Thursday, January 5th, 2012
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Serving up smiles — one ice cream at a time

By Catherine Tarleton

North Hawaii News

Kea Kauka’s favorite is the rainbow shave ice. Polu Akamu prefers his orange Creamsicle. Ethaniel Wilson’s choice is a Fudge Brownie, and little brother Abiel is all about the Hyper Stripe.

Other kids and grownups, drawn by the funky, incessant broadcast of “It’s A Small World,” line up and order up. The ice cream man’s in town.

“These guys (at Ke Kumu apartment complex) are awesome,” said ice cream man Tony Cootey. “Sometimes they stand up on the hill and give me a standing ovation.”

“Every Sunday,” said Waikoloa resident Sasha Knowles. “We were doing some cleaning today when they heard the music and here we are.”

“I’m getting my favorite, ‘Schweddy Balls,’” said Lisa Kane. “It’s a flavor from Ben & Jerry’s. try to always come.”

Originally from off-island, both Knowles and Kane — along with numerous other Waikoloans — have similar snack food memories.

“I moved here about a month ago from Oahu,” said Kane. “No ice cream man, but lots of manapua trucks and we, like, lived off of that.”

Wherever he goes in his little yellow truck with the great big sound, Cootey draws an excited crowd. Daughter Angela Cootey, 7, loves to ride along and help.

“I like it because it’s really fun to see so many happy people,” she said. Her favorite? “I have to say, the Fat Frog — it’s like green apple,” she said.

Angela may help with the bookkeeping, because she loves math, wants to be a math teacher when she grows up.

“One day Tony said ‘I’m going to go sell ice cream,’ and I thought ‘that sounds like fun,’” said Kevin Torres, who manages inventory and customer service while Cootey drives. Torres, who lives in Ahualoa, is a longtime family friend.

The team sells about three dozen different ice cream novelties, plus 8-oz. cups of Waimea’s own Tropical Dreams Ice Cream, made by John and Nancy Edney in their Lalamilo plant. They also carry a line of all-natural fruit bars, and other items for special diet needs. Every week, they visit eager fans in Waimea, Kawaihae, Waikoloa and sometimes Puako.

Born in Hilo, raised in Waimea, Cootey lived in California for 16 years and that’s where the story starts.

“The first time I saw a real live ice cream truck, I was living on Travis Air Force Base,” he said. “I was out mowing my lawn when all of a sudden every kid dropped his bike and went running. I thought it was an air raid drill or something, so I asked my friend ‘Should I be worried?’ and he said, ‘If you want ice cream, go get some money.’”

When he returned to the Big Island, he went to work full time as a cook at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows’ CanoeHouse. He also started thinking about new kinds of work, to supplement his income and eventually move into a business of his own.

“There were three things I was considering,” said Cootey, father of three children. “When you are a cook, you spend a lot of time-nights, holidays — away from the family, so it had to be family — friendly and give me more time with them. Second, I wanted something the kids can be part of. And, I wanted to do something where you’re not just taking, but kind of giving back too. I love the way the kids get excited,” he said.

“After thinking about all these things, I just woke up one morning and told my wife ‘I’m going to build an ice cream truck.’”

Cootey found the truck, a 1984 AM General (made by Jeep), on Craigslist in California. His brother-in-law checked it out for him, and although the retired mail truck with right hand drive was in pretty bad shape, it had a lot of personality, and potential.

“When I received the shipping papers I was a little worried because they said it was a ‘very used’ truck,” Cootey said. “The first day bringing it up the hill, the radiator blew. Thank God my brother Patrick is a wiz mechanic. He got it running like a clock.”

About a year later, the little truck was spiffed up with a coat of bright yellow paint and a funky new sound system that included the “Ice Cream Truck Music Box,” a package of 32 songs and sound effects, including “It’s a Small World,” “Music Box Dancer,” galloping horses, sproings, boings and people’s voices. The company slogan: “Serving up Smiles, One Ice Cream at a Time,” is emblazoned across the back.

“I could have bought a van with a camper top, but I wanted an ice cream truck that looked like an ice cream truck, and one that the kids will remember,” said Cootey.

History disagrees as to when the first ice cream came to Hawaii. The Hawaiian Historical Society said, “Ice cream, commercially available in New York City as early as 1786, was not sold in Honolulu stores until offered by the Criterion Coffee Saloon in May 1870.”

Meadow Gold Dairies Hawaii indicates they became the state’s first commercial ice cream producers in 1924, when mechanical refrigeration allowed the company’s predecessor, the Dairymen’s Association Ltd., to make the frozen dessert. In 1929, they opened an ice cream plant in Hilo, the first outside Oahu.

Ice cream’s older cousin, shave ice, probably arrived with Japanese sugar cane plantation workers in the 19th century. Wikipedia said, “Shave ice traces its history to Japan, where it is known as kakigori, and dates back to the Heian Period” (794 to 1185).

But, although more people on the island seem to remember the manapua man than the ice cream man, Cootey doesn’t feel like it’s passé.

“I think it’s something that’s not been done for a long time… I think it’s making a comeback. It’s a retro thing,” he said.

“It brings back memories,” said Waikoloa resident Sigrid Wilson. “We had the ice cream man in Peru where I grew up. They had pushcarts, and the ice cream man played a trumpet. It’s such a cool idea to have it in Waikoloa. All the kids run when they hear the music. And look how happy these kids are. Yes, you can buy ice cream in the store, but it’s not the same.”

Look for Tony Cootey and the yellow ice cream truck in Waimea on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (starting about 2:30 p.m. on school days, a little earlier when school’s out), on Sunday mornings in Kawaihae and after 11 a.m. Sundays in Waikoloa. He’s also available for private parties (443-8494).

“There are harder jobs out there than driving around in a funny looking truck,” said Cootey, “I told my boss at the hotel that I want a standing ovation when I come to work, and he said maybe-if you bring the ice cream truck.”