Like bowling alleys, greasy-spoon diners, and drive-in movie theaters, ice cream trucks are a slice of Americana. Just the sound of a music-box jingle heralding the truck’s presence in the neighborhood can transport those of us of a certain age back to carefree childhood summers, when a few coins from our piggy bank could get us a cold, sweet treat, right on our street.
As the owner of Classic Cones, Eric Stoner is keeping the nostalgia alive and creating similar memories for a new generation in Centre County. He’s also fulfilling his own childhood dream.
“I grew up going to the Jersey Shore, and I remember saving up my change to be able to buy ice cream from the ice cream truck there. I remember saying to my parents, ‘I want to own an ice cream truck someday,’ and they kind of laughed,” he says. “But when the opportunity came about – we did it!”
That opportunity came about in 2019, when Stoner and his wife, Karen, purchased a 1961 International Metro Step Van from a woman who had planned to start her own ice cream truck business before giving it up because of health issues.
The truck has an interesting history. During the Vietnam War era, it was owned by the United States Air Force, most likely used as a laundry truck, Stoner says. It then went on to be used as a Bookmobile in California for many years, before being auctioned and finding its way to Pennsylvania.
The vintage truck still had its original engine and transmission when Stoner took it over, which he says was not very practical or safe. Through a “chassis swap,” the truck was modernized with a Chevy Tahoe engine and transmission.
The exterior now sports a fresh coat of bright turquoise and white paint, emblazoned with the bold Classic Cones logo. The interior features a high-quality professional freezer, large enough to hold a wide variety of novelty treats.
‘Listen for the music’
All of the upgrades took some time, and Stoner got the truck back in March 2020, just in time for the pandemic to hit. With permission from the Department of Health, he took the truck out on the road that spring.
“What we found was that it would really bring smiles to people’s faces, because everyone had been locked up in their houses,” he says. “We were kind of a breath of fresh air. People were just so excited to see us coming around.”
Stoner eventually developed some regular routes throughout the State College area, as well as in Bellefonte and Warriors Mark. He must obtain permits from each township or municipality in order to operate, and each one has different requirements. As the 2021 ice cream season kicked off, COVID-19 restrictions kept him from visiting the State College Borough, but he is hopeful those restrictions will ease as more people get vaccinated and infection rates drop. He takes the truck out almost every weekday from March until Halloween, as long as the weather is sunny and warm (at least above 50 degrees).
People can find out where the truck will be each day through social media posts, which also include a tracking app so people can follow along as the truck makes its way along its route. But Stoner says the best way to find him is still the old-fashioned way: “Listen for the music.”
Ever since ice cream trucks first came on the scene with the Good Humor company in 1920, they have played music to draw customers. The song most commonly associated with ice cream trucks, Turkey in the Straw, actually has a troubled history, having been performed by singers in blackface as part of minstrel shows, with some recorded versions of it using racist lyrics.
“We didn’t want to play anything that could be considered offensive, so we actually had one made for us of Big Rock Candy Mountain, done in a music-box sound. It’s kind of our own branded song,” Stoner explains.
But while the jingle may be a little different, the reactions of people when they hear it are usually the same.
“When kids hear the truck coming, they start jumping up and down. Some of them have special ‘ice cream dances’ they do, and sometimes the kids just seem to multiply,” he says.
In their excitement, some kids may tend to forget basic safety rules about looking both ways before crossing the street, so Stoner strongly emphasizes safety. He generally stops only on cul-de-sacs or less-traveled neighborhood streets, and he encourages customers to cross the street as a group. In addition, he usually travels with the company’s only other employee, Ryan Bennett, so one person can be watching for traffic while the other handles customer transactions.
Squeezing two people into the small, non-air-conditioned vehicle can get downright uncomfortable during hot summer days.
“If it’s 80 degrees outside, it could be 130 degrees inside the truck. We have to hydrate a lot. We pour water over our faces just to keep cool,” he says.
‘You’re never too old for ice cream’
In spite of its name, when the truck is cruising neighborhood streets, Classic Cones sells frozen novelty treats rather than scooped or soft-serve ice cream cones. This is largely because of the equipment that would be necessary to offer soft-serve ice cream.
“We would actually have to pull a large generator via trailer. It’s just a bit too much to drive around. It’s not very maneuverable through neighborhoods,” Stoner explains.
Stoner does offer soft-serve ice cream when he makes the truck available for special events like weddings, birthday parties, and graduation parties.
For his neighborhood customers, the novelty treats he offers are very popular.
“The younger kids really like the items with faces, like SpongeBob or Spider-Man, whereas the adult guests seem to gravitate toward something they remember from when they were a kid, like ice cream sandwiches and Scooter Crunches,” he says.
Classic Cones even has some non-human fans.
“We sell dog ice cream now, and the dogs are the most loyal customers. They hear the music and they’ll bark to let people know we’re in the area. Sometimes dogs hear us before their owners do,” he says.
Stoner would like to bring on more employees to help during the busy summer months.
During the off-season, he says, he spends time giving the truck some much-needed TLC. He also owns Nittany Entertainment, a wedding and special events DJ and lighting service.
“I like to be busy and I like to be on the go,” he says. “This is kind of a side job for us; it’s not a huge money-maker, but what makes it worthwhile is seeing the smiles on people’s faces, the kids jumping up and down, and making older people feel young again. You’re never too old for ice cream.”
When school is in session, Stoner usually takes the truck out between 3:30 and 7 p.m., and during the summer months, he says he goes out sometime after noon. To find out when and where the truck is going to be on any given day, follow the Classic Cones pages on Instagram and Facebook.
Then, Stoner says, “Listen for the music, get a mask, get your money, and get out there and buy some ice cream.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.