The Untold Truth Of Mister Softee

There's nothing more representative of summer than a soft serve cone bought straight from the ice cream truck — and there's no ice cream truck more representative of soft serve than Mister Softee. Founded by brothers William and James Conway in 1956, Mister Softee is pretty much the brand name when it comes to soft serve ice cream (via Mister Softee). Its vanilla, chocolate, or twist cones populate the memories of thousands of American children, as does that instantly recognizable jingle.

Today, Mister Softee is a frozen dessert juggernaut. The largest franchisor of soft serve in the United States, the company boasts a fleet of 625 trucks serving up creamy deliciousness to kids — and adults — in 18 states (via Mister Softee). But this behemoth had humble beginnings, in the form of a pair of dreamers in Philadelphia who wanted to figure out how to properly equip trucks to make ice cream (via Eater), and eventually saw their vision take off — on four wheels.

Ice cream machine + truck = Mister Softee ice cream truck

In the 1950s, the brothers Conway worked for Sweden Freezer, at the time one the country's largest manufacturers of ice cream machines. According to Eater, more and more customers began approaching the company to buy ice cream machines which they intended to install in trucks, in order to start their own mobile dessert businesses. 

Sweden Freezer, of course, sold their ice cream makers to these would-be entrepreneurs, but over time the company noted that these buyers would come back complaining of a laundry list of issues affecting ice cream machines they had adapted. "They were taking the ice cream machines and bolting them to the truck, but for a lot of reasons, that doesn't really work well," Jim Conway, William's son and the current co-owner and vice president of Mister Softee told Eater. "You need shock absorbers, and you need to be able to keep the machine cool."

William and James knew an opportunity when they saw one. To that end, in 1956 they left Sweden Freezer to start their own company — one that would manufacture ice cream machines made specifically for trucks, and install them in those automobiles.

Mister Softee is born

Setting out on their own, the brothers Conway moved to Philadelphia to collaborate with a restaurateur uncle. With his input — and a loan — they launched Mister Softee and decided to start a franchise "so they could get a stream of revenue from each sale" of an ice cream machine-equipped truck, Jim Conway, William's son and the current co-owner and vice president of Mister Softee told Eater.

When entrepreneurs who want to operate their own ice cream trucks go into business with Mister Softee, they pay a royalty and an initial fee to the company (via the IFA); after that, they're relatively free to improvise how they run their trucks. According to Mashable, many Mister Softee franchisees adapt their menus to local tastes. Franchisee Anthony Fortunato, who operates his truck in Hempstead, New York, for example, crowdsources custom menu creations based on his customers' requests; he maintains an active Instagram where he shares images of loaded sundaes and happy customers.

So what's on the menu at Mister Softee?

Mister Softee trucks offer a fairly straightforward menu of soft serve cones, soft serve sundaes, milkshakes, floats, and Good Humor ice cream bars (via Serious Eats). Chocolate and vanilla are the sole ice cream flavors, which can usually be served as a twist. They can also form the base of a butterscotch, cherry, chocolate, strawberry, or pineapple sundae; or they can be dipped in chocolate or cherry shell, or rolled in sprinkles or nuts.

While the standard Mister Softee menu offers plenty of options, there's quite a bit of lore — both online and off — about "secret" menu items that can be obtained by customers in the know. Basically, if a franchisee has all the ingredients needed to make a custom sundae, shake, or cone, they can decide to do so at their own discretion, according to Serious Eats, which published a whole guide to these off-menu treats. How about a "Go Nuts," an ice cream bar dipped in chocolate shell and rolled in peanuts? Or a "Secret Surprise," a cone that's filled with chocolate shell and a spoonful of sprinkles before the soft serve is loaded on top?

The Mister Softee logo -- and that jingle

According to Eater, the Conways developed Mister Softee's instantly recognizable logo with the help of a Philadelphia advertising agency at the company's inception. The image, which appears cheerily on the side of each truck, portrays a dapper bowtied gentleman whose head is a wafer cone, crowned with a towering swirl of vanilla soft serve. Also appearing on the truck are images of a hefty strawberry sundae and a "delicious" milkshake (via Mister Softee).

And then there's that jingle, familiar to any child living within the 18 states that Mister Softee services. Unlike most ice cream trucks which, according to Eater, play a song in the public domain such as "Farmer in the Dell" or "Turkey in the Straw," Mister Softee's jingle is proprietary and was composed in 1960 by Les Waas. As played by the trucks, the jingle is merely instrumental; however, it does have lyrics, which are as follows (via Eater):

"Here comes Mister Softee / The soft ice cream man. The creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream / You get from Mister Softee, For a refreshing delight supreme / Look for Mister Softee. My milkshakes and my sundaes / And my cones are such a treat. Listen for my store on wheels / Ding-a-ling down the street. The creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream / You get from Mister Softee."

The ice cream business isn't all fun and games

For a business peddling the ultimate pleasure — cool, creamy ice cream — Mister Softee has been embroiled in some less-than-pleasurable controversies. As with any successful business, the company has had its fair share of rivals competing for turf. According to the New York Post, Mister Softee's primary enemy in New York territory has been a fleet of ice cream trucks owned by New York Ice Cream — a company which, in 2013, attempted to found its business using the name "Master Softee," as well as to use a nearly identical "conehead" logo. A New York judge shot those attempts down, and the company was forced to change its name and its logo. 

But since that order lapsed in 2016, New York Ice Cream has again been encroaching on Mister Softee territory. According to the Post, Mister Softee went so far as to hire a team of private eyes from the firm North American Investigations to follow New York Ice Cream trucks around and ensure they're not playing the former company's patented jingle or using its proprietary logo. "It's like a Mafia turf war,” Darrin Giglio, the firm's chief investigator, told the Post.

So the next time you snag a soft serve cone and connect with your inner child, remember that the ice cream truck wars are anything but child's play.