Entrepreneurs

Kids and adults still scream for ice cream

A locally owned ice cream truck company has recently launched. It's a combination of tastes and sounds that are nostalgic to some and strange to the younger crowd. But for everyone, it's just in time for the heat wave.

It’s a callback to summers of the past that Lee Patton hopes will draw customers to the vehicles of I Scream Machine Company as they make their way through the streets of Kalamazoo.

“A lot of kids haven’t even seen the ice cream truck before,” Lee says. “You see the parents saying, ‘Look, it’s the ice cream truck man’.”

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In an era of food delivery on demand, where very specific gastronomic desires are available with the tap of a mobile phone app, new generations are discovering the anticipation of that faint, familiar tune; the game of guessing where in the neighborhood it could be coming from; and the head swivel of wondering which side of the block the truck is coming from.

This is what makes the unexpected arrival of an I Scream Machine Company ice cream truck slowly making its way down the street so nostalgic and even comforting.

There’s no app to track the ice cream truck, no assurance that you’ll necessarily be home when it rolls by, no screens involved. So far, they take only cash. It’s this element of chance that makes the ice cream truck such a misplaced pleasure.

The Pattons launched the business in mid-May, and currently have two yellow and teal Scooby-Doo themed trucks (or vans, actually) in operation. They’re trying to cover as much Kalamazoo territory as possible, as well as attend birthday parties, street fairs, and other events.

His three sons – Markus, 24, Lee Jr., 18, and Lance, 9 – are all involved, driving routes, and in Lance’s case, handing out the pre-packaged fudge bars, popsicles, and ice cream sandwiches from the passenger side window.

“For some reason, when they see a little kid in the passenger seat, it drums up a lot more business,” says Lee.

Lee’s wife, Erica Patton, a social worker, helps out with the ordering.

On a recent Saturday, Lee drives about 10 miles per hour through the Eastside Neighborhood, windows down, one of four classic “ice cream truck tunes” blasting from the outdoor speaker.

“Some people do get annoyed with the music,” he admits.

It’s sunny, mid-70s, but few people are out in their yards or on the sidewalks. It’s always at least 10 degrees hotter in the truck than outside, and the windows-down requirement of the job doesn’t allow for air conditioning.

Lee says he rarely drives more than a few blocks without being flagged down, and within five minutes, a woman approaches holding a confused-looking toddler. More than one adult on the route expresses surprise about the existence of the ice cream truck, and it’s clear that nostalgia plays a key role in the business model.

“You bring a tiny bit of joy to someone’s life for just one second,” Lee says. “It may not be much, but I think it’s pretty cool.”

The I Scream Machine Company hopes to add three more vans (probably Ghostbusters themed, Lance Patton’s preference) this summer. When asked how the rising gas prices are affecting business, Lee says it’s been less of a factor than you might think. The Chevy and Dodge vans are surprisingly fuel efficient, due in part to how slowly they’re rolling through the streets.

The main challenge, Lee says, has been finding reliable mechanics to keep the vans running. The business’s initial launch was thwarted when three catalytic convertors were stolen during a recent break-in at their shop.

This isn’t the Patton family’s first foray into the business. From 2007-2011, Lee ran a two-van ice cream operation, often with his son, Markus, then in elementary school, riding in the passenger seat.

After a few years, Lee decided to change course “because of my old back,” he says with a laugh. The job is a lot more physically demanding than it might seem. There’s a lot of sitting, but also a lot of bending and climbing from the driver’s seat to the passenger’s seat.

“I wasn’t planning on driving this time around,” he says, “But in this day and age, you’ve got to put the business on your back.”

Markus encouraged him to give it another shot after realizing he hadn’t seen any ice cream trucks on the streets in a few years. While there are a few food trucks selling cold items on a small scale, the Pattons hope the I Scream Machine Company will grow to become Kalamazoo’s main ice cream truck business.

“My goal is to be in the office, putting in orders, setting up events, and have five vans out,” says Lee. “I’ll get there eventually.”

On a recent Friday, Markus sets out around 2 p.m. from the shop on Kalamazoo’s northeast side. He reminisces about the hours he spent in his parents’ ice cream truck as a kid, and attributes his own entrepreneurial spirit to that experience.

“It wasn’t too fun spending your whole summer in the ice cream truck,” he says with a laugh. “But it taught me a lot about working. And now I get to actually make money.”

As Markus drives slowly through the Milwood Neighborhood, a woman flags the truck down, hands him a five-dollar bill, and points up the sidewalk to a kid on a bike walking with an older woman.

“That’s my son and mother,” she says. “Stop them and tell him he can get whatever he wants.”

The I Scream Machine Company usually wraps up around 7 p.m. out of respect for kids’ bedtimes, and Markus finds that the day goes by pretty quickly. This day, he stays in one spot for over 20 minutes as new customers find their way over to the truck.

“Sometimes by the time you cover one whole neighborhood, it’s like already 5 o’clock,” he says.

It’s often adults who seem the most excited to see the ice cream truck.  As Markus steers the truck back to the office, two men in their thirties flag it down. They purchase two $4 items, hand him a $10 bill, and walk away to enjoy the treats.

“That’s one thing that’s different,” says Markus. “A lot more people say keep the change than they used to.”

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