Gourmet Desserts, On the Go

By: Claire Schmidt

Good Humor employee dressed in the classic white uniform.

There is nothing quite like the sweet, refreshing taste of ice cream after spending the day in New York City’s hot summer sun, especially when the process of getting that perfect, frozen treat is the ultimate experience.  With ice cream trucks lining almost every street, satisfying one’s sweet tooth is not a difficult task. However, ice cream trucks are not at all what they use to be. Offering a more innovative, higher quality product, these new “gourmet” trucks have come a long way from selling ice cream bars on a stick. Wrapped in flamboyant colors, from pale yellow to bright blue, gourmet dessert trucks are popping up across the entire city, and they are absolutely impossible to miss.

With the popularity of gourmet food trucks increasing, the owners of 32 trucks have come together to form the New York City Food Truck Association (NYCFTA). They have also hired the lobbyist Capalino and Company in order to advocate on their behalf and push for fair licensing practices as the industry continues to expand. “It’s good for all the trucks to ban together,” says Laura O’Neill, co-owner of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream and a member of the association. “So if there are issues, we can deal with them as a group.” The bureaucracy of street vending is not always easy to maneuver, and while the journey to become established has not been without challenges, gourmet food trucks are thriving. As vendors continue to improve their product and hold themselves to stricter standards, people are starting to take notice of the increasing trend, and their perception of what street food once was is slowly starting to change for the better.

One of around 250 Mister Softee trucks currently operating in New York.

Although the gourmet food trucks in New York City are not just limited to ice cream—the types of cuisine stretch to all corners of the world from Korean barbeque to Turkish tacos—there is something both nostalgic and iconic about ice cream trucks. As one of the first really successful food truck businesses, they have become a template for all the others.  “The ice cream man is something of an American icon,” says David Belanich of Joyride, a truck that pairs frozen yogurt with Stumptown coffee. “The ice cream truck is not only a New York street food phenomenon, it’s a national phenomenon.”

The history of the ice cream truck dates back to the 1920’s when Harry Burt of Youngstown, Ohio created the Good Humor bar, a chocolate coated ice cream dessert on a stick. To market his product, Burt sent out 12 chauffeur-driven trucks, complete with bells, and men dressed in white suits to promote the company’s wholesome image. The idea was a success and just thirty years later in 1956 brothers William and James Conway had a similar plan, to create Mister Softee. With over 700 trucks currently in the system, Mister Softee is now one of the most recognizable ice cream truck franchises in the country.

The Joyride frozen yogurt and coffee truck provides customers with joy in every cup.

A lot has changed since the first Mister Softee truck was rolled out over 50 years ago; the business of selling ice cream from a truck was a lot less complicated. “There was no such thing as vending licenses and health departments or any of that kind of stuff,” says Jim Conway, the current owner of the Mister Softee franchise. “They could just go out and do their own thing,” he adds of his father James Conway and his uncle Bill.

Today the requirements for obtaining a mobile food vending license are extensive and the process is often tedious. To sell food on the street a vendor must acquire both a food vendor license and a permit from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In order to pass the department’s health inspection and secure a permit, there are many standards that a food truck must meet. According to the City of New York’s permit inspection requirements, processing trucks, like the gourmet ice cream trucks, must have stainless steel interior surfaces, a two compartment sink with a swing faucet, a 40-gallon portable water supply tank, a 46-gallon permanent waste tank, and a sufficient ventilation system, in addition to following other sanitation methods.

There is no limit on the amount of available operator licenses, but there are only 2,800 citywide food permits that may be issued. With the lengthy waitlist it can take years for new vendors to receive a permit, if at all. Some vendors who need a permit, but are unwilling to wait, turn to the black market to obtain this documentation illegally and for a price. “There are no permits for trucks out there,” says Bryan Petroff, co-owner of The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, who rents a truck from a depot in order to avoid the bureaucracy and the cost of the permit distribution. “It’s a lottery system, so if you want one you are searching on the black market,” adds Petroff, who needs only a vendor’s license to run his seasonal business.

Even with a license and a permit in hand, the government does not make it easy for people hoping to make a living in the food truck business, especially when it comes to hiring employees. “The city is basically as unhelpful as possible,” says Joyride’s Belanich. Each employee must secure a tax I.D., a process that can take two or three months. “It’s the test of how serious someone is if they are willing to go through that,” says Natasha Case, CEO of Coolhaus Ice Cream Sandwiches. In addition, all vendors are forced to take a two-day long food protection course through the Department of Health.

The Van Leeuwen ice cream truck called "the turtle" sells refreshing treats at Central Park's Tavern on the Green.

Despite the adversity, there is a lot of innovation taking place in the world of gourmet food trucks. In particular, New York City ice cream trucks are finding unique ways to dress up a simple dessert. “I think street food is getting fancier. It’s not just hot dogs anymore. Waffles, gelato, burritos, fancy ice cream, cupcakes, you name it, New York’s got it,” says Malarie Gokey, a Coolhaus supporter whose favorite sandwich is the combination of a snicker doodle cookie and dirty mint chip ice cream. Vendors are constantly morphing their product to be more original and visually appealing than before. “Our most popular dessert is the cone called the salty pimp. It’s vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt, and it’s all dipped into the chocolate,” says Petroff of Big Gay. “We love continuously experimenting. We like it to be fun, and we like to bring people back either for their favorites or something unique each time they show up,” he adds.

As a result, people are beginning to see street food in a more positive light. “As the quality of the food rises, so do people’s expectations,” states Perry Resnick, of Newyorkstreetfood.com. What were once termed “roach coaches” are now called “gourmet.”

The charm of these gourmet dessert trucks rests in their changeability, as well as in their mobility. “There’s definitely a big appeal of moving around and having the flexibility of being able to go to different events,” says Ross Resnick (no relation to Perry), the founder of Roaminghunger.com, a website that tracks gourmet food trucks in many major cities. “It keeps it really fresh and it keeps people really interested,” adds Resnick.

Social media has played a big part in the evolution of these gourmet food trucks. Twitter and other specialized mapping applications have made it possible to know where the  food trucks are at every moment. “It’s essential to the business,” Ross Resnick says of these networks. “It’s a cornerstone of the whole movement because if you don’t know up to a second whats going on, you might miss the truck.” For the trucks in New York City that have a set schedule, social media can still be useful, even if only to get the word out about the business. The idea of social media is to get people talking about them, how they look, how they differentiate” says Dan Iehl, of Gourmetfoodtrk.com and Savethefoodtrucks.com.

However, the question remains whether or not there is a sustainability in the industry of gourmet food trucks, or if it is simply a fad, like Livestrong wristbands and razor scooters. “I think like everything it will have its hugest moment, which was last year and this year,” states Petroff.  “I don’t think it can sustain that type of popularity, but it’s definitely built a foundation to keep these around for sure.”

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