Image: Jingle Brothers ice cream vendor
David Massey  /  AP file
Jingle Brothers ice cream vendor Lewis McClung waits as Morgan Villegas, 6, decides which ice cream treat to purchase. Drivers such as McClung take home 35 percent of their daily sales minus a $12 daily truck rental fee and gas costs.
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updated 8/20/2005 1:41:08 PM ET 2005-08-20T17:41:08

As music-box tunes tinkle from the white van rolling down Greentree Place in sweltering heat, a man rushes forward, digging into his pocket and scanning the photographic menu.

"I haven't been to an ice cream truck in 40 years. I have no idea what I want," says the white-haired man from Massillon. Moments later, he plops a dollar bill on the counter, remembering his childhood favorite.

"How about a Creamsicle?"

Vendor Linda Phillips says the orange ice pop filled with vanilla ice cream is a classic, so it never leaves the menu.

"It's what the older people remember and what they want their kids and grandkids to experience," she says, returning to the wheel of her Jingle Brothers' ice cream truck, one of 16 in the Ohio company's fast-growing fleet and one of hundreds hitting neighborhoods nationwide.

For the old-fashioned ice cream truck business — now serving nostalgia alongside modern-day munchies like the Fantastic Four ice cream bar — business is booming. In northeast Ohio alone, three vendors have recently added to their fleets, including a Brook Park company that has 150 ice cream trucks.

The Philadelphia-based International Association of Ice Cream Vendors doesn't keep statistics but says the industry is doing as well as ever, and its membership is expected to grow.

A greater variety of treats, sales opportunities beyond residential streets (construction sites and local fairs, for example) and a growing adult customer base are among the reasons, says Lindsay Groff, spokeswoman for the ice cream association.

Jingle Brothers' Co. is certainly doing well. Owner Tracy Tanner of Wadsworth started with a fleet of 10 trucks earlier this year after he tired of the struggling, manufacturing-based economy that left him laid off twice. Now, 16 ice cream vans squeeze into his Norton lot, and he plans to add one more by season's end in September.

He adores his new career.

"When you turn around when you're leaving, the smiles, the happiness, the joy you're leaving behind — It's just a great feeling," he says.

In the old days, the now-defunct Good Humor company dominated the nation. Today, though, ice cream trucks are mainly owned by small regional companies that rent to independent drivers or individuals who go it alone.

Some, including Tanner, buy a fleet and rent to drivers such as Phillips who take home 35 percent of their daily sales _ minus the $12 daily truck rental fee and gas costs. Tanner gets the other 65 percent to cover operational and stocking costs: He supplies 64 varieties of ice cream from various suppliers to every truck.

Phillips says that, so far, her best day netted more than $400 in sales. She's been working six days a week, now aiming for $500.

It's tough work. Few trucks are air-conditioned, and because they crawl along areas usually packed with children, the drivers rarely catch a breeze.

"My shoulders hurt real bad at the end of the day," Phillips says in the middle of a route through Massillon, a city with bumpy, well-worn streets but potential customers in 13,539 homes. The route will eat up a tank of diesel fuel and about 14 hours of her day.

Creating happy memories is what attracted Jasmine Johnson, 25, of Blaine, Wash., to the business. She updated a 1969 Ford Grumman-style Good Humor truck and started a route earlier this year to supplement her husband's income. The couple's 6-year-old daughter rides along.

Johnson says she loves the kids' enthusiasm. "There are also the 60-plus-year-olds that can't believe they see an ice cream truck just like the ones they remember, and they are jumping up and down in excitement as well."

Though the majority of customers are joyful, a few require patience — a child with a fistful of pennies who asks Phillips to count them three times or the young man from a housing project who asks, "Did anyone ever tell you that music is annoying as hell?"

Tanner's trucks play 32 different tunes _ from "Pop Goes the Weasel" to "Happy Birthday." All are in the music-box style. Phillips plays a carnival-style song that ends with a robotic sounding voice happily shouting, "Hello!" — then it starts all over again.

Four-year-old Seth Schreckengost is an easier sell.

On a day when temperatures climbed near 90, he and mom Heather Schreckengost could hardly wait for two $1.50 Bomb Pops, the rocket-shaped ice on a stick that has been around for 50 years.

The original Bomb Pop is red (cherry), white (lemon-lime) and blue (raspberry). These days, the trucks are stocked with various flavors, including a top-selling chocolate-banana.

Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University, said parents and grandparents often want to relive and pass along whatever made them happy as youngsters.

"I can think of very few things with the Pavlovian response that hearing the bells of an ice cream truck brings. It's like this immediate kind of physiological change that occurs, and it's all happy," he says. "As a kid I can think of no other sound I welcomed more on a July afternoon than that tinkle of the ice cream truck. Even though in the end what it gave you was just ice cream, it seemed to promise so much more."

So baby boomers are big business, and the classic treats endure. But Groff, of the ice cream association, says new products help ensure success.

Some strong sellers, like a taco-shaped chocolate ice-cream cone, can't be found in regular stores. Others, like a chili powder-flavor ice cream, don't last long.

"They made the kids gag," says Phillips.

Joey Simonton started driving an ice cream truck in Hilton Head, S.C., while he was in graduate school. More than two years later, he's still at it in Charleston, W.Va., and his new business is thriving.

Joey's Ice Cream Trucks built 16 trucks last year and 12 so far this year with contracts for more.

Simonton says the long hours, regulations that vary from town to town, and insurance and taxes can be a pain. Other downsides include oversaturation. Some areas are seeing so much growth that competition is getting cutthroat, forcing some drivers to find new routes hundreds of miles from home.

And vendors are increasingly concerned that some cities, including Stow and Hudson in northeast Ohio, are banning trucks for fear children will be struck by passing traffic.

Even so, Simonton says, "it's definitely a great American institution."

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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