April 19, 2011 by wcobserver
They may not know the lyrics or even the song’s name, but boy oh boy, when they hear it; they drop what they’re doing, run to their front yards and begin to bounce on their toes. These are kids waiting for the ice cream truck.
It’s Saturday and temperatures are in the 70’s after a rainy and cool week. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. Ball practice is underway in the field behind the West Fork Community Center. Riverside Park is bustling; a large birthday party is celebrating under the pavilion. Kids are out on bikes all over town and parents are working in their yards.
For five or six hours, Joe Wingate will cruise the town of West Fork at 10 mph in his Tuns of Fun pink ice cream truck. Wingate is just beginning his third season as West Fork’s ice cream man. He’s run the truck through the car wash earlier that morning; the inside is well-stocked for a busy day and hopefully a busy season. Wingate is optimistic that this is the year his small business will turn a profit.
“My job is to make people feel good. If I’m having a really crappy day, I’ll just stay home,” said Wingate. “If I’m here, my job is to help someone have a good day.”
He cruises to Riverside Park, the park is particularly busy. Wingate steps from his seat to the other side of the truck, which has a small countertop with a gate below to begin taking orders. Small kids, who can’t reach the counter, grip onto the gate and peer inside the truck, their eyes are wide.
“I could probably make more money selling rides,” jokes Wingate as he prepares snow cones in the back of the truck.
Wingate says most ice cream trucks serve only pre-packed foods, but Wingate’s jumped through the necessary hoops to have his truck’s “kitchen” approved by the state’s health department so he can make an endless variety of snow cones and fresh-squeezed lemonade.
The pickle snow cones are particularly popular Saturday. They’re made like any snow cone, full of shaved ice, but instead of the sugary and colorful liquid that usually tops a snow cone, Wingate douses the cup with real pickle juice. And kids seem to love them.
Rex Stevens of West Fork took a break from walking his West Highland Terrier in the park to buy ice cream. He bought one bar for himself and one for his very happy pooch.
“It happens all the time,” Wingate says as he places money into his cash register.
A woman driving across the nearby West Fork White River bridge spots Wingate’s truck below and pulls alongside the ice cream truck without pulling into a parking spot. She hops out to order lemonade and Wingate slices open a fresh lemon and squeezes it into the cup. His truck will be chased down by other drivers throughout the day as they spot his pink truck driving through town.
Wingate said he has worked on and off in concessions over the past 15 years and has earned his living as a truck driver. He said the idea of an ice cream truck was born when his wife, Paula, spotted a delivery truck in Springdale one day and pitched the idea of starting a concessions truck. When they returned to check out the truck, it was gone and they knew it hadn’t been for sale. A year later, Wingate said he was driving a dump truck past the rodeo grounds in Springdale when he spotted the same truck; this time it was for sale. What they found was a broken down truck that didn’t run with a “for sale” sign in it.
“The job I had wasn’t all that great and I thought I could make more money selling snow cones,” said Wingate. “It kind of started out as a joke.”
Wingate called a local towing company and began work. Over the past two years, he has slowly retrofitted the truck to meet his needs, transforming an ordinary brown delivery truck into a well-equipped mini kitchen. A generator at the back keeps two gleaming white freezers humming. There are sinks, and racks holding an entire buffet of snow cone flavors. A wire basket is filled with fresh lemons. Even the extra large jar of pickles has a secure spot. Wingate has cleverly rigged his own cash register with a special button to open it; he said too many people pilfered his cash box when he was in the back of the truck.
As the ice cream truck makes its way down another street, Wingate relays a story about a nine year old customer named Vincent who, with his friends, ambushed him with mega water guns last summer. On Saturday, Vincent emerged from his house, aiming a bow, without an arrow at Wingate.
Wingate literally earns his living $1 to $3 at a time selling everything from sunflower seeds and pickles to Dora the Explorer ice cream bars and cotton candy to freshly squeezed lemonade and snow cones. Throughout the day, Wingate encounters people from all walks of life; one family had only $2.44 and spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what they could buy that could be shared among four kids. At one stop, three kids ran eagerly to the truck, but the oldest sibling was the only one with a wallet and he had only a dollar in it.
Every transaction, large or small is followed by a “Thank you…see you next time.”
Like many small business owners, he’s learned several things the hard way. He’s tried letting people run tabs and even tried taking credit cards, but both left him unpaid at times. And he’s had to endure economic realities that pinched profits from his earnings. Wingate says he didn’t increase his prices this year, but gas prices are higher. Lemon prices fluctuate. And he’s found he has to maintain year-round insurance even though the truck is parked from October until April in order to get the best rates.
“It don’t pay that well in the winter,” Wingate says with a laugh.
Wingate has lived much of his life in West Fork; he graduated from West Fork High School in 1984 and after living in Oklahoma and Texas for about 11 years, he returned to West Fork and raised his family here too. At nearly every stop, people know him by name. He says he could probably make more money if he didn’t chat with so many people, but that’s a part of the job he loves.
Tuns of Fun will be on the roads of West Fork and occasionally Greenland seven days a week until sometime in September.