Diary of a New Food Truck Owner, Part 4: Where Old Ice Cream Trucks Go to Die

Diary of a New Food Truck Owner is an ongoing series where we talk with Meg Hilgartner, co-owner (with Siri Skelton) of a fledgling San Francisco mobile soft-serve ice cream business called Twirl and Dip. In this installment, Meg and Siri struggle to find the truck of their dreams.

After we realized there was no way we could afford a storefront, we were back to thinking about an ice cream truck. The main problem with the truck scenario, though, was that we wouldn't have the space to do a lot of flavors. Soft-serve machines only allow for two flavors apiece, plus the twirl when you swirl both flavors together. Per the name of our business, we were going to be all about twirls, and wanted to be able to offer more than one at a time. Chocolate/mint twirl. Honey blueberry/peach elderflower. We're all about pairings.

And just because we'd be getting a truck, it didn't mean there weren't a bunch of additional expenses: hiring employees, gas, insurance, a place to park it at night, a commercial kitchen to make the product. Right now we do everything in my little apartment kitchen. But even with all those extra expenses, a truck is still cheaper.

There are a bunch of requirements to serve food from a truck that we learned about. Like, you need three sinks: one for washing, one for rinsing, one for sanitizing. You'll need water for that, so you need a water tank, and then a dirty water tank for after you've done the dishes. So you can't just buy any big van, you have to get one that's set up for what you want to do. We were also really hoping for music; most ice cream trucks can play a few songs, but we were hoping we could maybe play cool music out of the music-playing orifice, too.

I had no idea where to start looking for an ice cream truck. But as with most things I need to know about, I just started by Googling "used ice cream trucks for sale." There were plenty for sale, which maybe should have discouraged us, but it didn't. We were searching in California, where we live. Turns out most of them were in the Los Angeles area. We found a truck for the right price, $25,000, and it seemed to be set up as we wanted, so we thought we'd make a party out of our trip to L.A. We stayed at a nice hotel, and I made reservations at AOC and we ate at the Kogi truck.

When the time came to meet the truck guy, it was pouring rain. It's pouring and we're lost, white girls in a shiny rental car in freaking South Central L.A. We finally found the mysterious Mexican ice cream truck parking lot. There were about 90 trucks parked there. I think there might be some kind of Mexican cartel running the ice cream truck business in L.A. It was like a graveyard of trucks, all empty and spooky and dirty. The one we were supposed to see had obviously been cleaned up a little bit.

I think when I talk about trucks, people think about "roach coaches," but really, everything inside is stainless steel and shiny. The code says that everything has to be sealed off. Nothing can get into it. No rats, or roaches, or anything. If it's clean, it's very clean, and this one was clean, but the generator didn't work. He showed us around some of the other trucks, and they were disgusting. Rotten bananas inside, dried-on ice cream. I wasn't going to buy one of those nasty trucks. The whole trip was a bust.

We widened our search to Arizona and Nevada where, as usual, you get more for your money than in California. We found what would become our truck in Las Vegas. The guy we bought it from, Joe, had bought four ice cream trucks from a woman who'd won them in a divorce settlement. He said, "I had no idea how hard it was to get a food business off the ground!" Thanks for that. He sold us the truck we got for $20,000 and even offered to throw in another, older truck for free, just to get rid of it. We passed.

Suddenly we were the owners of a 24-foot truck with a generator big enough to run a house.
Oh dear God, what were we going to do with this thing?