Getting the cold shoulder from the economy, pals venture into the ice cream business

By Martin Ricard, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post
July 9, 2009

It started as a joke.

Jake Sendar and Timothy Patch, two high school buddies home from college for the summer, would soup up an old family minivan and sell ice cream to kids in the neighborhood. Just for fun.

But no one seriously thought they would do it. Now, it’s probably safe to say the two 19-year-olds, who started their business last week with nothing more than ambition and a rickety old van, have proved their doubters wrong.

“I was saying all the time that we couldn’t have better summer jobs than selling ice cream,” Patch said yesterday. “Because nobody is unhappy to see an ice cream truck.”

Two college students team up to run a mobile ice cream business as a summer job. Pictured, Jake Sendar(CQ), left, and Timothy Patch, right, in their custom "Cool Kids" ice cream van, vying for customers amidst competition from a professional, who has pulled up behind them outside of a ballpark. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Jake Sendar, left, and Timothy Patch vie for customers after a competitor pulls up behind them. The two high school buddies, home from college for the summer, have been traveling around town learning the ropes of the business. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

At a time when the recession is eliminating most traditional summer work for teenagers and young adults, these young vendors have found their niche, leaving jobs at the mall, movie theaters and fast-food chains to older workers.

Sendar, of Potomac, first thought of the idea a month ago, after his mother suggested he get a job selling tart frozen yogurt for the District-based salad chain Sweet Green, which had just launched its frozen yogurt truck concept. Sendar was home from Vanderbilt University and working at a neighborhood pizza joint two days a week.

But Sendar said he didn’t like the sound — or taste — of tart frozen yogurt.

He remembered that Patch, who lives in the District’s Palisades section, had a well-worn, cobalt-blue Volkswagen Eurovan that had been passed down from his parents. They and their buddies used to pile into it for road trips when they attended Georgetown Day School in Northwest. So Sendar asked his friend about the idea.

“I realized it was totally doable,” Sendar said.

Patch, skeptical at first, agreed. But he said it didn’t sink in that they were actually going to sell ice cream out of a truck this summer until they left Sears with a commercial-grade freezer.

“That was when I realized he really was serious,” Patch said.

For the past week and a half, the two have been traveling around town learning the ropes of the ice cream truck business — and grossing $200 to $400 a day.

First lesson: An ice cream truck business needs more than just frozen treats to get rolling. Without any knowledge of the industry or mechanical skills, they learned that with some spray paint, stickers, a few powerful batteries for the freezers, rubber mats, a loudspeaker, appropriate ice cream truck music and a good tuneup, they could make it happen.

They took out the back three rows of seats in the van and replaced them with rubber mats and the freezer. They bought a boat seat for the person who sells the ice cream to customers. The pair drained their savings, about $3,000 total, to outfit the vehicle.

And you can’t have a Eurovan-turned-ice cream truck without a cool name. So they came up with Cool Kids Ice Cream.

“Our first idea was the Dream Team,” Patch said, pointing to the logo on the side of the van, a pair of white Ray-Bans with a D.C. emblem and an ice cream cone in the lenses. “Then we thought of C.R.E.A.M. [Cash Rules Everything Around Me], like the Wu-Tang Clan song, but that wouldn’t have worked.”

They also faced the bureaucracy that dispenses vending licenses, which, Sendar said, presented one of their most formidable obstacles. After multiple trips to the offices of city regulators to fill out forms, the business was finally legal.

The height of Sendar’s frustration came when he had to give the name of the business to an outsourced phone operator from another country.

“I had to spell out ‘cool kids’ like 30 times,” he said.

They also learned that it’s not necessarily a good idea to drive an ice cream truck downtown — too few customers, too much traffic, nowhere to park. So they usually confine their route to Northwest neighborhoods.

On most days, Sendar said, business has been brisk.

Their best spot has been Turtle Park in Tenleytown, where at 3 o’clock they usually catch a rush of kids from summer camp craving ice cream.

Their offerings include all the Good Humor favorites, which they buy from a wholesaler in Maryland, and sometimes homemade ice cream.

Yesterday, they were met by Ferrall Dietrich, 42, and her 4-year-old son Michael, who after purchasing a bubble-gum-flavor snow cone, clapped his hands excitedly.

A few minutes later, Sendar and Patch learned their next lesson. Another ice cream truck pulled up behind them and started taking most of their customers.

No worries, they said, it comes with the territory. If the summer venture works out, they plan to expand next year.

“I don’t know,” said Sendar, seated in the boat seat. “I think it would just be cool to get another Eurovan.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *