister Softee franchise.
I was stuck in my tiny apartment as March turned to April turned to May. I knew it was finally summer when I heard the telltale song of the ice cream truck coming down the street—the first sign that some degree of normalcy was starting to return to the city.
Andy Arevalo, a 35-year-old ice cream truck driver, remembers those early summer days well. I spoke with him as Labor Day came to an end, parked at his normal spot on the northside of Domino Park.
Early on in quarantine, the city labeled ice cream trucks as essential businesses, giving Andy the greenlight to go out on his routes. As everyone was stuck indoors, he was driving down the streets. Kids would beg their parents for a few dollars and rush down from their apartments to mob the truck. “Through the bad moments, we gave them a little bit of hope,” Andy told me.
Andy is a one-man shop, serving up any possible permutation of soft serve that you could think of: sugar cones, waffle cones, single cones, double cones, cherry dipped swirl, chocolate dipped swirl, nuts, chocolate sprinkles, rainbow sprinkles—you have it. He even serves shakes and floats, all from a tiny kitchen that can’t be more than a couple square feet.
Staying Afloat During Uncertain Times
Andy is also independent. He doesn’t belong to the Mister Softee empire, which began in 1956. In fact, Andy told me that Mister Softee doesn’t even reign supreme in New York City anymore. Instead, it’s mostly relegated to Long Island, and perhaps the Bronx. Like countless other operators now, Andy operates his own mini-fleet of five trucks, although most have been out of commission this summer.
“I grew up in an ice cream truck,” Andy told me. His grandfather drove one from 1960, and Andy used to work with him as a helper. In those days, you couldn’t buy ice cream cones in supermarkets or corner delis like today. Ice cream trucks were the only option. For Andy’s grandfather, at 25 cents a cone, business was booming.
About 15 years ago, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Andy bought his first ice cream truck. It was an old one, Andy told me, and it only cost $10,000, causing more problems than it was worth. Today, new trucks are worth over $80,000.
Still, Andy went out on his routes every day, and he gradually saved up enough to expand his fleet. He didn’t start making a profit until two or three years ago. “Every year was just surviving,” he told me.
The ice cream business already operates on razor-thin margins. Operators have to pay for the ingredients, of course, along with fuel, maintenance costs, and permits. Food vendor permits in New York work like the notorious taxi medallion system. Even though there are an estimated 20,000 vendors, the city only allows for around 5,000 permits. As a result, permits are sold on a secondary market, often for as high as $25,000.
Luckily, Andy had a permit handed down to him, but he had other things to worry about. Unlike other food carts, ice cream trucks can only really operate from April until October. Although Andy keeps his running the rest of the year, parking outside schools or malls, business is meager.
He also has to compete with other ice cream trucks for prime real estate, especially around desired locations like Domino Park. According to Andy, there’s another secondary market for this, where vendors unofficially sell each other their spots. It’s not regulated by the city, but just a trust system between vendors.
Andy bought his spot from another vendor who had been there for years. “Usually other trucks, they respect it and they don’t come,” he said. But there’s still competition. On Labor Day, I saw another truck operating just 100 feet away. “I could come here tomorrow, and there’s a truck here. I don’t own nothing,” Andy told me.
During the summer of Covid, Andy and his truck served as a much-appreciated escape for New York’s residents. Even so, it’s been the toughest season Andy can remember. “It’s almost impossible,” he said.
His prices are already high—higher than one might expect, with cones costing anywhere from $5-10. Although he charges lower prices in lower-income areas, it’s still out of reach for a number of families. Andy’s own costs are so high he can’t afford to charge anything else, but it’s still put a damper on business. People need to buy groceries before they can afford luxuries like ice cream, he told me. Places like Domino Park are more profitable, although his reliable customer base of tourists dried up this summer.
a simple gesture of contentment
That doesn’t stop people from treating themselves. At one point during our conversation, a dad and his young son came up to Andy. The son gestured at a double cone, which Andy said would cost $7. The dad grimaced and reached a deal with his son—if he finished a single cone, he could get another one.
Ten minutes later, the son finished his single cone. The dad asked if he wanted another. “No,” the son replied. “I want a milkshake!” The dad complied.
This is what keeps Andy going. It may not be an easy business—Andy started up the truck at 9 AM, and at this point it’s around 10 PM. He said he’ll be there until the park closes around 11. Even so, his ice cream brings people a simple gesture of contentment, especially with all the uncertainty around us.
Through everything, as long as there are ice cream trucks going down the street, it’s summertime in New York. Andy has been doing this since before he can remember, and he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“Ice cream is everything to me. It’s given me everything I have,” Andy told me. “Every day I get in the truck, I’m a happy man.”
Photos by Leo Schwartz