How one Redwood City resident brought sweet nostalgia to the Bay Area (and compelled us to stalk an ice cream truck)

Mister Softee’s Bay Area migration is a sweet surprise for East Coast transplants. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

It wasn’t easy finding Mister Softee.

For someone used to food trucks with fixed locations, chasing one down was new to me. Sure, you can use the iconic East Coast soft serve company’s smartphone app to track the trucks in real time, but they’re constantly in motion. Every time I put in a location on Waze, by the time I arrived, the truck I was following had moved somewhere else, just out of reach.

Persistent (and in desperate need of soft serve), I drove in circles through a South San Francisco neighborhood, repeatedly refreshing the app. It didn’t take long for my thoughts to start spiraling. Why is there no Mrs. Softee? Should I quit my job to start a competing feminist soft serve truck at the risk of violating federal trademark law? Will my tombstone read, “She tried, and failed, to find the Mister Softee truck; R.I.P.”?

For those who grew up with Mister Softee’s creamy soft serve and sundaes, the name is synonymous with childhood nostalgia and the pursuit of something uniquely wonderful. The mere mention of Mister Softee to an East Coast transplant (including the editor who assigned this story) immediately elicits such enthusiasm that I had to try it for myself.

So, after several U-turns and some not-very-discreet stalking, I turned a corner and finally spotted the white-and-blue truck, emblazoned with the tuxedoed Mister Softee himself, his smile beckoning mewith the reward of a double softee dipped in rainbow sprinkles.

Softee standards: the famous Softee double with rainbow sprinkles and the very picturesque strawberry sundae. (Photos by Elena Kadvany)

“You had to be quick,” said Felix Tarnarider, who grew up in Brooklyn, “otherwise the truck would leave before you could get there. It was a daily ritual. All the kids did it in the neighborhood.”

You can thank Tarnarider for introducing Mister Softee to the Bay Area. A Redwood City resident, he worked in tech for two decades before becoming Mister Softee’s Northern California franchisee in 2016.

As a kid, the famed jingle that blares from the Mister Softee trucks was like a siren song. He’d rush to his parents to ask for enough cash for his go-to order (a cone with “crunchies,” or chocolate sprinkles) and take the stairs three at a time to rush into the street.

“Eventually I decided that it would help build community and bring neighborhoods together just like it did in New York City,” Tarnarider said. “While the brand is not known like a Starbucks or McDonald’s, the affinity for the Mister Softee name goes a lot deeper than those other brands. It’s a part of the culture in a few areas of the country.”

Two brothers, William and James Conway, founded Mister Softee in 1956 in Philadelphia and moved its headquarters to New Jersey two years later, where they remain today. The company now operates about 450 trucks in more than a dozen states, many owned by individual operators.

Mister Softee currently deploys a fleet of seven trucks throughout Bay Area neighborhoods, including up and down the Peninsula. Tarnarider said they plan to add two trucks per year for the next several years.

Catch him if you can: The magical and elusive Mister Softee truck. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Mister Softee — those trucks, the chocolate-dipped soft serve, the jingle — has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, except for one thing. The company now relies on social media to disseminate the trucks’ whereabouts and drive sales. The company posts to Instagram and Facebook which cities the trucks will be in each day, but there’s no set location or address. It takes commitment and the app to find the roving trucks. Diehards can also request a weekly stop in their neighborhood.

If you find the truck, you might as well order as many soft serves as you can hold. (Image via Yelp)

When you open the app, the truck’s jaunty theme song plays. The jingle sounds innocent enough, but has been embroiled in a surprising amount of controversy. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban the song in 2005 as part of a citywide crackdown on noise. It was also the subject of a federal trademark infringement case that prohibited a former franchisee who went “rogue,” starting a competing soft serve business, from playing it on his trucks.

I didn’t grow up with Mister Softee, but I strongly identify with the sense of nostalgia these trucks invoke. For me, it was the Choco Tacos and It’s It I ordered from the truck that drove through my neighborhood, the Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cake I demanded for every birthday, the soft serve-like frozen yogurt from the now-closed Yogurt Stop, whose parking lot was the setting for many formative teenage gatherings.

Standing on that corner with the Mister Softee truck, trying to make sure my melting treat didn’t drip soft-serve tears down my wrists, reminded me of all those moments — simpler times we could all use more of right now.

Follow Mister Softee NorCal on Instagram or go to mistersofteenorcal.com/ for the local truck schedule.

“You had to be quick, otherwise the truck would leave before you could get there. It was a daily ritual. All the kids did it in the neighborhood.”—Felix Tarnarider (Illustration by Kaz Palladino/Awkward Affections)

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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