Frozen in Time
The Nutty Buddy has shape-changed into the "Choco-Taco." The space-age Rocket Pop is now the red-white-and blue "Firecracker." Other than packaging, and his tattoos, though, the ice-cream man looks and sounds very much like he did in the Pavlovian past.
Akoni Bessette is Mr. Ding-a-Ling, and he's happily plying Burlington's sweetest neighborhoods with frozen treats. He drives slowly through the leafy New North End, past flag-festooned split-levels, in a truck that plays a music-box version of "It's a Small World."
Kids -- and more than a few appreciative adults -- respond to the ice-cream call. Some line up along the sidewalk as if they're catching the school bus. Others ride up on bikes or run wildly from less-traveled streets. On a hot weekday afternoon, 29-year-old Bessette does a brisk business in Sno-Cones, Cry Babies and Rosetti's cotton-candy blue raspberry Italian Ice. It's like a scene out of The Truman Show.
"I used to hate suburbia," says Bessette, who was born in Burlington and grew up in St. Albans. "But right now it's my best friend."
He's got nostalgia on his side. The Good Humor Man was a perennial pleasure for kids growing up in the 1950s and '60s. But in 1976 the company -- by then owned by Unilever -- retired its fleet of ice-cream trucks "in favor of grocery stores and free-standing freezer cabinets," according to the Good Humor-Breyer's website. There's no explanation for the sales-strategy change. But within the ice-cream-vending industry, the move was akin to deregulation.
The independent contractors who slowly filled the void gravitated to densely populated markets where they could make the most money. Burlington was not high on the list. "You know the famous quote: location, location, location," says Josh Waldorf of the International Association of Ice Cream Vendors. Plus, at the time Vermont was on the verge of its own homegrown ice-cream revolution.
You can't get Ben & Jerry's Peace Pops from Mr. Ding-a-Ling, but Bessette serves up lots of cookie-dough "shots" and "screwballs" -- cherry slushed ice with bubblegum at the bottom. He even carries "Frosty Paws" for dogs. Approximately 30 varieties fill up the truck's immaculate silver freezers. There's more where that came from in leased freezer space at Burlington Foods.
Grown-ups are thrilled to find Fudgsicles and other classics on board. Sally Hayes, 42, squeals with delight when she sees "Toasted Almond," "Strawberry Shortcake" and candy-centered Crunch bars pictured on the side of the truck. "The menu," as she calls it, is designed with height in mind so kids can point to what they want. For many, it's their first business transaction.
Hayes' two teenage sons don't seem too interested in her good Good Humor memories from the Jersey Shore. But they're definitely in the market for some ice cream. "Oh, this is great," Hayes enthuses, even though an impending jog causes her to hold off investing in an Oreo bar. "I'm so glad you guys come around. Keep coming to this street."
The feeling's mutual. Twice a week Bessette works the New North End, including Northgate, which he says is "huge." Enthusiastic doesn't begin to describe the attitude of the former salesman and day-care worker whose favorite words are "awesome" and "buddy." "I love this job," is his mantra. "At first I was really embarrassed," he recalls, "but then you see the first kid come out. Then the whole neighborhood comes out. It's so cool."
The drill is not as spontaneous as it looks. Along with two business partners -- and a few hired drivers -- Bessette runs routes in selected parts of Chittenden and Franklin counties. The goal is to maintain regular delivery schedules; consistency is key when you're competing with convenience stores. Kids listen for the truck's familiar tune. Playing a different one -- there are 16 songs on the truck -- causes them "anxiety," according to Bessette.
That's why he's bummed to hear bad news from the previous weekend. The driver who substituted for him on Saturday and Sunday -- Bessette's first two days off in almost a month -- blew through the New North End too fast and off course. A few of the neighborhood kids got upset because they missed him.
Bessette apologizes profusely for the shoddy customer service. He's a nurturing capitalist who reminds kids to look both ways when he's selling them ice cream, and often makes up the difference when they're short on cash. Nothing on the truck costs more than $2. And he knows his customers. "If I see kids running and freaking out, I slow down, cause I know what they're doing -- they're getting money."
A little logic goes a long way in the pursuit of a frozen fix. Bessette advises, "You open your window and scream, then go find the money. Don't go find the money first."
Getting into the ice-cream business was slightly less frenzied for Bessette and his two partners, Gary Hathaway, 44, and Chris Williams, 19. They leased three trucks -- at $28 a day -- from an Albany-based Ding-a-Ling don. The Vermonters proved themselves through a chilly spring; not surprisingly, weather has a huge impact on business. "It's how much you work the trucks," says Bessette, noting that bringing in $50 an hour is standard; "$125 is really good." Exclusive arrangements at picnics and birthday parties bring in extra cash.
It helped when a fourth truck became available -- after a Rutland ice-cream vendor was fired for allegedly letting her product melt, refreezing it and trying to resell it. Such unethical practices jeopardize the Ding-a-Ling franchise. But no local laws actually regulate the direct-selling process, as far as Bessette knows, other than a prohibition on selling near stores that carry ice cream. The safety stuff is mostly self-imposed. Each truck is equipped with back-up alarms and plenty of mirrors so drivers can keep an eye on the kids.
Bessette did get pulled over by a Burlington cop on one occasion. His truck's Massachusetts license plates aroused a parent's suspicion. Once-wary moms and dads have since relaxed. "Now that they know me, more and more kids come up by themselves," Bessette notes. The police, too, are regular customers.
"They have my cell number," Bessette says with a chuckle. Which is good, because he and his partners plan to keep on ding-a-linging in Vermont through Halloween. There's a seven-day Caribbean cruise in their future, too, and maybe a small store in Colchester. On a profitable June evening, Bessette isn't ruling out any winter projects. He's right at home cruising the now-familiar streets and observing, "I could always deliver pizza."