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Lickety, slickety ice cream

Gansen delivers a tasty chill to eager children and adults

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Ah, summer memories. Playing in the hot sun. Running through the sprinkler. And waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting to hear the distant tinkling music that can mean only one thing: The ice cream man is coming!

Don Gansen is that man. Or at least, he was one of dozens of ice cream men and women who cruise Utah's streets on a daily basis, delivering a tasty chill to eager children and adults.

Gansen, owner of Dad's Ice Cream Wagons, started in the business about 14 years ago.

"I started it off with a three-wheeler, going around the neighborhoods and pulling a little trailer," Gansen said. "I saved up the money to buy my first Jeep, and it just kind of snowballed after that."

From his headquarters in the Kearns area, Gansen rents out 20 to 25 ice cream trucks every day in the Salt Lake Valley. He recently expanded his business to St. George, where he operates one truck now but hopes to offer five to 10 by the end of the year.

Gansen loves children and has five of his own. And that's why he doesn't work a truck himself any more.

"It got to the point where I was giving more ice cream away than I was selling," he said, recalling the joy of handing an ice cream sandwich or other treat to a child who couldn't afford to buy one. "I was giving $100 of ice cream away a day. Now I have management running my business, and I have my two daughters that work here."

Children remain the focus of Gansen's business, as they are for the independent ice cream truck drivers in the valley. Children like Jacob Ellingson, 9, of Midvale, and Keltson Howell, 7, of Sandy.

Jacob said he likes to use his allowance to buy ice cream from the truck drivers that frequent his neighborhood. "Alien Popsicles" are his favorite, and he much prefers the snacks he buys himself to those he can get at home.

"Because (at home) I have to ask my mom to get ice cream from the freezer, and I can just go out with my money and buy something, and I don't have to ask her," Jacob said.

Keltson uses his allowance to buy sour "warhead Popsicles," which he said cost "about 50 or 75 cents."

"I hear the song for him outside when I'm playing with my friends. Then I run and ask my mom if I can get some," Keltson said. And if his mom says no? "Then I get real sad."

Jacob's mother, Jenna Ellingson, said she would prefer that her children not spend their allowances on the ice cream man's wares.

"My kids hear the truck, and they go running," she said. "They say, 'Mom, I need my piggy bank.' I'd rather take them to the grocery store and let them buy a whole box rather than one Popsicle, but occasionally they do get to go out and do it."

She said she remembers her own past trips to the ice cream truck and how important they made her feel as a child.

"They can take the money and get it themselves, and they get to choose . . ." Jenna Ellingson said. "It's the fact that somebody's coming to them."

Many of those somebodies get their trucks from Gansen.

He leases his trucks for $15 per day, and drivers have to pick up the cost of gas. Gansen and his staff handle maintenance of the trucks, as well as securing all of the licenses required by different cities. Insurance costs him about $150 per truck per month, Gansen said. He also provides "extensive training on how to talk to the kids," and he does background checks on the drivers.

Dad's Ice Cream drivers also buy their sweet treats from Gansen's freezer, although some independent drivers may go to another distributor, like the Farr-Russell Group.

Michael Farr, the group's business manager, said he sells thousands of dollars worth of treats to the "little guys in their ding-a-ling Jeeps" every year, but it's a small part of Farr-Russell's total business, which includes selling ice cream to convenience stores, grocery stores and restaurants in five states.

"There actually are more of (the ice cream trucks) operating in the Salt Lake City area than there ever has been," Farr said. "I know people like them. They sell a lot."

Exactly how many ice cream salesmen are hawking their wares in the valley is hard to pin down, since many are independent operators who run anywhere from one to four trucks, Farr said.

Gansen, who also runs a firewood business that employs some of his ice cream truck drivers during the winter, guesses somewhere between 40 and 50 trucks hit the streets each summer day. But he says "that's probably too many for this valley."

"We've got our ice cream drivers that have been here for years and come back year after year that like their certain territories that they go in," Gansen said. "If they see one of the other guys in it, they'll mention it at the end of the day."

He said the drivers work varying schedules. Some inch along the asphalt just one day a week, while others are out every day, seeking people desperate for Fudgsicles or push-ups.

"Some of the guys come in at 10, 11 o'clock and go out and hit a lot of the commercial spots, like catering trucks do, and hit people on breaks," Gansen said. "Others go in at 12 or 1 to get kids in the neighborhoods. They come in when it's dark."

Finding and working a territory is important to drivers, who strive to find regular customers. Gansen said an average driver who "has his territories going" will sell $200 to $250 worth of ice cream in a day.

"The independents will work for a year or two and realize there's just not enough money when you have one or two trucks," he said. "You'll have Jack and Jill and Joe out there this year, and then next year they won't be here, and you'll have somebody else out there to take their place."

The trucks start rolling along the Wasatch Front in March every year, depending on the weather, and business usually stays hot until September.

"We have a window of anywhere from five to seven months. You just never know," Gansen said. "It's all related to the weather."

But despite dependence on summer's good vibrations and the allowances of 9-year-olds, ice cream trucks have stood the test of time.

Harry Burt invented the chocolate covered vanilla ice cream bar on a stick and started selling it from a truck in Youngstown, Ohio, in the 1920s, becoming the first Good Humor man. His truck drew attention with simple bells, but today's ice cream machines have more sophisticated sound systems. Gansen said the music boxes he buys for his trucks are specially designed for the ice cream trade, and some can play up to 64 different songs . . . even though Jenna Ellingson said the truck that comes to her neighborhood plays " 'It's a Small World,' and they repeat it over and over and over."

Whether it's due to the music or the treats or the chance for children to feel like they're in control, Gansen said the ice cream men and women have been able to withstand competition from convenience stores and grocery stores.

"A lot of people say, 'I can get this at 7-Eleven for 10 cents cheaper.' But 7-Eleven doesn't deliver to your door," Gansen said. "That makes a big difference. We're delivering your dessert to your doorstep right after dinner."

Farr said he expects the ice cream truck to remain a fixture of the American summer landscape. He said he can remember selling a bunch of frozen goodies to an independent ice cream man a few years ago, then helping the man load his truck. A few hours later, Farr was at home working in his back yard when he heard a commotion out front. He went around to see his children buying the very treats he had sold to the ice cream man earlier that day.

"I had the same items in the freezer in the house, but it was just the thrill of buying from the ice cream man," Farr said. "It's just part of what summer is."


E-mail: gkratz@desnews.com