straying from the obvious
“I don’t even know, if I’m gonna be honest.” Major walks around to the front of the truck, his black aviators glinting in the setting sun, heavy-duty brown boots thudding against the cool pavement. “I don’t know what kind of truck this is. But I can tell you some fun facts about it. The guy we bought it from brought it up from Florida. It used to be a flower truck at Disney World; it had never left Disney property, the mileage was low, and it was in great shape. He wanted to make it into an ice cream truck too, but he had to give up that dream when he got injured. So he sold it to us.”
6:31 p.m. and the post-dinner rush is just beginning: a line of people waiting at the passenger-seat window to order and a blob of people waiting at the back window for their orders. The logos of Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram cover the truck, complementing the bold, blue slogan, “Roll With Us,” above the windshield. The truck’s mascot is a cartoon boy sporting a brown snow-suit, a gleeful smile, and comically triangular brown hair.
“We had an idea of what we wanted it to look like—a cozy guy eating ice cream. I contacted a branding consultant, and he just came up with the idea. I think the little guy looks happy.”
From the homepage:
“Mike’s Ice is Rhode Island’s first Thai-inspired ice cream company.”
“The most awesome rolled ice cream in town, made fresh to order.”
“Help us help veterans.”
“Mike’s Ice is dedicated to our friend Mike, who passed away a couple years ago. It’s a veteran-owned business. I was in the Marine Corps, and in March of 2014, coming home from Afghanistan, I wanted to dedicate something to him. So we had this dream of a frozen yogurt place. But I just decided, ‘Let’s transition.’”
He’d been watching a Muay Thai kickboxing fight, a sport of which he is both an avid fan and participant, and saw an ad for Thai rolled ice cream.
“Ice cream is a staple in American cuisine. And we wanted to do something a little different to diversify and add to the food scene here. This type of ice cream was first introduced to the United States in New York City last summer, and we are the first to bring it to Providence.”
I notice the round emblem on the side of the truck displaying the silhouette of a saluting man in uniform set on a background of the US flag, with a caption that reads, “Support Our Veterans.” Walking closer to the window, I see the menu. The sizes offered are “#selfie” for a single serving or “#icecreamandchill” for a double serving. All of the orders have trending hashtags for names, such as “#merica,” “#instagood,” “#keytosuccess,” and “#yolo”.
“We wanted to stray from the obvious. When someone looks at a menu, they expect the cookies and cream flavor to just be called “Cookies and Cream.” We wanted to try something else, to combine something people are familiar with, ice cream, and something new that they like, social media.” 16,800 Instagram users follow Mike’s Ice, a stable fan base for a constantly moving business.
One, two, one, one, and one make six total people waiting in line to order. They either have soft bodies and big bellies or lean bodies and active social media accounts. They all have their phones out and heads down until they arrive at the window. For a few moments, their faces lift to say a few words, and then back down they go. No one chats in line, not even the two people who came together, who are on their own respective newsfeeds, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling…And when an order finally comes out, one of two things happens. The customer either immediately scarfs it down or immediately snaps a picture of it. Click, and mimi122 captions the Snap with three big, red, emoji hearts. She taps the blue arrow, checks “My Story,” and clicks another arrow to post.
I walk up to Major, my heeled boots clicking along the dark, evening pavement. I introduce myself as “Anita, the girl on the phone earlier.” He says, “Hi, just give me a second. I’m just updating the social media real quick…I’m Major.” He grins widely, and his chest puffs up a little with pride. A few minutes into our conversation, he notices a woman standing behind him, patiently waiting. “Hello, ma’am. We just have to wait for the machines to get frosted, ma’am.” The white panel on the outside of the truck flips up to create a little makeshift sheet-metal roof. I notice two apron-wearing young workers—maybe my age—sitting in the driver’s and passenger’s seats of the truck, relaxing before their shift and scrolling, tapping, swiping, typing away on their phones.
The tape on the menu sign suddenly falls off, and the menu flaps in the breeze, barely hanging on by the pieces of tape on the bottom. In a matter of seconds, Major whips in and out of the truck again with a roll of packing tape. Evidently experienced in dealing with rebellious signs, he sticks it back up using the taping method everyone learns in middle school—rolling up the tape in a little loop and sticking it between the surface and the back side of the paper.
“The machines are ready, ma’am! What’s your order and your name? …Oh, Carrie! I remember you! Nice to see you again.” Major beams at her through his close-shaven beard, his sunglass-hidden eyes crinkling up a bit at the edge with smile lines, his buzz-cut head bobbing in acknowledgment and recognition.
The two younger workers move from the front of the truck to the kitchen area and start working with the machines, pulling levers, pressing buttons, cranking dials. I ask Major about the rest of his team. He counts off people on his right hand, starting with his thumb. He loses count and starts over. Finally, “We have a solid team of five full-time and three part-time workers. As of now, we are only hiring family and friends of mine or my partner, Sadam Salas, who was in the Navy.”
Another man comes up, and Major takes his order. “Thank you, sir, that’ll be coming right up.”
I’ve had this type of ice cream twice before in my life, once at a night market in Vancouver and once in Thailand. Inspired by the traditional street foods of Thailand, Major and his partner introduced rolled ice cream to Providence through the opening of Mike’s Ice Truck on July 1, 2016. While their business is fairly westernized, with its social media references and active online marketing, their ice cream is pretty authentic. Standing a few feet from the kitchen area, I watch the now-familiar process. First, they put all the ingredients onto the cold plate and use flat, metal spatulas to chop it all up. The instruments make short, sharp clangs as they are scraped and stabbed repeatedly against the plate reverberate. Clang! Kchhh, kchhh, clang. Klik klik, klik, klik, clang! The mixture of cream, milk, and sugar blends together and simultaneously freezes on the chilled metal slab, resulting in a light-colored, thick-textured blob. The blades slowly smoothe the ice cream into thin layers, pushing down and outward from the middle of the plate, over and over in an almost-hypnotic motion. The ice cream, sufficiently flattened, begins to spiral up and inward, above the spatulas, off the icy surface of the frozen block. Finally, the addition of a bright red cherry, black Oreo cookie, and brown wooden spoon makes for a perfect Instagram picture.
“We just started researching online to learn how to make the rolls. One of our team members, Zuliana Bedel, who is very passionate about cuisine, developed our recipes and flavors. We YouTubed the process, watched videos, and practiced, practiced, practiced…” With each “practiced,” Major hits the back of one hand against the palm of the other.
“We’re gonna open up a real shop in downtown Providence soon, in the next six months. It’s the next step. We’re gonna build our franchise and take the region, then the nation, then the globe, by storm.” Passion pours from his words. “We’re looking to be the next Ben & Jerry’s. The next Cold Stone Creamery.”
“I’m actually writing a book.” Major lingers in the doorway of the truck, as if unsure of whether he wants to come outside. After I give him an encouraging look and warm half-smile, he steps forward to join me on the sidewalk and continues to speak. He tells me about how he started learning “sales skills, customer service, and business savvy” at the young age of 11 while working at his father’s food truck. Though he is following in his father’s footsteps, he still feels like his story is unique. His whole business is focused on being different. Now he wants to teach millennials the new business skills necessary for entrepreneurship, such as taking advantage of social media. “The book’s gonna be called How to Date a Girl from Work,” he says with a chuckle. “It’ll come out sometime next year.” I would love to unpack the title and learn more about the book, but Major chose not to elaborate.
As I wait for my order, Major tells me that he dreams to move to Thailand one day. His eyes light up, and his voice thickens with determination. “I’m definitely gonna be spending some time there. I’ll eat, train, and maybe even fight some Muay Thai fights.”
As I walk back to my room, I follow both the business’s account and Major’s personal account on Instagram, as Major suggested several times throughout our conversation. I glance at my cup and see my order and my name, which Major carefully wrote in dark blue Sharpie 20 minutes ago.
“#mikesice” (the Thai-iced-tea flavor)
“C” (for cherry)
“@anita” (to me: the ice cream, his message.)
*This article was written in October of 2016. Mike’s Ice has yet to open a brick-and-mortar in Providence, but the truck will return to campus come springtime!