While certain ice cream truck drivers may be driven to combative extremes, you will never catch Doug Quint complaining about his job. And how could he? As the co-proprietor (with his partner, Bryan Petroff) of the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, Quint gets to spend his days spreading happiness and untold quantities of Nutella around the city, and concocting ever more inventive toppings for his Mister Softee-style chocolate and vanilla soft-serve.
Since hitting the streets last summer, Quint has earned a wide and enthusiastic following for such creations as the Salty Pimp (chocolate-dipped vanilla ice cream with dulce de leche and sea salt) and the Cococone (vanilla ice cream coated in toasted curried coconut), as well as his unfailing geniality. So we were happy to have the opportunity to speak with him about his reflections on the past summer, truck turf wars, and the new truck jingle, written by Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, that he’ll debut on Sunday. Tune in tomorrow for the second part of the interview.
So how has this season been? Did you learn anything from your first summer that you’ve been able to apply to your work this summer?
Last summer, this was strictly a part-time job that I did a couple days a week. On one hand, it didn’t help me learn the managerial side of running a truck or restaurant or whatever you want to call this thing. But on the other hand, it left time to be creative and wander through supermarkets and look at menus, and for Bryan and I both to come up with a lot of new ideas. This summer, what I’ve been trying to make time for is more innovation. But since we’re doing it every weekday, it’s led to a lot of refinement, so things have gotten better and more focused. I liked being all over the place last summer and making different things every day, but it didn’t lead to refinement. But now it’s a combination of both. I miss some things but am finding new things to enjoy. And I’m definitely finding that business is fantastic. We’ve managed to keep a lot of our neighborhood customers as regulars, so I couldn’t be more pleased. And I’ve got to say that the clientele gets more fun every day.
What are some of the more fun interactions you’ve had?
Some are too dirty to print! They can be very flirtatious. But one of the great things is that you’re dealing in real time with eaters and can gauge their response right on the spot — you can see their eyes roll back in their head with happiness, or not. That’s an amazing facet of running what is basically an open kitchen. One of the things I’m really tuned in on is whether people are enjoying their food or not.
What happens if it’s “not”?
Well, first of all, you have to realize you’re not going to please everyone, every time. Some you can tell they’re going to be hypercritical before they even order. I do like to get people’s feedback, whether ultimately I can turn it around and change it or just have to say their vision doesn’t match what Bryan’s and mine is.
Do hypercritical customers display any warning signs?
Well, I don’t have a lot of difficult customers. Most of the time there’s a line and people come ready to enjoy. Last summer, the only difficult customers were the people who were upset I was a quarter more than the other ice cream truck. This summer, there are just people who are very particular about exactly how much Nutella they want on a cone. But on the scale of difficult customerland the stuff I have to deal with is so inconsequential — I mean, it’s not like in restaurants where people are lunatics about how picky they are.
There are a lot of things we can’t do: I have a soft-serve machine in an ice cream truck. Sadly, that means I can’t take care of vegan customers. I’d love to, but I serve chocolate and vanilla. I understand people’s needs and wants but I can’t change what I can do, and nor am I going to apologize for it. I think that’s fine with most people.
Did you see that video that came out earlier this week of the fight between the two ice cream truck drivers?
Of course I saw it. It’s deranged. That’s a good reason to stay out of Midtown. I enjoy my home in Union Square — there’s a lot of vendor love on my corner. It’s great.
Have you ever run into trouble with other ice cream vendors?
When you go to an area you’re not familiar with, you run that risk. Last summer, occasionally I didn’t realize [I was stopped on] some other guy’s route. But you respect it, and you take off. A lot of the guys don’t realize I have a different menu, but after they realize that the truck is serving other stuff, it’s sort of a nonstarter. I’m not one to get into a fistfight over selling an ice cream cone, especially in a day and age when everyone has a camera on their phone!
Speaking of trouble, any news about the anti-food-truck bill that was introduced earlier this summer?
Right now, it’s in a holding pattern. But I know that for a lot of my Midtown trucker friends, their tickets are skyrocketing from traffic cops. There’s definitely some sort of maneuvering to put more heat on the food trucks. But the bill needed more refining before it could go anywhere. Some of it is quite warranted: Food trucks are literally on every corner.
Have you had any trouble with the cops?
No. My cops are lovely. I really think it’s important for every street vendor and especially food trucker to — I’m not going to say ingratiate themselves, but I think we owe it to everyone we work around — brick-and-mortar restaurants, firemen, police — we owe it to them to talk to these people rationally and not feel entitled. There are definitely some people that feel they’re bringing a gift to the public.
Perhaps that will be a topic of the “State of Food Trucks” panel you’re taking part in this weekend at San Francisco’s Street Food Conference.
John T. Edge is moderating it. The guy really has been following the burgeoning food truck scene. One thing I love about him is that his interest lies in the Americana side, not the pretty food trucks, which mine is not one of. It’s a real P.O.S., as they say. It’s a junker. I think ice cream trucks should be junkers.
Any other plans while you’re in San Francisco?
It’s my birthday, and they’re throwing a party for us at Humphry Slocombe. There are going to be drag queens and one of the Go-Go’s there; our music was written by [Go-Go’s guitarist-singer] Jane Wiedlin.
Wait, you have a truck jingle?
I don’t play anything now and always wanted something original. People said, “Play the Village People.” Hell, no! I always wanted it to be something of my own. The bells make people psychotic. I knew one driver who had to quit because the truck bells were driving him crazy. Either they don’t hear it at all or it’s slowly driving them to kill.