There is but one true song of the summer and it wasn’t penned by OMI, Taylor Swift or anybody else on the Billboard Top 100. The undisputed hot weather anthem was written five decades ago by Les Waas, an ad man who came up with the Mister Softee jingle, that Pavlovian bell of a melody that stands as a symbol of nostalgia and cheap soft serve.
Based on a 1913 tune called “The Whistler and His Dog,” the jingle was originally written for a radio commercial; it later made its home in the fleet of white trucks roaming from neighborhood to neighborhood. In rich areas and poor, the tune was the draw. When the first notes of that looped jingle rang, kids besieged their parents with requests for money. It hinted at sprinkle-crowned cones and chocolate milkshakes so thick they seemed impossible to slurp through a straw.
And yet despite the sweet, sweet joy delivered by Mister Softee to countless customers, for others he stands for anxiety and sleep deprivation.
Probably the best known soft-serve brand in the country, Mister Softee was founded in 1965 by brothers William and Jim Conway after their previous employer — the still-operational Sweden Freezer — rejected their revolutionary idea of designing ice cream machines specifically for trucks. At the time, they simply bolted existing machines into the vehicle, an inefficient system that required frequent maintenance. The Conways left Sweden Freezer, secured startup capital from an uncle and changed ice cream history.
In its prime in the late 1960s, Mister Softee operated about 1,000 trucks from Arizona to Connecticut. As Eater noted in its fascinating profile of the company, the franchisees were largely immigrants seeking a path into the middle class. Indeed, in the 1960s, most operators were Greek, Italian and Irish; in the late 90s, this shifted to Hispanic demographics, particularly entrepreneurs hailing from Puerto Rico. Today, the company welcomes increasing numbers of Middle Eastern franchisees.
These days, the soft-serve business offers much less upward mobility. Ice cream consumption has fallen significantly since the Baby Boomer era, and Mister Softee now has about 600 trucks serving 15 states. Complicating matters further, many lucrative urban territories like New York have strict noise restrictions. In fact, ten years ago, the Mister Softee jingle was nearly banned from New York City entirely when then-mayor Michael Bloomberg cracked down on noise pollutants as part of his quality of life improvement plan.
The soft-serve lobby and the Bloomberg administration reached a compromise, and ice cream trucks were allowed to play their jingles — but only when they’re in motion. Once parked, franchisees caught jingling can face fines between $50 and $7,000. (They typically fall around $350.) For context, a motorist caught parked in a crosswalk is ticketed $115.
“The fines are tough on a small business,” Jim Conway, Mister Softee’s vice president and son of cofounder William Conway, told Van Winkle’s. “One of our problems is that many owners have drivers, and the drivers don’t care as much.” For many franchisees, then, excessive fines lead to the even more expensive problem of employee turnover.
In 2015, ice cream trucks were the sixth-most common source of noise complaints in New York City, with 1,542 residents calling the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. From 2010 to 2014, more than 7,000 complaints were lodged. Whether these complaints stemmed from parked trucks or late-night jingling isn’t clear, but it’s safe to say the jingle inspires considerable anguish. According to a DNAInfo review, one complainant wrote, “The repetitive ice cream truck music is driving my wife and I insane. It doesn't wax and wane — at some point between 9 and 10 p.m. every night since the start of spring my wife and I have been greeted by this unrelenting demonic jingle.”
Then there’s the issue of the jingle’s effectiveness. As another unhappy New Yorker told the New York Post, “That thing comes around 9:30 or 10 pm and I’m like, are you kidding me? I’m trying to get my grandkids ready for bed and that ice cream truck comes around. All I hear is, ‘Grandma, grandma, we want ice cream!’”
Whether it’s the siren song of Mister Softee’s delicious offerings or its rueful role as a summerlong earworm, living along an ice cream truck’s route can be stressful. And, as Van Winkle’s readers knows, stress (whether justified or not) leads to sleep deprivation. But before you call your city’s complaint line, consider the small business owners who are just trying to make a living. Maybe tell them about another neighborhood, out of earshot, where the kids scream for ice cream all day long.