Summer in New York City means ice cream trucks: bell-jingling fleets of pleasure craft festooned with pictures of perfectly swirled desserts and beaming children, delivering frozen providence into grateful sweaty hands.
But behind those cheery facades simmer turf wars — long-running, occasionally bloody feuds between ice cream vendors for control of the city’s prime selling spots.
And in a recent battle for a lucrative zone of tourist attractions and sunny pedestrian plazas, a place filled with people willing to pay $4 for a plain vanilla cone, no sprinkles, the king of ice cream land has lost to an upstart.
Mister Softee says he has been muscled out of Midtown.
New York Ice Cream, staffed by drivers who used to cover Midtown Manhattan for Mister Softee, has had the area locked down for at least a year, Mister Softee said. The renegade is enforcing its dominance with threats and intimidation that sometimes get physical.
“If one of my drivers goes to Midtown, they’ll bring their trucks in and surround them — a bunch of guys,” said Peter Bouziotis, who runs the Softee depot in the Bronx, which covers Manhattan. “They’ll start banging on the windows.”
At the corner of 40th Street and Seventh Avenue in Times Square, a New York Ice Cream man in the window of his purple-trimmed white truck was unapologetic.
“From 34th to 60th Street, river to river, that’s ours,” he said on a recent afternoon, moments after handing a chocolate cone to a delighted-looking little boy. The vendor would not allow his name to be published for fear of losing his job.
“You will never see a Mister Softee truck in Midtown,” he continued. “If you do, there will be problems, and you won’t see him there very long.”
Boxing in a Softee truck so the driver cannot do business. Getting up in his face. Grabbing his collar and delivering some unsolicited advice.
“Happens all the time,” the New York Ice Cream man said.
New York Ice Cream’s founder, Dimitrios Tsirkos, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Mister Softee’s vice president, Jim Conway, said the company had urged its drivers to retake the heart of the city, to no avail.
“Corporately, we would love to see people go in there; we consider it wide open territory, and anyone would do great selling there,” Mr. Conway said. “The issue is that people just fear for their safety.”
Mr. Conway said Mister Softee had not sought legal remedy for the bullying. “It’s just the way it is,” he said. “Life on the street.”
A city permit allows mobile vendors to sell anywhere within the city. At a franchise operation like Mister Softee, routes are assigned by the depot manager so that drivers for the same company do not trip over one another.
But, Mr. Bouziotis said, “I’m not going to push anyone” to sell ice cream where they feel endangered.
Bad blood has run through the New York ice cream trade for decades. In 1969, a Mister Softee driver was kidnapped by rivals who blew up his truck. In 2004, a cone-selling couple in their 60s were ambushed by competitors who beat them into critical condition with a wrench. In a 2010 brawl caught on video, two drivers near Columbus Circle exchanged punches before one man pushed the other’s face into a planter.
But drivers for Mister Softee, whose cone-headed, bowtied likeness adorns more than 350 trucks across the five boroughs, can play hard, too.
In 2012, a frozen yogurt vendor said that a Softee duo snapped his brakes with a crowbar, and the founder of the Van Leeuwen ice cream company said he had gotten death threats from Softee drivers. (A lawyer for Mister Softee, Jeffrey Zucker, said that while he had not heard about the 2012 allegations, “a franchisee could lose his or her Mister Softee franchise for engaging in that type of criminal activity.”)
“Let me tell you about this business,” Adam Vega, a thickly muscled, heavily tattooed Mister Softee man who works the upper reaches of the Upper East Side and East Harlem, said on Wednesday. “Every truck has a bat inside.”
Mr. Vega, 41, said that if he comes across a rival on his route, “I jump out and say, ‘Listen young man, this is my route, you gotta get out of there.’”
The rift between New York Ice Cream and Mister Softee goes back to around 2013. According to court documents, Mr. Tsirkos held at least a dozen Softee franchises at the time, mostly in Midtown.
Several of his drivers said that he was upset at high franchise fees and inflated prices for supplies. So he took his trucks (they are owned by individuals, not Mister Softee), added sprinkles and a waffle cone to the logo, and struck out on his own under the name Master Softee.
Mister Softee cried trademark infringement.
In court, at least, Mister Softee is winning. The upstarts have changed their name, to New York Ice Cream, and the look of their trucks.
Mr. Tsirkos has been ordered to compensate Mister Softee for his misdeeds. Last week, a federal judge ordered him to pay Softee $287,858.44 in lawyers’ fees, bringing the total he owes to over $767,000. (So far, Mister Softee’s lawyers say, Mr. Tsirkos has parted with only $2,426.)
On the streets, it has been tougher.
At the Bronx Softee depot on Southern Boulevard on Wednesday, Mark Rodriguez, a former Army infantryman in Afghanistan, said that he had managed to sell ice cream on 33rd Street near Madison Square Garden for several hours one recent afternoon.
“They didn’t chase you?” a colleague, Leon Frierson, asked.
“No,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Too many cops. Nobody’s gonna try anything.”