The coolest job in town

Vendors: Ice Cream Men -- and Women -- keep on truckin' as the arrival of warm weather brings a clamor for cold confections.

April 21, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The temperature is 20 degrees below in the Jack & Jill Ice Cream Co.'s 24,000-square-foot freezer, and men bundled in specially insulated suits are loading and unloading crates of frozen Americana -- in vanilla, chocolate and cookies 'n' cream.

A fleet of ice cream trucks stands ready in the parking lot for active duty. Drivers conduct taste tests in preparation for answering their customers' most pressing questions: for example, which is better -- the Chipwich or the Big Stuff?

It's the start of that much-anticipated time: ice cream season.

All over the Baltimore region, the Ice Cream Man is back on the road visiting schools, businesses and neighborhoods in his trademark truck, attracting ice cream addicts like a kind of modern-day Pied Piper.

At Jack & Jill's regional headquarters in Columbia, 28 of 35 trucks are in service, peddling more than 80 kinds of ice cream and ices.

"I know I've had at least one of everything here," said Thomas L. DeWitt Jr., district manager for the street vending division, patting his stomach and acknowledging that his freezer at home is stocked with more than one variety of ice cream treat.

The old standards are still around: the ice cream sandwich, the Fudgsicle, the chocolate eclair, the Push Up.

But each season -- which runs from March to October -- new offerings are available, often tailored to whatever happens to be "in."

Tongue Splashers ($1) are multicolored pops that turn your tongue different colors, and the Great White (85 cents) is shaped like a shark.

The Matterhorn ($2.50) is a glorified Nutty Buddy that looks vaguely like the Alpine summit for which it's named. Big Ed's Super Saucer (also $2.50) is, well, an ice cream cookie sandwich of that proportion: big.

"People like big," said Meital Hochenboym, 25, of Glen Burnie, one of four female "ice cream men" who lease trucks from Jack & Jill.

This season, best-selling items have included Cotton Candy and Bubble Gum bars, and the WWF -- World Wrestling Federation -- bar, which features likenesses of wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan or "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

"I'll take one of those wrestling pops," Bill Pratt, a sales consultant at Antwerpen Motor Cars in Baltimore, told ice cream man Mike Sindaha during one of Sindaha's many stops at car dealerships and mechanic's shops along Baltimore National Pike last week.

Sindaha has been driving a Jack & Jill ice cream truck for 10 years, which means he has a certain instinct when he's on the road.

"When I look in somebody's face," he said, "I can tell if this person's going to buy or not."

Even rain won't deter the most loyal customers. Less than 10 minutes after classes let out recently at Baltimore's North Bend elementary and middle schools, pupils had crowded around Sindaha's truck to count their change and place their orders.

"I come every day," announced Latrice Smith, 10, a fourth-grader who took forever to decide what she wanted to buy with her $1.25.

Ice cream is an $11 billion industry, according to the California-based Edy's Grand Ice Cream company. Each American consumes an average of 23 quarts of ice cream and other frozen dairy products each year.

While Baltimore isn't one of the cities with the highest per-capita ice cream consumption -- that distinction goes to Portland, Ore.; St. Louis; and Seattle -- Maryland has a history with the frozen confection.

Gov. Thomas Bladen (1742- 1747) served ice cream to his guests, years before the first ice cream parlor opened in New York City in 1776. The first commercial ice cream plant was established in Baltimore by Jacob Fussell in 1851.

Jack & Jill's Columbia-based street vending division, which serves Northern Virginia and the Baltimore region as far north as Harford County, does about $1 million in annual business, said DeWitt, the district manager.

On busy days when the weather's right, drivers can sell $400 or $500 worth of ice cream (and chips and candy and soda, which are fixtures on today's ice cream trucks).

Some drivers earn $30,000 a year and work other jobs in the off-season. Others make $60,000, according to DeWitt, and work the rest of the year only if they choose to.

And, yes, drivers can have as much ice cream as they want. But, because they're independent contractors, they're eating their profits -- literally.

"I eat a lot of them," confessed Hochenboym, who recently moved here from Israel and likes the freedom of being her own boss. "Snickers and Oreo are the best."

People stopped at a traffic light will sometimes try to buy a quick treat, or kids eager to see the innards of an ice cream truck will ask for a ride home -- neither of which is allowed.

Once, though, as Sindaha was on his way to an event, an accident brought traffic to a standstill near the Capital Beltway, and he couldn't help but sell a few dollars worth of ice cream to hot, frustrated motorists.

Sindaha keeps earplugs in his pocket to drown out the noise of the engine and the ice cream jingle he plays over and over.

"This music drives me crazy after a while," he says. Even at night, after the last ice cream sandwich has been sold, he adds, "I usually hear like it's humming in my head."

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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