Soft-serve defiance: Ice cream trucks ply Brooklyn streets
New York – Usually a welcome harbinger of spring and summer, Mister Softee’s signature jingle has made a startling juxtaposition to the piercing wails of ambulances on Brooklyn’s otherwise quiet streets.
Not the image the soft-serve ice cream truck company’s management wants at the moment, but a few desperate franchise owners are out selling swirls anyway.
About 10 Mister Softee truck franchisees have gone rogue, disregarding requests from headquarters by peddling popsicles even as officials restrict business operations and tell people to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We can say, ‘Don’t go out,’ but we don’t have the keys to every single truck,” said Mike Conway, vice president at Mister Softee.
Legally, those drivers are within their rights. Food truck workers have been deemed essential by New York state, and while truck owners elsewhere in the city voted unanimously to temporarily stop selling swirls, about 10 of the roughly 80 Brooklyn-based franchisees are still operating on the near-empty streets.
Mister Softee initially moved to lock down its 350 New York City-based trucks before realizing the company legally couldn’t stop its drivers, Conway said.
“I don’t know if I would call this essential,” said Adam Quiles, who hopped off his bike to buy water from a Mister Softee truck parked by Canarsie Pier on Saturday. “But everybody has to make a buck, I guess.”
A handful of Mister Softee drivers fanned out Saturday with temperatures approaching 60 degrees and the sun shining.
One parked in central Brooklyn played the company’s bouncy jingle on loop but didn’t appear to draw much traffic.
Mutlu Gani also took out his truck Saturday, parking near Canarsie Pier, which offers a good of view of Kennedy Airport traffic, around 12:30 p.m. and setting up shop at one of his usual spots for the past 17 years.
Gani is not concerned about endangering himself or his customers because he hasn’t had enough visitors to threaten social distancing measures, he said. He wears gloves and a facemask – gloves are standard in normal times – and hasn’t sensed that the risk is worth giving up his only opportunity to make money, even if it barely covers his overhead.
“This year, I don’t know how I’m going to pay rent, support my family,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Gani had four customers in his first hour Saturday, including Jared Bridges and his 5-year-old son, Jacob, who pulled down his face mask to snack on a SpongeBob SquarePants pop.
“It’s a nice day; it shouldn’t stop us from enjoying our lives and enjoying our kids,” Bridges said. “(Gani) had his mask, his gloves, wasn’t in close contact for very long. My son obviously has his mask and we hand sanitize, so I’m not worried.”
Gani said business has been terribly slow. On a bright April day like Saturday, he would normally sell $200-$300 worth of ice cream. This week, he has made as little as $30 on some shifts.
With students stuck at home, he can’t count on the after-school rush, and he is stressed about what happens if the virus restrictions stretch through most of his prime selling season.
“If it’s September, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing,” he said.
Although Mister Softee’s preference is that drivers stay home, the company is passing along federal safety recommendations to those who don’t.
“About 90-95% of our trucks up there realized, ‘Hey, this isn’t a good idea. Let’s wait it out,’” Conway said. “I don’t want to lose their customers.
“That’s our thing right now. It’s a short-term gain. You might make some money in these couple weeks, but there’s a long-term loss to your customers looking at you like, ‘What are you doing out here?’”
The company is also advising franchisees on payroll programs and other financial aid options that might help make ends meet, but Conway acknowledged there’s nothing that will fully replace the sales those drivers depend on at this time of year.
“I think every business has to ask themselves right now, you know, ‘Are we essential?’” Conway said. “If we were maybe selling lunch and dinner and things like that, that’s going to help sustain people. But I think getting ice cream is not going to be essential at this time.”