First published in The Record on June 28, 2019
Mister Softee’s Summer Secrets
Mister Softee is a spy. He knows things you do not, like which kids on your block love Strawberry Shortcake popsicles, and the most efficient way to navigate the Castle Industrial Park in Secaucus. Mister Softee is a big softy. He loves children, obviously. But also he loves bus mechanics and Ford salesmen, and he has a special fondness for convicted felons with eagles tattooed on their necks.
Without his machine, however, Mister Softee is nothing. Out of business. Kaput.
The heart of Mister Softee’s ice cream truck, and thus his empire, is an Electro Freeze soft-serve ice cream machine, patent number 3,898,859, manufactured by H.C. Duke & Co. in East Moline, Illinois. The machine is a beast. It kicks off heat like a mother. On a busy day, when it’s hot outside and his ice cream supply is running low and the warehouse workers and truck drivers and adorable children of America want cones with rainbow sprinkles and they want them now, right now, please, Mister Softee pours Mister Softee-brand vanilla-flavored ice cream mix into the machine’s capacious belly.
In two minutes, the Electro Freeze turns a gallon of cool white liquid into schloopy soft serve.
“Boom! It freezes up just like that!” said Sergio Gonzalez, 55, who has been a Mister Softee ice cream worker, truck driver and franchisee for 40 years. “That machine is amazing.”Baseball. Fireworks. Ice cream trucks. Only a few things are synonymous with summer, and the ice cream truck is the only one that delivers straight to your house. For kids the attraction is sensory and immediate, the Pavlovian ring of the ice cream truck’s song in the distance, the sudden rush of cold sugar on a hot summer day.
For us fogeys, it’s also a nostalgia thing. The ice cream truck reminds us that not all our summers were spent working for money. Once we were free. Our summer days were spent running and sweating and falling down and getting up and laughing about it with our friends. Those four minutes under the cream truck window were the only moments of the long hot day we actually stood still.
“I grew up in the Bronx. Whenever we heard that song of the ice cream truck we’d yell upstairs, ‘Ma! Throw some money out the window!’” said Dwayne Harwell, 61, a truck driver and Jersey City resident who Wednesday greeted Gonzalez by name and requested a vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles.
“Rainbow? Pffff,” said Alex Reyes, 31, also of Jersey City. “Chocolate’s better.”
“OK,” Harwell said, “by your standards.”
Summer symbolism and a good sugar buzz will not keep a business alive. Gonzalez owns five Mister Softee franchises, each with its own turf and truck. He controls Ridgefield Park, Little Ferry, Moonachie, Hoboken, Secaucus, Jersey City Heights, downtown Jersey City, and the backside of Jersey City, facing Newark Bay. It is a discontiguous empire, simultaneously dense and sprawling, split down the middle by the Hackensack River. It encompasses warehouses, mosques, suburban streets, baseball fields, soccer fields, computer factories and lots of other places where ice cream-loving people stand around outside.
What is the most profitable route by which a Mister Softee truck finds all those people?
It is looping. It is circuitous. It is by no means intuitive.
This week, Gonzalez started his route at 1 p.m. by the Burlington Coat Factory store at the rear of an industrial park in Secaucus. He drove in a counterclockwise corkscrew that seemed random, but in fact was timed to the minute. At 1:35, Gonzalez pulled into the parking lot of Rentex, a company that rents audio, visual and computer equipment.
The first customer requested a chocolate cone.
“You want anything on it, sir?” Gonzales said.
“Uh, nuts if you’ve got them,” said the customer.
Does Mister Softee have nuts. Please. Gonzalez yanked a steel lever on the Electro Freeze. Chocolate frozen goo unspooled from the white nozzle. Gonzalez spun right, spooned on some walnuts; spun left, plucked out a napkin; leaned right, and handed the completed cone out the window.
Forget Amazon. Only Mister Softee can deliver a customized order, with napkin, in 9.8 seconds.
“You do credit cards?” the next customer asked.
“We do everything,” Gonzalez said. “You need a receipt?”
At 1:45 p.m., Gonzalez left Rentex. Eight minutes later he stopped at County Car Wash in Secaucus. Keith Koeppel, the owner, ambled to the curb, his employees gathering around. With the boss paying, one worker ordered a Banana Boat, a triple-wide concoction of three ice cream dollops, strawberry drizzle, pineapple drizzle, chocolate syrup, walnuts and a banana sliced down the middle.
At $6, the Banana Boat is the most expensive item on the Mister Softee menu.
“Me? Oh, I don’t like ice cream,” Koeppel said. “Ha! I’m just kidding. Let me have an ice cream sandwich.”
At 3 p.m. Mister Softee arrived at New York Mutual Trading, Inc., a refrigerated warehouse where many workers are on parole from prison, Gonzalez said. One customer, with a pair of eagles tattooed on his neck and a black tear tattooed on his cheek, requested a mango slushie.
“These guys love mango slushies,” Gonzalez said. “I just sold five of them.”
At 3:30, Gonzalez arrived at ZT, a computer factory in Secaucus. A line of 25 people formed. By 3:48 the line petered out. Gonzalez didn’t leave.
“That was just the first break,” he said. “The second break starts at 3:50.”
At precisely 3:52 the factory door swung open. Another line formed. Miteshhumar Patel ordered a Tu-Tone, Mister Softee’s version of a chocolate-vanilla swirl. Patel held it up, snapped a picture, and posted it on Instagram.
“Wintertime, I’m the winner,” said Kelly Sati, whose hot catering truck sat in the ZT parking lot near Mister Softee, offering spaghetti, fried chicken, Skittles and travel packs of Motrin. “But in summer I say, ‘Hey guys. Ice cream is here.’”
By the time he left the industrial park, at 4:20 p.m., Gonzalez figured he already had earned $300. The route wasn’t always so profitable. He started by dividing the industrial park into three sections, he said. Then he went door-to-door, asking each company what time it schedules its afternoon break. At first, he hit them all.
“Then I kept the best ones, and eliminated the ones that weren’t that good,” Gonzalez said. “That took about two months.”
Gonzalez created the route, but he does not control it. The route is its own entity now, with its own requirements. If those requirements go unmet, it will die.
“I can’t be gone for more than two days in a row or else they won’t come back. So if I have an event, I have to send someone to cover for me,” he said. “You have to take care of the route.”
The route needs more than volume and speed. It also requires consistency. Arianna and Casandra Buda, ages 3 and 5, love Strawberry Shortcake ice cream pops. If Gonzalez goes two days without driving their street in Little Ferry, their mother calls to request an appearance.
“Every day they ask, ‘Where is he?’” said Carmine Buda, Arianna and Casandra’s father. “So my wife keeps Sergio’s number in her phone.”
The Metropolitan Mobile Home Park sits just beyond the Teterboro airport runway in Moonachie. Making his rounds, Gonzalez parked before a white trailer with a tiny purple bicycle out front.
“This one is really good,” Gonzalez said. “They have four or five kids, and they usually buy $20 every day.”
Gonzalez drove into the parking lot of a bus maintenance garage on County Avenue in Secaucus. Inside the bay doors, workers lay down their tools, but they did not walk outside.
“See, they’re all standing around laughing?” Gonzalez said. “They’re waiting to see if the supervisor will come out and pay for everybody. If not, they’ll have to dig into their own pockets.”
A few minutes passed. Eventually, Scott Gambina, the assistant parts manager, walked outside, followed by two dozen employees.
They cleaned Mister Softee out. Double cones. Tu-Tones. Four people ordered Banana Boats.
Then came the finale. A mechanic in a gray work shirt requested a Magnum Double Caramel Ice Cream Bar – unwrapped – dunked straight into a Banana Boat. The result was more than a heavy load of ice cream.
It was the most expensive thing anyone has ever asked of Mister Softee.
“What? Crazy!” Gonzalez said. “In all my years, I never knew anything like that could exist. Ok! Whatever you want!”
The total bill for the bus workers: $121. Gambina handed Gonzalez his personal credit card. As a kid in the Borough of Middlesex, Gambina’s favorite Mister Softee treats were popsicles shaped like the faces of professional wrestlers.
Gonzalez doesn’t carry such pops. But his Mister Softee truck is equipped with 47 delicious items, including the Batman popsicle ($2.75) and the Original Avengers Bomb Pop ($2).
Gambina did not succumb.
“I’m not going to get anything,” Gambina said. “I’m on a diet.”