Brendan Tolan was searching for something for his grandson to do in 2011. The Murphysboro teen had just turned 16 and was having a hard time finding a job for the summer. Drawing on his memories as a child in the northern suburbs of Chicago, Tolan had an idea.
He remembered agonizing over which ice cream treat to buy from the truck that slowly made its way down the street and how the call of the truck’s soundtracks brought kids from throughout the neighborhood. With that, he thought he could set his grandson up as a modern-day Good Humor man.
“My first idea was that I’d get a little three-wheeled scooter like a moped with a box on the back. He could go out after school and in the summers and ride it and sell ice cream,” Tolan recalls.
Tolan found the perfect trike on an online auction but didn’t win it. He did, however, find a light-duty, small school bus which was converted to an ice cream truck. Tolan bought the bus which was complete with an American flag paint scheme. He immediately began calling the bus “Stars and Stripes” and his new venture, American Ice Cream, was born.
In the meantime, Tolan’s grandson landed another job and Tolan found himself behind the wheel of Stars and Stripes, peddling ice cream. He started in Carterville but quickly grew to three trucks making regular visits to communities from Chester to Harrisburg and south, serving ice cream treats and smiles.
“People are never upset at the ice cream truck,” he says with a smile. “I’m selling memories.”
Tolan says the company uses regular routes, usually visiting a neighborhood every couple of weeks.
“I found if you come to a community every week, it is too frequently for them to miss you,” he says.
Much like in his childhood, the ice cream truck still brings treats, funs and memories, but unlike the vendors Tolan remembers, today’s mobile units have an advantage.
“I’ve brought technology to the ice cream truck, allowing people to use their credit and debit cards,” he explains.
Tolan has also taken the ice cream truck online.
“Facebook has been a tremendous boost to our business. It is almost instantaneous. When I send out a notification saying that we’re coming to Benton, for instance, I will have 30 comments on that post in the next hour, saying exactly what address to come to. It’s gone from driving a neighborhood, waiting for someone to come out to where you literally know exactly where they are waiting for you,” he says.
It’s not just the kids who love the ice cream truck, Tolan adds. He says American Ice Cream makes regular visits to auto repair shops, hospitals, vacation bible schools, assisted living facilities and even can be found during the third-shift lunch break at area manufacturers, always getting a warm welcome. The company recently was even featured at a wedding reception.
“The bride said it was the absolute best thing,” he adds.
He says he wants to continue to grow the event side of the business, but his company always will patrol the streets, quenching appetites and making memories.
“It’s the simplicity of it,” he says. “I love that people get to experience the same kind of thing that I experienced as a kid. Your day can be improved just with a couple of bucks at an ice cream truck playing some neat music.”
The music plays constantly, working as a beacon for the young and hungry. He says he hears it in his head even when he is away from the truck. Toban says he is often asked why the ice cream trucks often play Christmas music even in the heat of July. His answer is two-fold.
“Well, we don’t run at Christmas and so it’s a reminder that you need to get me a present early,” he jokes. “Seriously, the Christmas music brings you back to the simpler times of your life – waiting to run downstairs and all of the excitement that brings. I’m hoping we bring the same sense of joy.”