Thursday, July 20, 2000

Sweet taste of the past up for sale




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        All men who would like to be known as “Mr. Softee,” please raise your hands.

        What, no takers? OK, next question: Anybody in the market for nostalgia on wheels?

        As coincidence would have it, not just one but two soft-serve ice cream trucks are up for sale this summer. That's one-fifth of the fleet in Greater Cincinnati.

        Shelley Donlin is selling her truck, a '59 model that's straight out of Mayberry, because her schedule got too tough. She was trying to sell creamy whip while running Deelites restaurant in Ludlow. Her boyfriend helped out, but the job wasn't a good fit. Too much teasing.

        “You can imagine,” Ms. Donlin says. “You've got this big, 6-foot-4 construction worker, and they're going, "Hey, Mr. Softee!' He's going, "Yeah, OK, I'm making $500 a day.' But no one wants to be called that.”

        Nicknames aside, Ms. Donlin is offering her truck for $10,000, half of what she paid three years ago, she says. She has had nibbles from an Indiana dentist and two Turkish guys from New York, but no sale.

        Whoever ends up with the truck will be joining a small world.

        In Greater Cincinnati, only 10 of the vintage gas guzzlers are still road-worthy. The four based in Kentucky are owned by Ms. Donlin, Jeff Westhoff of Boone County and Richard Maloney of Newport.

        Mr. Westhoff, a teacher whose truck provided summer employment for himself and his children, also is looking to sell. His daughter just got married, and his son has grown too tall.

        In Newport, Mr. Maloney is the dean of capitalism on a cone.

        For 32 years, he has served city neighborhoods for 10 hours a day, seven days a week, every summer. At 56, he probably could retire at any time on his earnings, he says.

        People love the creamy stuff. Sixty percent of Mr. Maloney's business comes from grown-ups, some of whom like the old-fashioned truck as much as the treats. It reminds them of childhood.

        “I've had people try to get me to pull over on the expressway,” Mr. Maloney says.

        He owns the only Mr. Softee franchise in Greater Cincinnati. All others are selling ice cream under their own names, although some customers still call them “Mr. Softee.”

        In the early '60s, there were 150 Mr. Softee trucks in the region. The business faded not for lack of customers, but because truck owners didn't want to go to the expense of upgrading, Mr. Maloney says. The fleet kept getting older and less reliable. Owners got older and less interested.

        Today, the remaining soft-servers have a certain disdain for their competition: popsicle trucks, which are more prevalent and easier to maintain.

        Ms. Donlin diplomatically calls their product “junk on a stick.”

        Mr. Maloney objects to the pricing: two bucks for a drumstick cone you can get cheaper at the grocery.

        By contrast, he makes his treats on the spot — cones, sundaes, malts, milkshakes and banana boats.

        This summer, Mr. Maloney raised his prices on everything but a small cone. He stubbornly insists on keeping at least one item under a buck.

        “For the kids,” he says. ˙˙˙

        To contact Ms. Donlin, call 341-0161. For Mr. Westhoff, call 525-7927.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or  ksamples@enquirer.com.

       



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