Myths & Facts of the Italian Ice Business

Posted by Lilly on October 22, 2015 at 11:05 AM

(myth fact graphic)

It seems we all start this Italian Ice business with an idea and a vision.  The videos and photos we first see online shape what we believe the business will be like for us.  And I'd love to see the numbers on how many of us got our first glimpse of the Italian Ice vendor's lifestyle through Little Jimmy's.  In their videos, there are always happy vendors, happier customers, and long, long lines.  Instant success.

Well, no discredit to Little Jimmy's, many of us do eventually get to that ice-in-the-sky moment.  But it's high time to separate the fact from the fiction in this business, for all the newcomers.  The myths are the following bill of goods:


1. Weather will always be sunny and warm on selling days. Expect balmy 75 degree temps, light winds and clear skies.

Truth:  my second gig out started beautiful, though cool around 72.  When it warmed up as the day progressed, however, an unexpected dark cloud came over the venue and it began to pour - not called for in forecast!  My tent saved the day, but I realizedside panels for my tent would be a wise investment as I lost napkins and other gear to rain water.  And sunny days can also turn on you, if the heat warms the ice too quickly, or you get a sunburn on one side of your face! 

2. You can start this business fast. 

In truth, four years later, I am still trying to get the business to the level I thought would take only two years to do.  Blame the Health Department for holding me back a year.  And blame my slack marketing efforts for another year when I thought word-of-mouth was taking off and stopped creating and sending mailers!

3. You can sell everywhere.

Actually, you can't.  Those parks and tourist spots you're eyeballing require permits granted by the city.  And all those are highly competitive venues. In New York, the waitlist could be years.  In time you learn that there are better places to sell than the ones you thought you would at first.

4. The best time to sell is between 12pm and 3pm.

One thing I've learned is that this time slot competes for food, not dessert.  People buy pizza and hotdogs by the pound at these hours.  Hunger is not conducive to Italian Ice.  Where I live and sell, the crowd loves water ice as an after lunch or dinner treat.  So, for me, it's been between 3pm and 9pm that I've consistently had my biggest selling days.  Take heart, those of you with jobs!  This makes selling Italian Ice a great part-time job after hours.

5. This business is easy! 

Actually, it's a lot (and I mean a lot) of hard, backbreaking labor.  Nothing, except the scoop, is light.  Tubs of ice at their smallest size of 2.5 gallons are heavy, and extremely cold to your hands.  The pushcart is heavy, the umbrella can be heavy, even portable coolers, once filled, are heavy.  Be ready to gain some muscle and a backache.  Long lines are demanding, and there's no chance of a bathroom break, so limit your fluid intake!  Customers can be picky or uncertain, and patience is a virtue in this business. 

6. You can be in and out of an event, making a killing. 

Not so fast!  You know the old adage... time is money?  Packing your vehicle with all the equipment and inventory is time consuming and must be factored in.  At the end of events, you may be the last one to leave.  Besides the inevitable final customers who run to your booth as they see you packing up, all that equipment and inventory must again be packed for your return home.  And once home, you have to unload and clean.  These are long days. 

7. That HOT new flavor is going to sell out! 

The tried and true standby you only brought one bucket of is always the first to go.  I have a freezer's worth of "hot new flavors".

8. Adults don't want kiddie flavors. 

This one goes along with #7.  But adults are just big kids, and Italian Ice reminds them of their childhood.  You'll be shocked when they pass up that Pina Colada flavor for Cherry and Blue Raspberry!

9. You can run this business alone. 

While there have been times when I've succeeded running a gig alone, I don't recommend it.  You never know when an emergency may hit requiring you to leave your booth.  All that equipment and inventory must be watched and locked up.  Working alone with all cash makes you a target.  Busy lines are very hard to manage alone, changing out empty tubs for full tubs takes time and stops the operation.  You will run out of change or spoons (or both at the same time), and the above-mentioned bathroom or even lunch break make operating alone unpredictable.  Having a helper is such a relief, even if that helper is your 10 year old kid! 

10. All the other vendors are just as happy and excited as you!

This may come as a shock to you, but human nature hates competition.  I've had a local restaurant owner with his food truck eyeing my line, and I don't recall him waving back.  Then there was that time the mobile pizza guy came checking out my operation wondering how he could add ice to his business (no, not trying to partner with me).  I sent him away with a free water ice. Hopefully it's true that kindness kills. ;)

And now for something we hope you'll really like:


1. Murphy's Law loves this business.

If it can go wrong, it eventually will.  But those horrible moments often lead to great learning experiences.  Look for the weather to turn, scoops to be dropped (with no extras), unexpected slow days and unexpected fast days. 

2.  Weather will laugh AND spit in your face! 

Either your future bestselling event with amazing community exposure will get cancelled, or you will spend the day in a booth with no customers, trying to keep your supplies dry, and goose poop off your tent (true story).

3. Events DO lead to more contacts and future business.

Sometimes the most unlikely of customers will become your biggest advocates.  And sometimes it's fellow food vendors who hook you up with your next gigs.

4. The contacts that are most enthusiastic are usually the ones that disappear. 

Similarly, it's the ones you never suspected or noticed, but quietly took your card at the booth, that call you for future business.

5. DO expect long lines on warm, sunny days. 

Get a reliable weather app, and pack your gear and inventory accordingly.  When the selling is good, it's very good.

6. You will sell (and sell best) at events and places you never thought about. 

At first I thought kiddie parks, dog parks, and the community tennis and volleyball courts.  But I never got that free reign to roam as a vendor in my town, and I had to come up with other ideas.  They turned out to be much better!  The aforementioned locales are hit-or-miss kinds of selling places, where I might have sold three cups in an hour.  I now sell only at local events with large crowds for a handful of hours... and a fistful of dollas!  Holla!

7. Expect to jump through hoops to start your business, especially with the Health Department.

Hoops with fire, no less!  Yeah, it can be that bad.  And finding a commissary may just make you throw in the towel.  DON'T!  These are painful, one-time experiences.  Once they're behind you, everything begins to move in the right direction.

8. Your business will experience growing pains. 

You will have to reinvent your business a lot to stay on top.  Don't worry so much about the perfect logo, branding and marketing,  If you're a quick learner, and understand how to pivot quickly, you will be fine. 

And saving the best for last...

9.  Very often, there is FREE FOOD!

I've yet to go hungry at an event.  Gourmet wood-fired pizzas, veggie gyros, hot stuffed peppers, raspberry & rosehip jam, spinach and feta dumplings... ahhh, the vendor's life for me.

Now, I know my experienced vendors out there have a TON to add to this list.  So let's hear it! 

Categories: Getting Started, Tricks of the Trade

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Reply Mita's Italian Ice
9:01 PM on October 30, 2015 
Well said Lilly!
I can relate to every single item you mention, and some in spades! The events you thought were going to be killer, not. What you thought were going to be sleepers, not. The ones that for years were fabulous, suddenly have a change of operations, or another big event lands on the same day and takes away half the customers....

Each one of these items can be a topic all by themselves. As yes, plenty of free food. Funny how our employees now figure that a right of passage, and PLAN on trading (my product!) to have lunch. :-) Oh well, I have great helpers, and am happy to keep them happy. And by by the end of the season, I get so sick of fair food it's not even funny...

Expect growing pains at every stage. And just when you think you might be "getting there" you realize that you need to be making changes to be even better. I believe it is a sign that your doing things right, because to stay the same, be stagnant, is a sure way to become irrelevant and die.

One thing you forgot, the wonderful lopsided "PopEye" arm you develop by September. :-)
Thanks for keeping this wonderful site alive. Great job!
Reply Lilly
8:02 AM on November 2, 2015 
The ARM, yes! How true and how funny! I could have also added that you will feel like an out-of-shape weakling at the beginning of the season and like a physical specimen by the end. Thanks for adding about the need to change just when you thought you'd be "arriving". I am absolutely at that point contemplating a major change and hoping for the consequent serious boost to my business. You're awesome, Pat! Hope everything is going super for you!
Reply iceman
9:42 AM on November 4, 2015 
Very well put Lilly and I am with Pat and thanking people like you who keep the dream alive! That is a comment I hear alot about Popey arms. Another fact is the smiles when someone taste Italian Ice for the first time!!
Reply Lilly
3:16 PM on November 4, 2015 
You're so right! What are we at? #11? YOU WILL DEVELOP A LOYAL FAN BASE! ;) It's true for me. I have a few people who tell me they look for me at events and even tell me about gigs I don't know about.so I can sign up. I love these people!
Reply Bernie Bonin
12:00 PM on June 7, 2016 
Here is one of my first experience vending Italian Ice. Once I opened my umbrella, I had business. The time was about 10:30am. The day was a beautiful one. Once the 1st cup was sold, I never stopped till 3pm, I mean slowed down.
I had a quick breather and I noticed that there was an ice cream truck park about 100 feet from me. The one chance that I had, I looked up and I had a line of at least 25 people + waiting for Ice, the ice cream truck had no customers.
I started Bernie's Italian Ice by buying from Little Jimmy's, in 2008. As years have come and gone, I tried many different Italian ices, & my 1st choice is still Little Jimmy's.
the greatest satisfaction is the smiles you get from the kids, and how very polite they are.
I have also picked out a couple of kids during the day and they helped me by sitting at my cart for me to go to the restroom. It only cost me a couple of Italian Ices. The kids were loving it.
Hope everyone has a great summer.