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The History of Cool Treats On America’s Streets

For nearly two centuries, homemade frozen treats served with a smile on the streets of America have remained one of our nation’s seasonal treasures. It all started in the early 1800s, when immigrant street vendors in New York began peddling home-country, family-recipe ice cream to the city’s sweltering urban masses. As sweet-tooth journalist Laura B. Weiss notes in her book Ice Cream: A Global History, “Italy and France was where ice cream was first truly developed and made delicious—in the U.S., they developed the business.”

Fresh out of Ellis Island, carrying little luggage and even fewer career skills, scores of eager European upstarts combined their culinary passions, national pride and business instincts to design unique ice cream parlors on wheels. Crafting cheap, hand-built wooden wagons to serve from allowed them to support their own families by sharing desserts perfected by their ancestors, a sales model that established a stellar profit margin by avoiding the steep rent and tax costs incurred by New York’s stationary ice cream parlors.

As word of these cool carts spread like wildfire throughout the city’s poor downtown areas, a win-win situation emerged for both the pushcart operators and Manhattan’s disenfranchised masses. Being that the vendors lived on the same minimum income level as most New Yorkers, they priced their ice cream accordingly, giving many a chance to enjoy treats that at the time were more commonly enjoyed by those with cleaner clothes. While storefront ice-cream rooms did remain open, many encountered large dips in their sales. Some even sought out street vendor recipes to win back customers who had fled to the streets.     

Among the most popular frozen treats sold by street vendors was a Neapolitan-style snack nicknamed a “hokey-pokey”. A thick blend of condensed milk, sugar, vanilla, gelatin and cornstarch, hokey-pokeys were sliced into cubes and served wrapped in wax paper. Repeat visitors and kids of all nationalities, including those of Italian, Irish and Jewish backgrounds, gathered together along the Bowery, early New York’s avenue of the people, listening intently for the vendors’ familiar yell, the original ice cream truck melody—”Hokey-pokey, sweet and cold; for a penny, new or old!”

Another frozen favorite of Manhattan’s labor class and their children was a “Penny Lick”, called such because of its cost and method of consumption. At the time, the ice cream cone had yet to be created, so vendors served their ice cream in standard glasses, which customers would lick down to the last drop before returning to the cart. To satisfy the next sweet tooth in line, the vendor would dunk a returned glass in a water bucket, scoop, serve, and start the process all over again. Some fatherly vendors were even known to let the neighborhood’s most troubled children keep their own glass and save their pennies, in exchange for spreading word about their carts.   

As the modern descendants of early New York’s scrappy mobile dessert peddlers, Carousel’s Soft Serve Icery is filled with pride to be part of such an innovative, family-oriented American lineage of homemade, curbside refreshment, served fresh to people of all ages. We believe we share our brand character stalwarts—Happiness, Charity, Honesty, Togetherness and Love—with the vendors who worked their rickety carts down Old New York’s packed cobbled streets, and through programs like Carousel’s Cares, we dedicate our assets and energies to advancing the spirit of charity many of our dessert forefathers displayed.

But while our hearts are similar, Carousel’s distribution methods are just a bit more advanced than those of our mobile sweets predecessors—they’re even a few steps ahead of most of our modern dessert truck colleagues! Just like our soft serve ices, our iconic trucks are a remix of prized tradition and pure imagination, carefully designed to make your dessert experience even more immersive and refreshing. From the environment our truck puts forth, to our frozen ice dispersal methods, to the flavor and texture of our ice itself, Carousel’s has always kept it classic while changing the game.

Just like our namesake attraction at the center of an amusement park, you can’t miss a Carousel’s Soft Serve Icery truck. We’re one-of-a-kind, from our colors to our music, and from our sights to our smells—yes, our smells! Carousel’s practices “scent marketing”, an innovative method of drawing passersby towards our truck using a mechanism that emits an all-natural, mouthwatering aroma from the perimeter of the vehicle. It’s sure to awaken the taste buds, and if it draws you in we’ll help you get started—Old New York’s miniature “Hokey-Pokeys” cost a penny, but our bite-sized samples are on the house.

Equally as distinctive are our ice’s trademark texture and taste. You won’t find another flavored ice like this, literally—Carousel’s soft-serve ice machine is a special, custom proprietary model that produces a tidal wave swirl of smooth fruity flavor. Our ices never end up watery and bland, a common problem for dessert trucks whose premade ice has spent all day riding around town. Our custom machines also ensure Carousel’s frozen ices are always creamy and even-textured, never crunchy or freezer-burned. And if all that rich taste and smooth consistency isn’t enough, our soft serve ices have none of the fat, calories, gluten or dairy of other similar frozen treats, and are vegan as well. Feeling ready for Summer yet?   

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