Mobile snow cone/ice cream vendors put their best face forward in their happy mobiles

The Journal of South Mississippi BusinessJuly 9, 2014 

Sometimes, things are what they seem.

Business is business. Sometimes, you have to make hard decisions; sometimes, you have to get tough with competition; sometimes, you pay a heavy price under the burden of profit and time; and sometimes, you simply enjoy what you are doing and believe in its purpose.

For example: selling ice cream or snow cones from a truck. Chances are — despite the ugly weeds that come with operating a movable vendor business — the owner/operator of that multi-colored, polka-dotted, “Pop Goes The Weasel” blaring, mobile of happiness is just as delighted to be there as the sweaty kids who crowd around for a tasty respite from the summer heat.

Who wouldn’t want to make a living out of making people happy?

At least one gets that sense from some of the big players in the business of cool on the Coast: Jay Meeks of Saucier, the Coast franchise owner of Kona Ice; and Mrs. T’s Tasty Treats owners Rodney Lancaster and Tansy Jones of Ocean Springs. Meeks is not one to go halfway on any career. For most of his business life, he’s been a health care provider, specializing in pain management and massage therapy. And, he’s been a salesperson for a water filtration system (that he now uses to purify the water used to make ice for his snow cones).

He leans heavily on the emotional and spiritual in everything he does. For him, business is more than money; it’s an outreach.

His compassion-driven approach to business is a good fit for his relatively new adventure with Kona Ice, which at 5 years old is one of the hottest franchising corporations in the country. In fact, he seems consumed by this new consumable. “Kona developed a business model that raised the bar,” Meeks said. “When a truck pulls up now, are people going to expect something different? Are they going to expect a nutritional component in a treat?

“The vision for Kona is to present a wonderful product with a positive concept that then gives back to the community and where people can make a living off of it. That’s why I got involved with it.”

When he first was introduced to the business, “It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I wish I had it when I was a kid.”

Included in the business model are original process patents, which include sugar free, vitamin-enriched alternatives. It also promotes a prominent “Giveback” program in which Kona Ice and its franchises donate time and resources to help raise money for organizations of their choosing in the community.

That, said Meeks, is what sets him apart from the other mobile vendors.

One of several projects he has is serving an alternative school in Hattiesburg with free snow cones.

“I know you can’t reach all of them, but I know there are children walking down that hall, and they’re going to say, ‘Man when that Kona Day comes up, and I’m going to get that free Kona, I’m not gonna punch Louis out, or not going to curse Cindy or not going to steal that book bag.’ It’s a positive reward thing. People are sensitive to things like that.

“Could I make higher percentage profit if I were just going out there and stopping all along U.S. 90? Absolutely. But if you believe in the theology that if you bless, you will be blessed, then it works in America.”

Kona Ice has been in operation for about five years and has more than 400 franchises throughout the country. Meeks originally became involved as an investor for an acquaintance.

“When it wasn’t going well, I had a decision to make: give it up and lose my money or just take it over and see if I can make it live the vision of the company.”

It wasn’t an easy decision. The investment is significant. First there’s the truck, which sports 24 patents and is worth $100,000. There are corporate franchise fees, royalty fees, inventory fees and Giveback costs. Then, there are fees required by each city to operate.

Meeks took over the franchise in January 2013 and currently has two trucks serving Pascagoula, Ocean Springs, Gautier, D’Iberville, Biloxi, Gulfport and Hattiesburg. Most of his early business has been with special events, and his drivers have just now started cruising the neighborhoods.

Retro feel

Lancaster and Jones have been operating Mrs. T’s Tasty Treats for only a month, so one could argue that they are still in the honeymoon phase of ownership. But, so far, their ice cream business is going as smooth as the ice cream they serve. Unlike Meeks, they are not part of a corporation. But while they are not part of a bigger corporate vision, they consider themselves just as viable and credible.

Lancaster has been involved in the restaurant business and real estate. He still owns rental property, but the ice cream truck is the centerpiece of their lives.

“We wanted a job that we could do together,” Lancaster said.

They both like the idea of bringing back to life the retro feel of the old style vending trucks.

“It kind of brings back an innocence,” Jones said. “It’s been so long since many people have seen the ice cream truck. We always get the same reaction: people are just excited to see it. Ours is old fashioned. Ours is old timey ice cream.” They were particular about the truck.

“We researched, saved our money and knew what we wanted; we just had to find it,” Jones said. “We wanted something nice, clean and cute.” They found it — in Cape Cod, Mass.

“We drove it all the way down,” she said with a laugh. “And, all the way, people on the Interstate were hanging out their money wanting to buy ice cream.”

Business advice

Meeks recommends that any potential vendor who doesn’t have a business background “should have a best friend who does or get an accountant to help you.

“Once you start growing, somebody’s got to put those numbers down.”

One might think this is the busiest time of year for his kind of business, but Meeks said he made more money in January than in August of last year. The reason? Rain. Most of his business was in festivals, and many of the events rained out. But, he said when it comes to neighborhood vending, rain really isn’t a factor.

Lancaster agreed.

“It really doesn’t matter,” he said. “Ice cream sells better on cooler days — that’s when more people are out. But, we’ll sell ice cream if it’s snowing. I don’t think weather often effects sales.”

Rules of the road

The turf wars that one might expect are few, they said.

“The response from other vendors has been nice for the most part,” Meeks said. “Our thing is to be a good steward and turn the other cheek. I’m not looking for a fight from anybody. I want to have equal opportunity.” Part what creates that equal opportunity, he intimated, is fairly applied regulations. In fact, Meeks likes regulations.

“The best predictor of the future is the past,” he said. “If someone isn’t going to have enough organization to pay a $1,000 bond (as is required in Gulfport) or records exonerated to pass a background check … then they probably shouldn’t be in the business.” Good regulations, he said, foster good business growth.

“Just tell me your rules and I’ll try to obey.”

A typical timeframe for sales is after school to dark. But there are exceptions, and most routes and times are developed from experience and knowing the community.

“My drivers are getting much better at it,” Meeks said. “I tell them, ‘Here’s where we are permitted to drive; go serve the people. Go build relationships.’ It’s all about building positive relationships, even with the other snow cone or ice cream trucks.”

If there is the rare truck face-to-truck face meeting on the road, “I tell them to pull off and get out of their way because there’s enough business for everyone. If you get at the same street at the same time, somebody has to give way to the other guy. The Bible says love your neighbor as you love yourself. If you don’t already have an agreement, just bow out and let them have it because that’s not our whole purpose.

“We work in many venues,” Meeks said. “I’m not here to run anybody out of business.”

And, as far as street presence, all want to tone it down.

“I’m not going to run through a neighborhood at 9 at night blaring music out of the loud speakers,” Meeks said. “I’m going to be respectful. And, I don’t infringe on people’s privacy any more than the mail lady, the UPS driver, the Schwan’s driver or FedEx. If someone asked me to leave, I’d leave. If someone asks to see my insurance and license, I’ll show it. I’m not trying to hide anything. I just want to do it the right way. If I weren’t getting a positive response, I would stop.

“I’m going to keep it fast and simple. My agreement is to sell and move on.”

Likewise, Lancaster and Jones said that respectful commerce is the way to go.

“We are not loud and blaring, and we try not to be a nuisance,” Lancaster said. And, when they do come across competition, “We carry sense of responsibility,” Jones added. “We don’t barge in. We don’t want to make enemies.” They have found themselves on the same side of an issue with the city of Ocean Springs.

The city does not allow mobile vending, but Lancaster recently approached the board of aldermen about changing the law. He and Jones live on La Branche Avenue.

“There are 25 million ice cream trucks across the U.S. We seem to be in our own little world without them,” he said in a Sun Herald story by staff writer Karen Nelson. “No matter which way we come home, we get flagged down” by kids wanting to buy ice cream, Lancaster added. “It’s hard to tell them no. They don’t understand.”

“We just wanted to make it legal,” Lancaster said later. “We don’t want to be looking over our shoulder. It’s not like we’re dealing drugs. We’re selling ice cream.”

But, despite the issues, they want to put their best face forward. It’s a fun business after all.

Added Meeks: “If someone comes up and I give them a positive experience, when they see this truck, they’re going to want to come back to it.”

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