written for The Hartford Courant
Each summer for one afternoon, a giant fife-and-drum parade comes to my quiet town. Thousands of people come to watch the bands. Selling ice cream at the Deep River Ancient Muster had always seemed like a sure way to make a bundle.
Successful entrepreneurs make pushcart vending look easy. Far from it, as I discovered. A Commentary essay last Sunday proposed using pushcarts to fill the dirt lot between Prospect Street and Columbus Boulevard when the Convention Center opens next summer. Please, take a lesson from me: Outdoor carts liven up a place, but only if the place is ripe for it.
Street vendors are a vital part of city and town life. Those who succeed at selling food on the street understand where people like to congregate, when they are hungry and what they like to eat. It’s not easy. I know, because I tried it at last year’s Deep River Muster. It was a disaster.
Despite my zeal, business was a steady trickle at my rented umbrella-covered freezer. At one point, I resorted to walking up and down the parade route holding our sign, calling out, “I’m selling ice cream at the town hall!” I even personally delivered a few orders.
Good street vendors don’t leave their carts to hawk. Successful vendors are in the same place every day, there when you need them. All day, I watched a hamburger vendor across the street flip burgers for lines of customers. Her success, and my failure, seemed a mystery at the time. I now realize she knew what to sell, where and when. I didn’t.
Here are my major mistakes:
I did not understand what the crowd wanted. Many people stood by my cart without buying a single thing. My least favorite group was a mother and her three kids. The kids kept asking, “Can’t we have some ice cream?” And she kept saying, “No!” How had the anti-ice cream brigade parked itself next to me?
It wasn’t just that dour mother. It was most of the spectators. I thought that on a summer day, everyone would want ice cream. What people wanted at a parade that started at noon was sandwiches and hot dogs and hamburgers and beer (the town had a one-day liquor license). Also, at a parade, people spread out along the street and don’t move. There were thousands in town, but three-quarters of them never came near us.
I was too optimistic. I thought I’d sell twice as much as I did. I spent too much money setting up my one-day business. The vending license was free, because I am a resident. But the health code required a good freezer, and I rented one at $180-plus. I had too much inventory with nowhere to sell it later.
I didn’t motivate my employees. My employees were my family and friends. I whined to get my husband to pick up the gigantic freezer and begged my daughters to sell with me. Elizabeth, then 14, wanted a share of the profits, but Annie, 12, was simply obeying. I learned one dynamic of family retail business: To strangers, you look closeknit and industrious, while behind the scenes, you’re glaring at one another.
I should have found a mentor, a successful vendor, to teach me. The woman who set up across the street from me, grilling hamburgers and hot dogs at a fast clip, would have been a good candidate. She was selling something you could not get anywhere else nearby. I was selling ice cream, which could also be had at two stores across the street. She was in an open lot, highly visible, while I was under trees, sort of hidden. But I felt stuck there because my electric freezer was plugged in through the window of the town hall.
After the parade ended and I was getting despondent, she helped me. She said, “That freezer has been plugged in since last night? It will stay cold for a few hours, easy.” My husband and I unplugged the cart and pushed it to the town baseball field, where the fife-and-drum bands gathered to play for the rest of the afternoon. We parked it at the entrance to the field. And business started coming.
“Wow! Ice cream!” people said. I had repeat customers. I had customers who told their friends to come get my Italian ice. They joked with me, they flirted with me, and they bought. Three hours later, I was exhausted, but I’d finally gotten some business. If I hadn’t moved to the field, I’d have lost $200 instead of $100.
About This Article
After my failed ice-cream vending attempt I was still in the hole financially. I called my editors at the Hartford Courant, for which I was on the contributors’ board of the “Place” section, and made back my loss and then some by doing the only thing I appear to know how to do—write. This article was published by The Hartford Courant newspaper on September 5, 2004 and currently appears in its entirety on their website at the following address: