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Traveling around the world, the Ice Cream Man crew gives away free ice cream. Their hopes? Just to make other people happy. In this article, journalist Kendra Ablaza writes about their philosophy, the origins of the Ice Cream Man, and where you can find ICM next.
Text: Kendra Ablaza
Photos: Courtesy of the Ice Cream Man
Country: United States

ince the summer of 2004, Matt Allen, also known as “The Ice Cream Man,” has devoted his life to providing free ice cream for people all over the world. Touring across the country from his hometown Ashland, Oregon, to as far as England, the Ice Cream Man has given away over 300,000 ice creams to date and hopes to reach half a million ice creams by the end of next year. He does this simply to create joy by reconnecting people of all ages with their favorite childhood treat.

As a college student, Allen found himself selling ice cream on a three-wheeled bicycle in Durango, Colorado, when he needed a summer job. Though he had hiked over 5,000 miles on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, rode his bike 6,000 miles from Long Beach, California, to Maine, worked production at a chocolate factory, built a bakery in Maine, and reopened a bar in Austin, Texas, over the next five years, he still had not figured out what he wanted to do exactly.

That was until the summer of 2004 when Allen decided to move back to his hometown in Ashland, Oregon, and buy an ice cream truck. Allen sold ice cream that summer and threw his first annual ice cream social where he gave away hundreds of free ice creams. From that moment on he realized his reason for being an Ice Cream Man would be to give away free ice cream.

“I’ve often said that you can learn a lot about someone from their first reaction to free ice cream,” Allen says. “Happiness doesn’t have an age. I’ve got great reactions from young and very old kids alike. Most of our crew who help out have come from people we give ice cream to, those who love what we do and want to help. You never know what’s going to happen when you drive around in an ice cream truck giving away free ice cream and that’s what makes it so much fun.”

Allen said when he first named his business the “Ice Cream Man” that the name seemed too simple and generic. However, he said that once he had thought about it, he realized there was no person, company, or logo for “Ice Cream Man” and starting thinking of how he could capitalize on the classic image.

“Mostly everything online is free and people don’t question it, but when you give something away that people want in the physical world, it’s not as common and people don’t know how to react,” Allen says. “It’s fun to make people happy with free ice cream and to not ask for anything in return.”

According to Allen, Ice Cream Man is funded almost exclusively by sponsors and the company generally only gets funding a few times a year. Because “Ice Cream Man” never sells ice cream, Allen said it is tricky to balance everything out while they’re traveling around the country to make ends meet, such as making sure there are enough funds to fill up the gas tank, pay some of the crew, and cover insurance costs.

However, when asked why he does it, Allen’s response was that he is able to make other people’s dreams come true.

“Most all my favorite reactions are the simple ones you get when people get excited about free ice cream before they even have time to think about it,” Allen said. “They see the ice cream truck and light up and smile and grab a treat.”

Ice Cream Man has grown a lot since its initial launch seven years ago with a full staff, multiple ice cream trucks and a fan base expanding all over the United States. Allen, who has given ice cream away in England, Canada, and the United States, said that Ice Cream Man has made appearances at the MTV Video Music Awards, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory world premier, and on the MTV show Rob and Big.

The company also has staff writers and photographers providing music reviews and over 100,000 photos from the concerts and festivals Ice Cream Man visits each year on their website.

“We love live music and once we realized we’d need sponsors on board to help us give away ice cream we had to find places where we wanted to give away cream, and where sponsors would want us to be as well,” Allen said. “Our first music festival was All Tomorrow’s Parties in my home town of Long Beach, California, in November 2004. We sold a few ice creams and gave away free products to all the artists and people working the festival. We had so much fun that we decided that if we could get backstage at festivals and give away thousands of ice creams it’d be a win-win for everyone and that’s where a lot of our focus has been.”

Ice Cream Man Operations Director Dave Gooch, who organizes behind-the-scenes work such as editing the website and organizing annual events, said that in between preparing for long road trips, event scheduling and finding sponsors, Allen and the rest of his staff do not have a lot of down time.

“It can be tough finding sponsors since we have to pitch the concept to people that don’t always see the benefit,” Gooch says. “When we find people that see eye to eye it’s a lot easier. Ben & Jerry’s are devoted to a lot of good causes and I think they loved the idea.”

For 2010, some of Ice Cream Man sponsors included Mopho, an iPhone/Android app where you post location-based photos which was their main sponsor, and Ben & Jerry’s who donated 50,000 ice cream treats for them to give away. Ice Cream Man also depends on a staff of volunteers to help their bigger festival events run much smoother.

“We have dozens of people that help out across the country. Usually, it is people that are skilled at something that are willing to donate some time because they like the idea,” Gooch says.

Gooch also mentioned that Ice Cream Man has a few major festivals that are routine for the company to visit every year.

“[It] basically gives us a skeleton of a tour to build off of,” Gooch says. “We basically then figure out how much time it takes to get from one to the other and where we can stop in between. It’s a lot of e-mailing and calling people to make sure things will work out.”

Gooch said one benefit of working with Ice Cream Man is that it is always fun arriving at an event and having people applaud their arrival.

“At Sasquatch Music Festival up in Washington State, we got to give ice cream away to the crowd from the main stage and that got a pretty great reaction,” he said. “It’s fun seeing 10,000 people cheering for ice cream, even if we only have a couple hundred to throw out.”

Though Gooch said Ice Cream Man is busy all year round from finding sponsorships and running the website, they usually take some time off around Christmas to refuel for the next year. For instance, Ice Cream Man has been throwing a holiday party each December for the past five years for their crew and friends, where some of the staff’s favorite bands play while the staff gives away free ice cream and hot cocoa.

“It’s basically a small, end of the year party we throw in Long Beach as a thanks to everybody who’s helped out that year,” Gooch said. “We get some bands to play and give away ice cream and hot chocolate. It’s generally not sponsored; we just put it on out of pocket.”

Held at Prospector in Long Beach, California, each December, Prospector spokesman Wade Hammond said that the event is relatively small and at most hosts about a couple hundred people. 2010 was Ice Cream Man’s sixth annual holiday party. Bands Crystal Antlers, Still Flyin’, and Hasselhoff Curtainrod played at last year’s event.

Allen said that one thing he has learned from starting Ice Cream Man is that you can do almost anything as long as you give yourself enough time, have close to enough resources and dedicate yourself to it.

“I have been lucky to do a lot of cool and crazy stuff and I’m not sure why that’s possible but I often just see myself at the beginning and end of a project and I’m never sure what’s going to happen in between,” Allen says. “One thing I can’t stress enough is how important it is to work with good people. ICM would not exist without the help of dozens, or hundreds, of people. All I really want to be is the mascot anyways so I’m fortunate to have such hard working crew on board.”

As for right now, Gooch says Ice Cream Man is working on following up with sponsors and seeing what their situation will be like for next year.

“Matt is heading out to Art Basel in Miami in a few weeks,” he says. “After that, who knows…”

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