Who’d ever think the birth of McMansions would lead to the death of the ding-a-ling ice cream truck?
Phil Topalian would.
In 2002, just before his senior year at Fairfield Prep, the Westport native needed a summer job. Searching the papers, he spotted a tiny ad. Blue Sky Bar was looking for ice cream truck drivers.
Phil called. He was intrigued, and gave it a shot.
Did Blue Sky have any qualms renting a truck to a 17-year-old?
“I guess not,” he says.
After all, the teenager committed to the standard deal. He paid a rental fee — about $500 a week in the peak July-August season. He bought all the ice cream — another $500 or so a week. And he paid for all his gas.
“I had to clear more than $1,000 a week to make a profit,” he recalls.
For the 1st couple of years Phil — and his younger brother Tom, who helped out even before he had his drivers license — learned the business.
By the 3rd year the Blue Sky owner was in debt. He was selling his trucks cheaply. Phil — who had saved most of his money — jumped at the chance. He bought a truck for $15,000.
Phil & Tom Ice Cream was born.
Tom (left) and Phil Topalian, and their much-loved truck.
They realized that taking their truck to special events was a lot more profitable than driving randomly around town looking for customers. They began “ice cream catering” — for parties, cookouts and corporate functions.
They took out ads, and posted flyers around town. They now have a customer list of 1,000.
“Driving around is archaic,” Phil says. “These days Westport doesn’t have small, intimate neighborhoods with houses close to the street and kids playing outside.
“Now, with triple pane glass, you can’t hear the ice cream truck. There are no set schedules for people to be home. And people just aren’t outside.”
Far better to spend every Thursday at 3 p.m. at Tauck World Discovery — something Phil and Tom have done for 6 years — and be hired for events like last week’s Coleytown Elementary 5th-grade social.
There is 1 place Phil and Tom can’t go, however: the beach. Joey’s by the Shore has that concession contract.
“If I can see the beach from my truck, I’m too close,” Phil says. “Even the side streets, that’s pushing my luck.”
But Phil likes Joey, and the 2 have a good relationship. Phil sells Joey his overstock at the end of each season, and Joey refers inquiries about private parties to Phil.
“He pays a lot of money for his exclusive right to vend there,” Phil says. “I understand.”
One site Phil has moved into is the Levitt Pavilion. At the invitation of director Freda Welsh, he and Tom brought freezers, coolers and refrigerators. They painted the once-dilapidated concession shack, and made it inviting.
Wednesdays — kids’ nights — are particularly popular. “What a blast,” Phil says. “We’re mobbed to the point I can’t move.”
The most popular flavors for kids, he notes, are Fruity Shots, SpongeBob SquarePants, and a giant Cookies and Cream cup.
Adult tastes are more prosaic: toasted almond and chocolate eclair.
His ice cream truck put Phil through John Jay College — both undergrad and masters. He’s looking for a job in law enforcement.
Tom is a nursing student at Sacred Heart. This summer he’s doing a hospital rotation in South Carolina. For the 1st time since he and Tom rented that Blue Sky Bar truck, he won’t be selling ice cream.
But Phil is. And ice cream lovers all over Westport — well, everywhere except the beach — think that’s very, very cool.
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