The ice cream truck business isn’t a simple matter of sending trucks out to sell, according to Brian Collis, owner of Mr. Ding-A-Ling.
There’s permitting, keeping the trucks running, filling orders for drivers. There’s also the basic task of finding good drivers.
“The guys that work for me,” Collis said recently, “they say ‘You have the perfect temperament.’ They say if they had to run this, they’d be pulling their hair out because every day the trucks break, there’s all the Freon in the compressors, there’s always problems.”
Collis should know the ice cream truck business better than anyone locally. He’s been in it for nearly four decades, first working for another company, then starting his own business and expanding.
Over the years, he’s expanded that business from a single truck he operated himself to a fleet of 67 ice cream trucks that fan out from the Colonie base across the Capital Region and as far as Syracuse, Vermont and Plattsburgh.
Those trucks then bring the summertime treat virtually to area children’s doors, along with the sweet (or sour) sounds of that music.
The business itself is pretty steady, Collis said, perhaps even a little better in down economic times. The ice cream truck business, he explains, thrives on people being home.
“When people go away, that’s what affects us,” Collis said. “You drive the street and not one house comes out because they’re all up at Lake George. When more people stay home, that’s better for us.”
And, in a year where gas prices are steadily increasing, he said he tries to explain to drivers that they’ll need to do a little extra selling to stay even.
Drivers pay for their own gas, so it does cut into their profit margins, Collis said. To help them out, he has begun the slow process of buying diesel trucks, which get better gas mileage than his gasoline-powered trucks, 18 miles per gallon vs. 10. When an older truck is ready to be retired, it’s replaced with a diesel.
He has three now, and rewards his best drivers with them.
Collis, 59, runs the business with his wife, Kathy. He has maintenance workers, as well as a couple of workers in the freezer.
Among the hardest things is finding good drivers — not only drivers who sell well, but also weeding out any driver that may not be safe on the road.
The main motivation for drivers is getting paid, Collis said. The more they sell, the more they make. They don’t sell anything, they don’t make anything.
Collis tries to work in extra incentives as well, including specials on ice cream.
Drivers rent the ice cream trucks from Collis and purchase the ice cream from him. They put in their orders and the ice cream is ready to be loaded up in the morning.
The drivers make their money through the sales they make.
“I’d rather have really good drivers and rainy weather, than good weather and bad drivers,” Collis said. “Because the really good drivers go out on rainy and windy days and still sell and the bad drivers won’t go out on the good days.”
If drivers are lagging, Collis offers to have a more experienced driver ride along with them for a time. Sales inevitably go up with the more experienced driver, then it’s up to the less experienced driver to keep it up.
Safety is key to any ice cream truck, as evidenced by the sometimes intense discussion last summer in Niskayuna.
Niskayuna, along with Rotterdam, had been one of the area’s last holdouts that barred ice cream trucks completely from town streets. The ban dated back to the 1970s, after a series of accidents where children were hit by cars going to or coming from ice cream trucks.Those accidents happened before Collis’ time. And Collis boasts a safety record that he says stretches back 15 years without an accident.
Sparked by a group of children in the town, the Town Board considered and then restored ice cream truck access to the town, leaving only Rotterdam to ban them outright.
There’s also the constant worry from some that the wrong type of driver might slip through.
Safeguards have been in place for years, Collis said, addressing both those fronts.
Regarding the wrong type of driver, he orders his own background check on potential drivers through the Ice Cream Vendors Association. Then the local towns or cities order their own.
“Hopefully, between our two background checks, we can catch anything,” he said.
Collis also does checks on the potential employees’ driving history, weeding out those with poor driving records.
“They always say, ‘No, nothing on my license,’ then it comes back. ‘Wow!’ ” with drunken driving or other convictions, Collis said, adding sarcastically, “That’s all I need.”
Beyond the checks, there’s also training. Back in the 1970s, when Collis started, drivers were simply given a truck and told to go sell.
Then, in the 1980s, standards tightened, requiring training and the background checks. There are also requirements for safety signage.
The Ice Cream Vendors Association puts out training videos. The videos came in 1986, Collis said, and they’re continually updated. Potential drivers watch those, then head out for two days with one of Collis’ seasoned drivers.
That seasoned driver then reports back to Collis with exactly how the new driver did. The trainer has an evaluation, and checks off each of the skills, whether the driver pulls over the right way and other items.
“He’ll say, ‘Brian, don’t hire this guy. I just don’t like the way he did this, or he was too rude with the kids,’ ” Collis said. “The training really helps,” he added. “They learn so much. They have no idea coming in what it’s like.”
Collis didn’t know himself exactly what it was like when he started. But he did read an article about it. He recalled reading in the late 1960s about a woman who operated her own ice cream truck in Massachusetts. The woman talked about being out on her own, with no boss watching over her shoulder.
“It was almost like your own business, when you’re driving a truck, nobody telling you to go here, go there,” Collis recalled. “You set your own route and try to find the special events, the baseball games.”
Collis started his work in the business in 1973, working in the Capital Region for another vendor. On March 31, 1975, he traveled to Springfield, Mass., and bought his own truck, starting Mr. Ding-A-Ling with that single truck.
It’s Collis’ own business and name, though modified from his original employer, which went by only Ding-A-Ling. He made the name more formal, adding “Mr.,” and registered it with the state.
Collis’ business was helped when his old employer soon left the business and Collis was the only driver around, he recalled. He continued that way through 1981.
He bought his second truck in 1982 and it grew from there. In 1984, he had four, in 1988 he had eight, in 1990 he had 16. Now he has 67.
Finding drivers to interview can sometimes be tough, Collis said, even in a down economy. He recalled last year having to park his trucks designated for western Massachusetts because he simply couldn’t find drivers. He advertised, but “Not one person called wanting a job,” Collis said.
How much drivers make depends on how much they sell. Drivers can comfortably sell $400 worth of ice cream in a day, said Collis, who charges them half of the retail cost, or $200 for that $400 batch of ice cream. Drivers also pay $30 a day for truck rental and buy their own fuel, and what’s left is their pay that day.
Some of his drivers come from out of the area. Collis said he has some drivers who spend the off-season working in Florida or Virginia, then come to the Capital Region for the summer ice cream season.
Local drivers find other work during the winter, like in hardware stores or driving oil trucks. The driver that covered the new Niskayuna route, Collis said, has a winter firewood business.
Other potential drivers can get scared away once they realize all the work that actually goes into it.
The best way to find drivers, Collis said, is for current drivers to interest their friends. They can ride along for a couple days and see how the system works, from leasing the trucks to buying the ice cream and selling it.
Explaining that over the phone doesn’t always work, he said.
“I tell them that and then they go, ‘When do I get my check?’ ” Collis said. “I go, ‘Well, you don’t get a check. You make your money every day from the sales.’ You don’t get paid for doing nothing.”
The other part about being a driver is managing money, Collis said. Drivers sometimes look at the cash that comes in at the end of the day and use it, forgetting that a portion of that must go back into buying the next day’s product.
“A lot of people can’t handle that,” Collis said. “The money management is the hardest part.”
The drivers also work to stay off each others’ toes out in the field, Collis said. Drivers are responsible for getting their own vendor’s permits from the municipality where they will work. Such permits can be costly, $750 in Albany and $525 in Schenectady, and tend to discourage drivers from buying more than one. The county Health Department also gets its own fee.
In cities with multiple trucks, the drivers agree at the outset on certain territory, Collis said.
He estimates that roughly one truck can survive for every 20,000 residents in an area.
Drivers, Collis said, come and go. He said he wonders what it would be like to have all his best drivers in one year. “If I could get all the past drivers and make them work one summer, there would probably be a 30 percent jump in sales.”