Rekindling childhood memories, truck brings soft serve ice cream to Los Angeles

| by Elliot Maras
Rekindling childhood memories, truck brings soft serve ice cream to Los Angeles

Joe Nicchi rebuilt a Mister Softee truck to launch his soft serve ice cream business in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of CVT Soft Serve.

When Joe Nicchi moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s to attend school, he noticed there was almost no soft serve ice cream. McDonald's offered it, but theirs wasn't up to the standards Nicchi was used to.

This didn't sit right with Nicchi, who grew up in the restaurant business in upstate New York, where his father made soft serve ice cream.

Hence, Nicchi and his wife, Tyler, decided to start a business to make soft serve ice cream in Los Angeles from scratch.

"It was something that was missing from the market for sure," he said.

The search begins

Joe Nicchi's business now includes two soft serve ice cream
trucks, both of which are refurbished Mister Softee trucks.

In order to recreate his childhood memories and share them with Angelenos, Nicchi needed a vintage soft serve ice cream truck.

"I'm bringing a classic product to the market. What better way to have it served than from a classic vehicle?" he said. "I wanted to keep that rounded vintage look on the front."

On Craig's List, he came across a 1961 Mister Softee truck for sale in Texas. While the truck needed a complete restoration, it had the classic look Nicchi was seeking.

He bought the vintage Mister Softee truck and renamed it "CVT Soft Serve," which stood for his three planned soft serve offerings — chocolate, vanilla and twist.

"It was a complete overhaul," he said of the truck. "It was basically starting from scratch. We had to gut everything from the driver's seat back to make it work."

Nicchi installed a Taylor ice cream machine, raised the roof, removed a back wall, relocated the generator, rebuilt the interior, installed a three-compartment sink, a hand wash sink, a refrigerator and a storage area. He also replaced the engine and the brakes.

Nicchi did not wish to reveal what it all cost except to say that it was a "huge endeavor." It took three years to recover his investment in the truck.

A setback strikes

That investment was complicated by the fact that Nicchi made the mistake of having the truck rebuilt in Texas, a decision he made when truck builders in Los Angeles told him they couldn't give him a quote without first seeing the truck.

Unfortunately, when he drove the truck back to California, he learned that it did not meet Los Angeles County health department standards. He had to have it rebuilt again in Los Angeles.

People at the  health department were surprised that he wanted to go through with the second rebuild, he said. "It was a lot of back and forth, tweaking plans with them." Auto Motion Industries in Santa Clarita rebuilt the truck, while a local graphic designer designed the logo.

"I was a newbie," he said. "It was a total nightmare. I didn't know what I was doing."

The business was a gamble for Nicchi and his wife and young child; he took out the loan to pay for the truck while his wife was on maternity leave with their second child.

Four years later, however, he is glad he went to the trouble.

The market responds

The truck made its debut in March 2014, and Nicchi hasn't looked back. He used his family's ice cream recipe and hired a local dairy to batch-produce it.

He worked 80 hours a week, doing everything himself with some help from his wife, and the accolades came fast. The truck won a local food truck prize in its first year.

"I was hoping there would be a demand," he said, although he had no assurance of that before he took the truck out to the market.

He first took the truck to fast food restaurants, only to realize that the customers usually left those restaurants with no appetite for ice cream.

Nicchi has expanded into the wholesale market.
Customers must use his branded ice cream machines.

He then tried his luck at restaurants offering healthier sandwich and salad lunch fare, and the reaction was different. Patrons eating at health-oriented restaurants were eager to indulge in Nicchi's dessert.

Nicchi targeted restaurants that did not have ice cream on their menus, and always emailed the restaurants in advance to make sure they didn't have a problem with him parking nearby.

"We kind of piggybacked off of restaurants like that," he said.

He identified some regular locations where customers would know they could find him. He also posted his schedule on social media.

Nicchi found success attending festivals, as well, although they proved to be less predictable.

He has not used food truck booking services because he hasn't had the need for them.

Catering business emerges

Within the first few months, requests for catering came in with no effort on Nicchi's part.

"I didn't even think about doing private events," he said. "I had no idea the kind of exposure we would get or (that) we would have the opportunity to do so many private events." The majority of his business is now catering.

When the catering business began taking him away from his regular spots, customers complained, so he bought a second truck. He ended up buying four more Mister Softee trucks that he found in New York State, although he has only deployed one of them to date.

The need for the second truck signified the company's success at the two-year mark.

Expansion into wholesaling

The company is now looking to bring premium soft serve to the masses with the launch of CVTeeny-branded machines. Wholesale customers, including restaurants, institutions and corporate cafeterias, are required to use the ice cream machines, which are available for purchase from The Taylor Company. 

Nicchi has been pleasantly surprised by the positive response to the wholesale offering.

Long-term, Nicchi, who is 37, hopes to expand the wholesale business nationally.

The trucks, meanwhile, have been featured in People, BuzzFeed, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and have made an appearance on the "Today Show."

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Food & Beverage, Independent Operators

Elliot Maras
Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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