“What can I get you?” asks Henry Akinbamijo beaming down at a small child. The child, gawking at the brightly colored menu, asks for a Spongebob stick. Her little brother wants a vanilla cone dipped in rainbow sprinkles. In the sweltering New York summer, right outside the Brooklyn Central Library, a line has formed at Akinbamijo’s ice cream truck.
Akinbamijo arrived in the United States over 20 years ago, with just $200 in his pocket and a dream of furthering his education and working. A chance meeting with an uncle’s friend led him into the seasonal ice cream business that is a New York City institution. The slightly eerie but all too familiar chime of the ice cream truck heralds the coming of warm weather to the city.
Akinbamijo has a raspy voice, hued with a Yoruba accent from his native Nigeria. His arms, chiseled by years in the gym, operate with a gentleness, releasing spirals of soft serve, which can be modified in a variety of ways, including dipped into vat of chocolate or covered with a jammy strawberry sauce.
The soft serve cone is just one aspect of his long day. His real work begins at 9:30 a.m. each day at a nondescript parking lot in East New York, which houses dozens of Mister Softee ice cream trucks with the occasional food truck in between.
Here Akinbamijo is a troubleshooting octopus, ensuring the five trucks he leases from Mister Softee are working properly and well stocked. He pays $3500 per truck as a franchise cost each season, which extends from “April Fools’ Day to Halloween,” says Akinbamijo. Running a smooth operation is imperative. He must make the most of the warmer months, before the trucks are returned for their yearly hiatus. Most of these trucks are more than a decade or two old and are kept running by Joseph Dada, a master mechanic and Richard or “Richie,” the official lot electrician, who move about among the dozens of trucks fixing problems until they are ready to get back on the road.
On the day that I visited the parking lot, three of Akinbamijo’s trucks needed minor tune ups or repairs, one of his drivers was unreachable and another was testing his patience. He handled all of this with the calm air of a man who knew exactly what he was doing, joking with Dada, a fellow Nigerian, in Yoruba, politely coaxing Richard to take a look at his trucks and using a quiet but firm tone with his two errant Uzbeki drivers. His other three trucks, driven by a woman from Brooklyn, another Uzbeki immigrant and a nephew had restocked and left without any hiccups. In the middle of this activity, he found time to deal with the lot manager, ordered more ice cream and rolled up his sleeves to check that there was enough diesel in the refrigeration units of all his trucks. He was an entrepreneur, mechanic, sales rep, HR person and finally an ice cream man all rolled into one.
It’s the last of these jobs that he says he enjoys the most, along with being a father to his two children. Over the years he has formed lasting relationships with his customers like William, who lives a block away from the Brooklyn Public Library. “I’ve known Henry for over 10 years, since my oldest was 6. We live a block away and he’s been very good to my kids and a friend to us for years,” he said. Henry the ice cream man isn’t just a passing truck but a neighborhood fixture in Brooklyn.
Epicenter-NYC contributor, Hari Adivarekar spent time with Henry on multiple occasions as he served ice cream, managed his employees and ensured his trucks were running and well stocked with the cold treats that calm the New York City summer.
Epicenter-NYC: Tell me about yourself and your early days when you came to the U.S.?
Akinbamijo: I was born in Nigeria, Africa, and I went to school over there. I came to the U.S. in my 20s, to study further.
Epicenter-NYC: What were those early days like, those first few months that you came here? How did you get into the ice cream business?
Akinbamijo: My uncle introduced me to someone who used to work in the ice cream business. I started in April because the business is seasonal. I worked under him till October. I was with him the following year as well and then I became an ice cream man full time.
Epicenter-NYC: So you’ve done this for 20 years, which is a very long time. What has it been like being an ice cream man for that long?
Akinbamijo: It’s just like any other job but I look forward to it. The only drawback is that it is seasonal and in the winter time you’re out of business. But I always look forward to the ice cream months. You get busy serving people. I go to work in the morning and before you know it, the day is already finished without me realizing it. Kids are always on the street waiting for you. You give them joy, put a smile on their face. I like that I get to meet people and interact with them.
Epicenter-NYC: Were you trained to do this or did you just learn on the job?
Akinbamijo: You learn on the job. Once you have an interest in doing it, someone will take you under their wing and show you everything. Then when they feel like you’re ready to take over, you are assigned a truck.
Epicenter-NYC: How does the ice cream business work?
Akinbamijo: Some people own (lease/franchise) the truck from Mister Softee, but others rent it (from those who have the lease). I give a couple of trucks to the people who are working for me. Some people get paid a flat rate and others are paid based on sales.
Epicenter-NYC: So you’re responsible for the trucks, the fuel and everything?
Akinbamijo: Yes, there are people who own and run multiple trucks and Mister Softee gives out franchises across the United States.
Epicenter-NYC: How does the franchise work?
Akinbamijo: The franchise comes with the truck. The truck itself is the franchise. So you ask them for a truck and make an arrangement with them. It also comes with a location, so you can’t be anywhere.
Epicenter-NYC: Do people sometimes go to locations that are not theirs?
Akinbamijo: It’s strict but sometimes people mess around. Then the other person can challenge you and say ‘hey, you’re in my territory’. Sometimes that’s why you see some people fight. You establish yourself somewhere and another person comes there and challenges you — that isn’t right.
Epicenter-NYC: In your experience how has that worked out? Do you make a good profit?
Akinbamijo: They’ve been in this business for over 60 years so they’ve made a name. Now everywhere I go, people know that this is a Mister Softee truck. I would say it’s worth it because you’re already established and people know you. You can make a good profit if you know what you’re doing.
Epicenter-NYC: Where do you get the ice cream?
Akinbamijo: Everything is in one place. It’s where we store or park the truck. We get the product from there and they provide water to clean the trucks, sanitation, and a place to dispose of your garbage. It’s fully organized. The product is manufactured under Mister Softee’s guidance by different companies.
Epicenter-NYC: How many ice cream trucks are there in New York City?
Akinbamijo: I only know about Mister Softee. In Brooklyn we have about 100 trucks.
Epicenter-NYC: What are the challenges of running an ice cream truck in NYC?
Akinbamijo: The challenges are with the city, which is the health permit. If I want to open a restaurant all you have to do is just inform them and they give you a permit. It isn’t like that with a mobile business. The permit is not usually available. Which is why you have to get it from someone who already has one. You have to pay that person and that doesn’t guarantee that they will give it to you the following year as well.
Epicenter-NYC: What do people get wrong about the ice cream truck business?
Akinbamijo: People want to do this but when you tell them the real facts they get discouraged. People always think it’s a very easy job to do but it isn’t. It’s time consuming and physically strenuous. You run the truck for 14 to 16 hours, seven days a week, rain or shine.
Epicenter-NYC: Over 20 years, you’ve probably had a lot of regular customers who have grown older before your eyes?
Akinbamijo: I remember a lot of them. I see someone after years and think ‘I know that guy’. Some of the people I served as kids, are now grown up and have kids of their own whom they bring to get ice cream.