You’ve seen these ice cream trucks in Atlanta — old, beat-up vans covered haphazardly in stickers that bear warning signs like “WATCH FOR CHILDREN” and “PURCHASE FROM CURB SIDE ONLY.” They often play the kiddie song “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” It’s a tune that might be associated more closely these days with “Chain Hang Low,” the 2006 ringtone sensation by one-hit-wonder rapper Jibbs.
You may have driven by the intersection of Howell Mill Road and Defoor Avenue in west Midtown, where some of those ice cream trucks are based. If you were shocked to see all those shabby vans lined up in neat rows, you’re not alone. The first time I saw the distribution hub, I thought, “Wait, there’s more than one of those ice cream trucks?”
In fact, there are dozens of those ice cream trucks in town, about 50 of which are owned by Frosty Treats Inc. Technically operating as a distributor, its ice cream truck empire stretches from Georgia to Texas, and as far north as Iowa. The company, which has been in business for more than 20 years, does have some competition in Atlanta. Another company called Atlanta Ice Cream Trucks has a fleet of similar, if slightly newer-looking, trucks that cover the metro area as well.
Here’s how it works, in Atlanta and elsewhere, with Frosty Treats: The company owns the trucks and supplies the ice cream. The drivers are independent contractors who pick up the trucks on days they want to work. They pay a small rental fee for the truck, purchase ice cream to replenish their coolers, and then hit the streets in search of customers. The drivers also are responsible for business necessities, like gasoline and the ice needed to keep products cool.
None of the Frosty Treats trucks roaming Atlanta’s streets is new. Local driver Solomon Noble said his current truck started as a 1983 Chevrolet G-Series van. But, the vehicle’s interior has been stripped and retrofitted with a huge electric freezer, a loudspeaker and a bell that Noble rings by hand. Yes, the van is 35 years old, but it runs just fine. For what it’s worth, Noble’s ice cream truck is the same model and year as the original A-Team van.
Though he is considerably more subdued than anyone on the A-Team, Noble almost certainly is a hero to kids in the neighborhoods he visits. He’s driven a similar route for the past seven years, but he’s worked as an ice cream truck driver off and on since 1982, when he needed a summer job while studying at the University of Georgia. After college, Noble began a career with the Georgia state government, but he always felt the pull of that old summer job. He’s the only Frosty Treats driver in Atlanta who’s been selling ice cream longer than his truck has been humming.
“It’s a happy job,” Noble said. “You do it because you get to make kids happy. Especially, since I had an ultra-serious job day job, it was nice to be able to sell ice cream on the weekends.”
During his last few years of full-time employment, he went back to driving ice cream trucks on the weekends for fun and extra cash. Now that he’s retired, he drives full time nearly year-round. Some weeks, he works far more than 40 hours.
Noble has a strategy that has served him well over the years. He leaves the city and travels to Social Circle, located about 50 miles east of Atlanta. His route takes him through the town’s neighborhoods, and up Ga. 11 to Monroe. On weekends, he also travels to Madison and Greensboro.
According to Noble, the drive time and fuel expense are worth it, because he can access an area with plenty of customers and little competition. He also is a model of consistency, having driven through the same area year after year.
As he drives through Social Circle, it’s clear that he’s got a routine. He taps the brakes outside certain houses, ones with toy-covered front yards and bicycle-packed carports, indicative of homes with kids. “You know the places where you should drive a little slower,” he said.
He plays “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” on the loudspeaker and rings the truck’s bell in time with the music.
When he stops, Noble greets his customers at the curb-side window.
“Hi, how are you doing today?”
His typical sale is less than $5, often much less. The prepackaged ice cream treats — like red, white and blue Firecrackers or pink and teal Cotton Candy Twirls — start at $1. He also sells bags of chips for 50 cents — Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are especially popular — and cans of soda for $1. He is unfailingly polite and pleasant, even on the few occasions when his customers do not return the favor.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist,” Noble said. “Just be courteous, and don’t cheat anybody.”
Noble’s tactics have made him successful enough that he serves as a sounding board for other, less seasoned drivers. He tells them all the same thing: Be honest, courteous and consistent, and the money will follow. According to Noble, the demands for consistency in the business are tough for some newer drivers to comprehend. He estimated that there is a core group of about 20 drivers who return to Frosty Treats each summer. The rest tend to be transients searching for an easy buck.
Noble’s strategy has worked for him, even though he does not focus on the more expensive, higher-margin treats that sell for $2-$4, like the character-themed Spider-Man and Spongebob Squarepants ice pops, or the Magnum Double Caramel bars. He noted that some drivers who visit more affluent neighborhoods sell those items at a higher rate, but don’t seem to make more money at the end of the day. He has grown fond of his territory, and his hard work and commitment have rewarded him.
Though he appreciates the flexibility, freedom and financial rewards, Noble never has considered leaving for a more modern gig-economy job, like Uber, Lyft or Postmates. The true appeal of driving an ice cream truck, he said, is in the smiles of the kids who regularly buy treats from him.
“This dollar ice cream is the highlight of their day,” Noble said.
He’s not on the A-Team, but, as a driver for Frosty Treats, Noble lives up to his name.