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Ask Little Rock residents what summer sounds like, and it's a sure bet that many of them will say: the clang of bells, accompanied by a grainy, too-cranked version of “Turkey in the Straw.”
Both regularly blare from the city's most recognizable ice cream trucks, those owned by Frosty Treats, Inc. From a base in North Little Rock, the Frosty Treats fleet — converted passenger vans, stuffed with freezers and plastered all over with pictures of colorful frozen treats — prowls neighborhoods on both side of the river from mid-February to well into November.
Holly Crain is a driver and salesperson for the company. A 22-year-old journalism student at UALR, Crain has been working part-time behind the wheel of an ice cream truck since last September. She said that driving an ice cream truck, while hot and sometimes frustrating, is a blast.
“I really enjoy it,” she said. “I'm working independently. I'm out here on my own. I'm in charge of my own sales. I love it.”
Crain's route is centered in Southwest Little Rock — Baseline, Chicot, Geyer Springs and the businesses along I-30. Right now, with schools still ticking off the last weeks before summer break, Crain runs what she calls a commercial route in the mornings and early afternoons, stopping at banks, mechanic shops, nail salons and supermarkets. Usually, especially on warmer days, a line soon forms at her window, with coiffed clerks and burly day laborers shuffling their feet, excitedly chattering about what they want to get. The big sellers: Nutty Buddys, Mississippi Mud sandwiches and Banana Fudge Blasts.
“I guess they're all big kids,” Crain said. “It's interesting, because you wouldn't think they would want you to come around, but they do. You think about mechanics who are in the shop working when it's 95 degrees outside. It gets hot in there. They want a little break, and it's almost an excuse for them to get out, and a nice little treat.”
After 3 o'clock, Crain begins her route, slowly driving residential streets with the music and bells cranked (parks and daycares, she said, are usually off limits unless someone calls the shop and invites them). On a hot, sunny day, she'll drive between 50 and 60 miles — made all the longer by the near-paradoxical fact that the ice cream trucks don't have air conditioning.
“In the summer, it is so hot. It is so hot in there,” she said. “We've got the windows down, and we've got a little fan up above our heads like back in the old school bus days, but no air conditioning.”
With all her sales on commission, Crain can sound a little like Captain Ahab when she talks strategy. It's all about consistency, she said — building up repeat customers by running the same route every day at the same time. She said that after awhile, you get a feel for which kids will already be outside, and which kids will take longer to get out of the house with their money when they hear the music. On her route, at least, she said she still sees a lot of kids out of the house doing summer activities.
“On my afternoon route, there are a lot of kids outside riding bikes and playing basketball,” she said, “They're still out there. Some of them are inside watching TV or doing homework, so you have to go slow and keep an eye out.”
Crain said that she plans on driving an ice cream truck at least through her graduation from college. The longer she works as an ice cream truck driver, she said, the more she has come to suspect that it's not really about the ice cream at all for many people who buy her goodies — both adults and children.
“They hear the music and they come running,” she said. “I guess it's programmed somehow in them… . Our truck, when you look at it, it's a showcase. It says, ‘Come to the truck.' I don't know if it's even that they want or need the ice cream, I think it's just a matter of going to the truck. The music is playing; the bells are ringing. It's an experience.”