A Q&A with Jim Conway, co-founder and managing partner of Mister Softee
By Dan Harvey
East Coast boys and girls of the 1960s knew where to get their treats. They waited curbside, attracted by the familiar melody of the Mister Softee ice cream truck, which never failed to dispense its distinctive, fresh-made products. Based in Runnemede, NJ, the Mister Softee ice cream truck franchise lives on, enhanced by new technological and operational efficiencies. The music that once played from a music box onto a loudspeaker has been computerized, but it’s still the same nostalgic jingle ad exec Les Waas created decades ago. And according to Mister Softee co-founder Jim Conway, that’s one distinction that will never change.
Q: This street urchin of the 1960s loved Mr. Softee. Why?
Conway: That would take a long laundry list, but let’s start with this: the fact that we are the largest franchisor of ice cream trucks over 50 years, the number of states we’ve entered (18-plus), our fleet (about 650 trucks), as well as the distinctive texture and flavor, appearance of trucks and distinctive jingle. We’ve carefully trademarked everything. But it’s more than just about appearance. Our distinctive flavor comes from working with family-operated dairies. They’re far more particular.
Q: How has that differentiated you?
Conway: We purvey fresh product; competitors serve frozen. The subsequent taste difference s is immeasurable. Our upgrades support product consistency.
Q: Innovation enhances heritage?
Conway: There’s the irony. We’ve developed unique ice cream machines and implemented different ways of running the line and handling compressors, and we’ve added elements that add to truck operational efficiency. But no matter how much we innovate, it comes back down to the basics: We remain a family-owned business that adheres to the most fundamental and honest business principles.
Q: What challenges remain?
Conway: Our business, in large part, resides on wheels. Fuel costs and vehicle maintenance prove critical. Dairy product costs fluctuate, as do sugar and flour prices. Complexities force us to tread the high wire. It’s a balancing act. We can’t price ourselves out of the market. We constantly struggle to compare cost to profitability.
Q: But here’s the big test: Will you still keep coming into my neighborhood?
Conway: Every day. Our basic business model survives. In fact, give me your address. CEO
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