How This Guy Makes $300k/Day Selling Ice Cream in NYC

Ben Van Leeuwen Thumbnail

Hey! Shamus here, and welcome to another edition of MBIT, a newsletter (and podcast) sharing the stories of world-class entrepreneurs to inspire the next generation. Now, onto Van Leeuwen!

Founder Ben Van Leeuwen shares the story:

“My first summer job in college was driving a Good Humor ice cream truck. My brother Peter and I did that for three summers. The first was in Connecticut after my senior year of high school. We rented an old Chevrolet Stepvan that broke down constantly, bought the ice cream, marked it up, and sold it on the streets of Manhattan. We did really well. By the second summer, I managed to save about $30,000 from running the ice cream truck.

Ben Van Leeuwen standing next to ice cream truck

But then it came time to go back to college. 

I did not want to go back to college. I love learning, but I didn’t want to sit in the same place for four years and learn. But again, because of where I grew up, the normal thing to do is go to college. I ended up not going back to college, though.

I took a year off and traveled around Southeast Asia and Europe with the money I saved from the ice cream truck. In those travels, I found that when you go to Italy, Vietnam, Thailand, Europe, and Asia, people care about food. They care about ingredients. And I was so excited by that.

Eventually, I go back and finish college. My GPA was 2.9. I wanted a really good job. A really fancy corporate job where I could make a good living. I was scared. I wanted to survive in life. Not only did I not get a job, I didn't even get any interviews.

But one day during the spring break of my senior year of college, I was walking around Bryant Park, New York, and I saw a Mr. Softee truck, an ice cream truck, and that was the moment when I had the idea to make my own ice cream. It was a really simple idea, right? Ice cream trucks work. People like ice cream. Why not make premium, even higher-quality ice cream on the trucks?

So, we started the business with $60,000 from friends and family.

We used heavier cream, egg yolks, and no stabilizers. We make ice cream in the way that a really good, classic, three-Michelin star French pastry chef would make traditional French ice cream.

Then, to make it special, we source pistachios from Bronte, Sicily, chocolate from small farms in Ecuador, whole bourbon, and Tahitian vanilla beans.

But at that time, a new ice cream truck would cost $70,000 for the truck and then another $50,000 to turn into an ice cream truck.

So how did we do all of that with $60,000?

We actually built two trucks. I bought used post office trucks on eBay. They were 1988 P30 Chevrolet step vans. We paid $7,500 for both of them, and we found somebody who could turn those into ice cream trucks, which entailed cutting holes in the sides and putting aluminum framed windows and chest freezers in.

It gave this soft, friendly 1950-60s look a little bit different than our aesthetic now.

It was really hard work, though. The credit cards were maxed out. There was no production facility built. We had no money for that. So we co-manufactured for the first two years, then we pivoted to do our own manufacturing, which we still do a lot of in Brooklyn.”

What were some of the components that it took to get customers to be loyal repeat buyers?

“So, craveability is the key. For example, make a really good vanilla that people don't want to try once but want to eat for the rest of their lives.

Second, the most challenging part of innovation in the ice cream business is making new flavors that are hits. And to determine that, we don’t ask people, ‘What do you think of these flavors?’ We just see what gets eaten, and that is almost always going to correlate with how quickly it will sell.

Then, one of the most important parts is service, and service is actually harder to execute than product…”

You can listen to my full interview with Ben Van Leeuwen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or YouTube below.

Have a productive week!


Founder & Host of MBIT