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The Enduring Allure of the Ice Cream Truck

Amid coronavirus isolation, a roving van of frozen treats brings smiles to all ages

A school bus with the sign "Peaches & Ice Cream" and a line of people
A crowd forms in front of the Peaches and Ice Cream truck, pre-pandemic.
Courtesy of Bill Pietsch

Bill Pietsch's summer job has been a real scream — from the stress of running a food truck during a pandemic to the joys of seeing faces light up when his ice cream truck rolls through a neighborhood.

During the school year, Pietsch is a high school special ed English teacher and a football coach in Wall Township, New Jersey. For extra cash in the summer, he runs Peaches & Cream Ice Cream Truck on the Jersey Shore.

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Since COVID-19 has been keeping people isolated and working at home lately, he's been making door-to-door deliveries for those who crave human interactions as much as the sweet treats.

A man stands smiling with ice cream in his hand
Bill Pietsch enjoys a Bomb Pop popsicle.
Courtesy of Bill Pietsch

"We're all stuck at home, right?” he says. “And I'd show up, and you'd see the smiles of a lifetime. The kids are responding well. And then when the kids are smiling, mom and dad are smiling. And they're taking pictures and stuff like that. And they're leaving me artwork: ‘Thank you, Mr. Pietsch.’ Drawing a picture of an ice cream cone, or a truck, you know what I mean? That meant the world."

Across the country, other ice cream truck drivers are sharing similar experiences. And so are their customers, young and old.

'The nostalgic feeling of it'

Woman sits inside of ice cream truck
Courtesy of Jasmine Johnson

In Blaine, Washington, ice cream truck driver Jasmine Johnson started running her Sugar Shack Ice Cream business 16 years ago because, after a move, her daughter wanted to go back to their old town simply because it had an ice cream truck.

"And I thought, ‘Why didn't I grow up with this?’ I wanted kids to have this memory,” Johnson says. She bought an ice cream truck on eBay and hasn't looked back.

"The other day, this older man, maybe in his late 70s, came out and told me that he drove an ice cream truck on the East Coast to put himself through college,” she says. “And he just couldn't believe that there are still ice cream trucks around. He wanted to buy a treat because of just the nostalgic feeling of it."

Chasing the blues away

There's definitely something to looking to our past to find happiness, says David Berry, the Toronto author of On Nostalgia, a new book that explores the pull of the past.

"During the course of my research, I found that nostalgia — one of its main purposes is essentially to make us feel better,” Berry says. “And in particular, to make us feel better not just when we're feeling bad but when we're feeling maybe a bit lost about who we are."

In the case of finding peace in the ding of ice cream bells in the middle of a pandemic, Berry says maybe we're just longing for a time when we didn't have so many worries.

A childhood dream

For Kim Tonte, who works part time on her brother's ice cream truck in Lehman Township, Pennsylvania, the family business has all of them fondly remembering the past and helping younger generations get a taste of it.

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They converted a milk delivery truck into The Ice Cream Truck 1961, one of two trucks they operate. Tonte spends her days working at a bank and her free time selling frozen treats. She likes interactions with ice cream lovers so much she considers it a hobby.

"It's actually my brother's business,” Tonte says. “When he was a little boy, we lived in town, and the ice cream truck would come around, and he'd always go running for it. So, it was one of his childhood dreams."

The one thing ice cream truck driver Jim Malin remembers about the ice cream trucks of his youth is that his parents would never let him buy any. Today, he has as much ice cream as he'd ever want.

A man sits on a ice cream truck
Courtesy of Jim Malin

Malin, owner of Jim's Ice Cream Truck in Stratford, Connecticut, likes that his job allows him to be his own boss and make people happy, no matter their age.

"It's funny because the older crowd, I can guess which ice creams they're going to get,” he says. “The young kids, you know, they want all these crazy ice creams. Whereas the older people like a Creamsicle, that's one of their favorites, for the ones who are like 70 or 80. And the ones in their 50s, they get toasted almond. I can just guess what they'll get by their age."

The original Uber Eats

The ice cream truck world hasn't gotten any more competitive in the age of COVID-19, but it has been challenging to find a business model that works amid masks, social distancing and the brave new world of 2020, says Pietsch.

At the start of the pandemic, he started letting people text or call in their orders and pay via Venmo, a mobile payment app. Then he'd deliver them in paper bags to their porches.

"I had grandmas and grandpas contacting me, ‘Hey, can you send ice cream to my grandkids?’ “ he says. And he'd deliver them with sweet notes saying, ‘From Grandma,’ ‘From Pop-Pop.’ He even set up a way for people to donate treats to frontline COVID-19 workers. All of the little gestures of $2 and $3 ice creams have added up to a lot of good will.

"I'm a ‘townie,’ “ Pietsch says. “I teach at my high school that I graduated from. And so, the funny joke that I tell people is, ‘I never got far in life. I live in the same house and I work at the same high school now.’ “

He's driven his ice cream truck for 14 years. And when the summer is over, his customers can't wait for him to come back.