Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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The Ice Cream Wars – Podcast #96

Living here in the Northeastern United States, many of us associate ice cream with summer.  I remember very clearly being a young kid in Brooklyn, NY, and hearing the sounds of the Good Humor ice cream truck coming around the corner.  What was music to my ears must have been panic to my parents, as they probably knew all too well that as soon as we heard the truck, we would start begging and pleading with them to buy us ice cream. That all ended when we moved up to the Catskill Mountains when I was eight years old. There were no ice cream trucks to be found anywhere.

While ice cream may bring back memories of more innocent times, the ice cream industry itself has been wrought with battles between the different vendors. Maybe you have read recently about the turf war going on in New York City between two of these rivals: the national chain Mister Softee and the more local New York Ice Cream.

The war between these two companies started back in 2013 when Dimitrios Tsirkos, who owned about a dozen Mister Softee franchises, received complaints from some of his drivers regarding the high cost of operating their trucks. Mister Softee simply charged too much in franchise fees and they jacked the cost of the necessary supplies through the roof, meaning little profit for the drivers.

Mr. Tsirkos had the perfect solution. He simply added some sprinkles and a waffle cone to Mister Softee’s trademark logo and changed the name to Master Softee. That was too close for Mister Softee’s comfort, so they ended up in court and Tsirkos was forced to change the logos on the trucks. He renamed his company New York Ice Cream.

Mister Softee may have won in court, but they were losing on the streets of Midtown Manhattan, where New York Ice Cream now controls that territory.

In a May 31, 2016, New York Times article, one of the drivers of a New York Ice Cream truck was quoted as saying, “From 34th to 60th Street, river to river, that’s ours.”  He continued, “You will never see a Mister Softee truck in Midtown. If you do, there will be problems, and you won’t see him there very long.”

Adam Vega, a driver for Mister Softee in New York City said in the same article, “Let me tell you about this business.  Every truck has a bat inside.”

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were driving around Cooperstown, NY and we were listening to an episode of the excellent NPR show RadioLab titled “The Cold War.”  It was a good story, but when it was over, I started to tell my wife what I thought was an even better story about ice cream. It’s nearly all about violence against the Mister Softee company, but, in reality, this type of intimidation and terror has been plaguing the industry for many decades now.

I think a good place to begin is with how ice cream ended up on trucks in the first place. It all started back in 1920 when a Youngstown, Ohio candy maker named Harry Burt created an ice cream bar sealed in chocolate.  It was messy to eat, so his son Harry, Jr. came up with a better idea: Why not insert a lollipop stick into the end of the ice cream and use it as a handle?  He named his company Good Humor but needed a way to get this new treat into the hands of kids.  He invested in a dozen refrigerated trucks – which were almost certainly cooled by ice at the time – and was soon selling ice cream all over the city.

Of course, there was one big problem with ice: it melts.  As long as the ice lasted, so would the cargo. What was really needed was real, modern refrigerated trucks.

That innovation can be traced directly back to Minnesota in 1938.  There, a man named Joe Numero was out playing golf with one of his friends, who just happened to work in the shipping industry. The guy had just received word that his company had lost an entire truckload of live chickens. The trip took longer than had been expected and the excessive heat killed the birds.

Numero then mentioned this costly loss to his business partner Fred Jones, who set his mind to solving the problem.  Within weeks, Jones had created the first refrigerated semi-truck. Their company eventually became Thermo King, one of the largest commercial refrigeration companies in the world. Now ice cream trucks could safely and easily carry their precious cargo without any fear of it melting.

One could argue who invented soft-serve ice cream. Both Carvel and Dairy Queen claim to have been first – both having it on the market in the late 1930s.  In 1919, three brothers – Archie, Clair, and Lester Kohr, took a modified ice cream machine to Coney Island.  Within two days, the brothers sold 18,460 cones at a nickel each. The biggest problem that they had with their newly invented soft-serve ice cream was that it melted too quickly, so they tweaked the recipe over time by adding eggs to both stiffen and increase the melting time.  For that reason, they are credited with inventing the first frozen custard, not soft-serve ice cream.

The next big innovation came on St. Patrick’s Day of 1956.  Two brothers, William and James Conway, both worked for the Sweden Freezer company in Philadelphia and decided to load one of the company’s ice cream machines onto a truck and drive it around the city giving away – you probably guessed it – green soft-serve ice cream.  That led the Conway brothers to start their own business, which they first called the Dairy Van, which ultimately became Mister Softee.

The Mister Softee name may have simply become a footnote to history, but the Conways made the insightful decision to franchise their concept. Within months of their startup, ads were appearing in newspapers across the country promoting the idea.

For example, here is one from the January 29, 1957 issue of the Indianapolis Star:

“Do you want to get in on the ground floor of the first revolutionary idea since the inception of the soft ice cream industry?  We have a ‘complete soft Ice Cream stand on wheels,’ which has been tried and proven in Conn, N.Y., N.J., Pa., Del., Md., Va., and Ohio… now we are expanding into Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  For as little as $4,000 cash investment, you can own a Mister Softee Mobile Unit and can earn $8,000 to $11,000 during the 7 months operation annually.”

Mister Softee Ad from 1959
Advertisement for Mister Softee that appeared on page 49 of the June 7, 1959 publication of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

The company expanded quickly and everything seemed to be going great. That is, it was going great until the news broke on August 1, 1961, that five masked gunmen entered the Mister Softee facility at 2235 Harrison Street in Chicago through a doorway that had been left open for ventilation.  They forced eight female and five male employees to lie down on the floor.  After warning the hostages not to look up, 28-year-old Rafael Gomes did just that and was slugged in the head with the butt of one of their guns. While two men guarded the employees, plant manager John Palmer was taken to the first-floor office of the plant and forced to hand over all of Sunday’s receipts totaling $6,600.   Next, they led Palmer to the second floor and forced him to unlock the safe, which contained an additional $5,400 taken in on Saturday.  Add to that the $200 that they stole from the individual employees and the bandits made off with $12,200 (Approximately $98,000 today.)

This had all the markings of an inside job: the thieves somehow knew that there was a safe upstairs and that there would be a lot of cash on hand at the end of the weekend since banks were closed.  In addition, since many children paid for their ice cream with coins, the thieves came prepared with boxes to carry the coins out with.

That’s when it was revealed in the press that police had been investigating threats and violence against Mister Softee.  It had all started when they began operations in Chicago the previous May 12th.  There had been several beatings and robberies of their truck drivers, a few of the trucks had been damaged by bullets, and there were trucks that had their windows smashed out at other times.   Then, a week prior to the robbery, Richard Goudreau, who was the president of Mister Softee of Illinois, received a phone call threatening his life.

For the next few years, things seem to quiet down for Mister Softee, at least in the press.  There was a story about Mrs. Sally Nichols, who was driving one of their trucks to help pay the college tuition for her son Ronald.  Then there was the humorous story of a Mister Softee truck being rear-ended by a competing Tastee-Freeze truck on Winthrop Avenue in Chicago.

In 1963 there was the report of the arrest of two Hartford youths for selling liquor from a Mister Softee truck. The driver, 18-year-old Gary Pignone, picked up 17-year-old David Chase in the Mayberry Village area.  Chase loaded the cooler with six half-pints of whiskey and then drove around asking teenagers whether or not they would like to purchase some booze.  They managed to sell two half-pints before being stopped by the cops.

But, as I said, things seemed to quiet down for Mister Softee in the press.  Behind the scenes, it was an entirely different story. Please keep in mind that I am referring to Mister Softee of Illinois, not the entire corporation itself.  At the time, they had operated approximately sixty trucks in Chicago and an additional seventy in the surrounding area.

Mister Softee Ad from 1958
Advertisement for Mister Softee that appeared on page 2 of the July 3, 1958 publication of the Lock Haven Express.

On July 13, 1965, the Chicago Tribune published a front-page story titled “Ice Cream Maker Tells 4-Year Terror Reign.”  In the story, Richard Goudreau, the same guy who had received the threatening phone call back in 1961, described in detail what had happened in the four years since that incident.  In 1962, shots were fired into one of the company’s trucks, shattering out the windows and flattening the tires. This was followed by sugar being discovered in the gas tanks and generators of two trucks.

Drivers had been beaten up on their routes and Goudreau himself had received additional threatening phone calls since that initial one was reported. One call told him to “Get out of town or else,” while another warned that “We’ll get you.”

Mister Softee stayed and it looks like the callers did follow through on their promise to get them. On November 26, 1962, a fire was set at the company’s plant at 3301 N. Halstead Street, destroying fifty-six of their trucks. The fire was so intense that the roof and portions of the walls of the building collapsed.

In 1963, three men entered the company headquarters and demanded that Goudreau endorse a check issued for an insurance claim over to them. As the men left the building, one of their employees attempted to record the license plate of the getaway car. The men saw what the employee was trying to do and severely beat him before burning his face with a lighted cigar.

It only got worse.  The day before this story was published, two men crawled under a partially opened garage door at the facility and tossed in two black powder bombs which landed right under a large propane tank. The tank did not explode, but the bombs caused an estimated $5,000 in damage to five of their trucks, which would be approximately $39,000 today. Goudreau estimated that all of this violence had cost his company $100,000 ($782,000 adjusted for inflation) since they had started in 1961. He blamed the bombing “crime syndicate hoodlums.”

Police were unsure if this was a terror act aimed specifically at Mister Softee or if it had been the fourth of a larger series of bombings that had been going off around the city at that time.  Chicago Police Superintendent Orlando W. Wilson was quoted in the Chicago Tribune on July 14th as saying, “That was an act of harassment to a company that has been subjected to this kind of thing for several years.”

The Illinois Crime Investigating commission served up subpoenas to a number of people connected or possibly connected to the bombings. This included a thug who was teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa’s right-hand man and another who was a crime syndicate boss.  They denied having any connection to the bombings.  The crimes remained unsolved, but the bombings did stop.

Now let’s change our focus from Chicago to New York City.  On July 2, 1969, five gunmen held up employees at two Mister Softee and one Freezer Fresh garage and vandalized seventy-six ice cream trucks. The trucks were left basically intact, but the thieves made off with the stainless steel spiral blenders that each of the trucks used to make ice cream.  No cash or any other valuables were taken.  John Salvato, president of Mr. Softee of the Bronx, was quoted in the July 4, 1969 issue of The New York Times, “The metal parts that they took from each truck cost us about $520 each to replace, but they’re useless to anyone who’s not making ice cream.”

On Monday, July 7th, the manager at the Bronx garage received a threatening phone call which warned that if his trucks weren’t taken off the streets, they would be blown up.  Two days later a 22-year-old Mister Softee driver named Anthony Failla was kidnapped at gunpoint and forced him to drive to Autumn and Cozine Avenues in Brooklyn, which today is the site of a USPS distribution facility.  He was then forced to get out of the truck and to start running. He was less than one block away when he heard his truck explode.  The next day most of the Mister Softee drivers in NYC refused to take their trucks out.  It was reported that just 20 of their 109 drivers went out on their routes t day.

Detectives that were working on a special task force to deal with organized crime offered up the lead needed to solve this current reign of terror.  Three months earlier, they had questioned two men about the robbery of a shipment of German pistols. Both suspects had ties to the ice cream industry.

On July 24th, Brooklynite Leonard Siniscalci a carpenter who had previously worked in the ice cream business, was arrested for stealing the blender mixers from the Mister Softee trucks. This was followed by the arrest of Salvatore Fariello of Long Island.  Robert England, of Brooklyn, was also indicted, but he couldn’t initially be located. In mid-October, England was arrested as a suspect in the theft of $1.3 million from Aqueduct Race Track and that’s when police realized he was also wanted in the Mister Softee wave of terror.

A key piece of evidence in the case was the wavy brown toupee that Mr. Fariello wore. At the hearing to determine bond, the prosecutor Burton B. Roberts requested that Mr. Fariello be forced to remove his toupee and leave it as evidence since he had worn it during a police lineup in front of Mister Softee employees.  Fariello’s lawyer couldn’t be present at the time, so bail was set at $25,000, and allowed to keep his toupee.  Judge Ross warned Fariello, “I am giving you a direct mandate. On Monday have that toupee back here in the same condition I am looking at now or I will hold you in contempt.” Fariello was already out on $1,000 bond for the possession of stolen goods, which I can only assume were some of the missing German guns.

Mister Softee Ad from 1960
Advertisement for Mister Softee that appeared on page 27 of the April 15, 1960 publication of the Salisbury Daily Times.

It turns out that Fariello was the president of F & F Enterprises, which operated a fleet of sixty ice cream trucks under the name Freezer Fresh. Many of the trucks were individually owned by their drivers.  In 1965, one of F & F’s drivers decided to join his brothers and set up a new company.  His name was John Salvato, the same president of Mister Softee of the Bronx that I had mentioned earlier.

Drivers started to defect from the Freezer Fresh concern over to Mister Softee.  In 1969, the year of these crimes, ten of their drivers switched brands. If your recall, I had mentioned that on the night that the Mister Softee trucks were robbed of their blender parts, so were the Freezer Fresh trucks.  It turns out that part was untrue. Fariello reported the theft from his own trucks simply to cover his tracks.  Amazingly, the charges were eventually dropped, although Fariello was soon out of business.

It seemed like déjà vu at 1:49 PM on Friday, June 30, 1978, when a Mister Softee truck blew up at Nassau and Fulton Streets in Manhattan.  162 people were injured by the flying glass and debris. Early reports were that a bomb had gone off under the truck, which, based on previous turf wars within the industry, was a logical assumption, but ultimately proven wrong. According to the driver of the truck, Lee Balter, there was a fire in the truck that caused a 2-1/2 gallon (9.5 liters) spare gasoline can to explode, which then further ignited the truck’s gasoline tanks.

As I have mentioned before, I live near Albany, New York and around here I have never seen a Mister Softee truck.  Instead, we have a brand known as Mr. Ding-A-Ling. Back in May of 2013, Mr. Ding-A-Ling made national news when one of its trucks was driving through nearby Gloversville. In the past, Mr. Ding-A-Ling had an agreement with the owner of another local company, Sno Kone Joe not to do so. But when Sno Kone Joe was sold, that agreement went out the window.  Within just a few days of the Mr. Ding-A-Ling trucks showing back up the streets of Gloversville, the threats started.  34-year-old Joshua Malatino, the driver of a competing Sno Kone Joe truck, started tailgating the Mr. Ding-A-Ling truck and trying to force him out of town.  At one point, he yelled “You don’t have a chance! This is my town!” at the Mr. Ding-A-Ling driver. Every time that the Mr. Ding-A-Ling truck would stop, Malatino would do the same and yell “Free ice cream” toward anyone that tried to go near the competing vehicle.  Malatino had already been warned by police that this type of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated, yet he continued to do so, which included phone threats to the Mr. Ding-A-Ling company headquarters.  Malatino and his girlfriend Amanda Scott were arrested, charged with harassment, and ultimately the city of Gloversville refused to renew Sno Kone Joe’s vendor permit. After a year in court, Malatino was acquitted on all charges.  Sno Kone Joe finally returned to Gloversville on April 30th of this year.

I could go on and on about turf wars between ice cream vendors. In the 1980s, a number of the ice cream trucks in Glasgow, Scotland were used as a cover for distributing drugs and stolen goods, which culminated with the death of six members of one family.  In 2002, one Melbourne, Australia ice cream vendor hacked one of his competitors to death.

Singling out Mister Softee or making people think that this kind of violence occurs everywhere probably just isn’t fair, as I am sure that most of the estimated 20,000 or so ice cream truck drivers traveling the streets of the United States each day are wonderful, law-abiding people just trying to make an honest living.  As with most professions, it is the awful few that ruin it for everyone else.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I attended a friend’s wedding.  Instead of the usual oversized, over-the-top cake with the plastic bride and groom on top, they opted to rent an ice cream truck for dessert. It was a great choice and the way ice cream should always be. Everyone, including the driver, was having a great time.  And best of all, who doesn’t love ice cream?

Now, if we could just do something about those annoying, repetitive jingles that blare from the trucks…

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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