Music to their mouths

Ice cream man brings treats—and familiar sounds—to faithful customers’ neighborhoods

Photo By Karen McIntyre

Simply by playing the familiar, repetitive sound of the old Civil War marching song “Turkey in the Straw,” Brian Smith has the power to make people stop whatever they’re doing and run outside.

He has the pleasure of being greeted with a smile when he fulfills cravings on a scorching summer day. He’s seen countless 5-year-olds with chocolate-covered faces light up at the sight of a Fudgsicle. He even serves ice cream sandwiches to a Labrador retriever.

But being “the ice cream man” is harder than people think, Smith said. Heat, noise and monotony sometimes make it a rocky road to travel.

Smith, 43, has been cooling down the summers for Chico and Paradise residents ever since he started his year-round Four Star Ice Cream business in 1987, making it the longest running ice cream delivery business in town. Smith has created a family business by sharing the route with his brothers Paul and Phillip. The route, which is divided among Smith’s six trucks, starts on Hegan Lane on the south side of Chico and ends at Meridian Road.

Smith started his business after driving for an ice cream delivery company in Orland more than 20 years ago. Soon he traded his 1950 Chevy flat-bed for an ice cream truck that had been converted from an old U.S. mail truck.

He since has converted five more mail trucks into ice cream trucks, for a fleet that he says has more trucks than the two other ice cream delivery businesses in Chico. He will hire five drivers for the summer and try to scoop the competition by selling 42 brands of ice cream. The price ranges from 50 cents to $2.25, double what it cost when he started the business.

The freezers storing the ice cream used to run off noisy generators that made the trucks’ inside temperature rise to 135 degrees. Smith endured that heat 90 to 100 hours weekly, his average work week in the summertime. The heat is the worst part of the job, he said.

BRISK BUSINESS <br>Brian Smith sells a lot of ice cream during Chico’s hot summer months.

Photo By Karen McIntyre

After nearly 20 years of Chico heat, Smith just finished installing air conditioning in his truck. He’ll soon air condition all of his trucks “if the boys are good,” he said.

The 22 cubic-foot freezers, the biggest Smith has available to him, are about the size of a large desk. They now run by new technology that’s quieter and cooler, Smith said.

The ice cream man’s trademark—his music—was once as difficult to put together as it is to listen to all day. Smith used to copy the short song “Turkey in the Straw” on an eight-track recorder over and over to make a 90-minute cassette.

The electronic music boxes he now uses have eliminated that problem by playing a variety of songs. His most advanced music box holds about 50 songs, but unfortunately about seven of them are Christmas songs and there is no way to choose which song will play. It can be a bit humiliating when the ice cream truck starts playing “Silent Night,” Smith said.

Still, whatever the music box plays, he listens to “Turkey in the Straw” all day long in his truck.

“It’s like living next to the railroad tracks,” he said. “You hear [the train] go by, but it’s nothing. You just tune it out.”

Smith may tune out the music, but customers can hear it from blocks away. The customer who’s probably the first to hear the music is a black Labrador. The dog, which lives on Hobart Street, runs to Smith with a dollar bill in a baggie and buys an ice cream sandwich for himself about three times a week. His owners take the wrapper off, Smith said.

Smith’s human customers range in age from 2 to 95. A 94-year-old man once chased Smith down on a bicycle for some ice cream sandwiches. Weekly, he said, some children get so excited that they pay and run off, forgetting to take their ice cream.

Photo By Karen McIntyre

“It’s a big deal when the ice cream truck comes. They’re just running to the ice cream man.”

The sight and sound of Smith’s blue truck decorated with pictures of the ice cream he sells puts most of his customers in a good mood.

“Ninety-nine out of 100 people who see you are really happy to see you,” he said.

Smith’s only angry clients are the occasional parents who don’t want to buy their child any ice cream and the few people who get annoyed with his music when he brakes too long on his 3 mph cruise.

Brian’s brother Phillip, who has been driving on and off for 18 years, said being an ice cream man is interesting: “You drive the same streets every day, but something different happens every day.” Even after taking time off, Phillip gets back on the road and recognizes his customers. He’s watched many people grow up and now serves ice cream to his old customers’ children.

Phillip said he usually knows who’s home based on the cars in the driveways, who’s babysitting which days, and which children get allowances that they devote partly to ice cream. Still, there are usually about 30 to 40 new customers each year, Brian Smith said. About half the people he serves are over 18 and more than half are college students in the downtown areas.

Smith’s most popular frozen assets include Snowstorms, Superstars, Choco Tacos and Snow Cones. Caramel Drumsticks are his personal favorite.

“I like ice cream,” he said, rubbing his belly. “As you can tell.” But following his doctor’s advice, he recently cut back on his intake after years of having ice cream as part of his daily diet.

Photo By Karen McIntyre

Smith left the business from 1995 to 2000 to work in surveillance and deal blackjack in Las Vegas after going through a divorce. Smith’s only other source of income for the past 20 years has come from selling ice cream.

Just how profitable the ice cream business is will remain the “ice cream man’s secret,” Smith said. But the benefits of the job go beyond money. Working outside, meeting people and flexible hours are some of Smith’s favorite aspects of his job.

Smith’s brother Paul also enjoys what he does.

“Paul comes home in the evenings and has wonderful stories about his customers, seeing the kids light up,” said Paul’s wife, Laurie. “It’s great to see him have job satisfaction like that.”

Despite the extreme summer heat and monotonous music, there’s something rewarding about the ice cream truck.

“By and large, it’s a good gig,” Smith said. “I like being the ice cream man.”