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Living the Dream with Matt Allen, aka Ice Cream Man

on September 23, 2010, 2:06am
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Oh, the power of free ice cream. It seems so limitless, like the gods are smiling on you and saying, “Here, let me help you enjoy life just a little bit more.” Even when it’s not free, those cold, creamy, delicious mounds of flavor are irresistible at any time of the year.

Like the rest of us, Matt Allen, the founder of Ice Cream Man, has known this his whole life, and every summer this notion is affirmed as he tours the country in his high-tech ice cream truck. He drives from music festival to music festival, saving the patrons and bands from overheating with single servings of heaven. This has been Allen’s life for roughly the past 13 years, and behind this great adventure lies a story and a person driven to do anything for the sake of free ice cream.

Allen is the unlikeliest of businessmen. Given his career path, he has to be. He’s chosen the open road as his marketplace, making music festivals all over the U.S. his unofficial home for the past six years. It’s been the past three, however, that he’s made his biggest mark, picking up Ben and Jerry’s as his ice cream sponsor and launching an online video series that’s turned him into as much of a music blogger as a freewheeling entrepreneur. Through all these outlets, Allen’s started a movement based on the simplest of missions: to give out half a million free ice creams and enjoy every last minute of it. There really isn’t more to it.

Since officially starting Ice Cream Man back in 2004, he’s been able to assemble people all over the world who are willing to set aside their day jobs for the chance to pick up a pushcart or an ice cream truck and join in the mission. Allen’s become a pied piper of sorts with trails of ice cream wrappers and cups crisscrossing the U.S. behind him. This kind of success doesn’t happen overnight. Far from it in fact. As I learned after talking with him this past month, it’s been a long, uphill battle but well worth every step.

Ice Cream Man started small for Allen, the year he graduated from Fort Lewis College in 1997, with not much direction but a definite idea of what he wanted to do, which felt too natural for him to ignore. “The very beginning was Durango, Colorado,” he starts. “I was in school, and I wanted to buy an ice cream truck but couldn’t afford it, so I bought a three-wheeled bike and put a cooler on the front and then rode around the town and sold ice cream for my summer job.” Back then there was no website, no logo, or even a truck, but he knew from that first summer that he had something special, a venture that he felt could give him a name in the world.

icecreammanmattallen Living the Dream with Matt Allen, aka Ice Cream Man

It would be several years, however, before Allen’s Ice Cream Man idea would get its due attention. After failing to lock up in 1998, he put the idea down and set off on a series of adventures that would take him from Maine to California by bicycle, from Mexico to Canada on foot, and along the entire Appalachian Trail. In between those adventures, Allen moved to Ashland, Oregon, which he still calls home today. To pay the bills, he took a job in an Ashland chocolate factory. These wandering years would prove to be essential and inspiring for getting his Ice Cream Man idea up and going again, because as Allen frankly puts it, “What you think is and isn’t impossible after you walk from Mexico to Canada, it’s kind of skewed in your mind. You don’t have the limitations or doubts that a lot of people might have; you just kind of do things.”

Still searching for his calling, Allen took off for Austin, Texas, where he would re-open the historic bar Hole in the Wall, but that job would be short-lived. In all, Allen would go through two jobs in three months before coming to the conclusion that he was fed up working for other people and that it was time to get back to Ashland and revive Ice Cream Man. Once back in Oregon, he bought and fixed up an old ice cream truck, spent that first summer selling ice cream around Ashland, and started his now-annual ice cream social.

From there, things began to take off. After years of hounding the domain owner, Allen finally got, made a short movie, and created his first logo. The creative juices were overflowing, and Allen, along with his original crew, set out to find just what would be next for Ice Cream Man. The possibilities seemed endless. “From the day we went to buy the truck, my buddy and I, we were just so jazzed,” he continues. “This was in 2004, before YouTube, and I think Google Maps just launched. He and I were just freaking out on all the possibilities of what you can do with this ice cream truck, mobily, technologically, with video, maps, and all this stuff from way back when.”

ice cream hand Living the Dream with Matt Allen, aka Ice Cream ManIt was at this point that Allen cemented his ultimate goal for Ice Cream Man. He would set aside seven years and in that time give away half a million ice creams. However, this goal wouldn’t be without sacrifices, some of which he’s still making to this day. He says: “I had to sell everything I own, max out my credit cards, use any statements that I had, move back in with my mom, and live on the road for half the year.” The financial aspect hasn’t gotten much easier, and while he’s out of his mom’s house, he’s still scraping by. “I was down to two-hundred bucks in the bank account two days ago,” he says, later adding: “No one is getting rich off this, but we’ve been able to give away almost 300,000 free ice creams and had a great time.”

So, how did music festivals get involved? Back to 2004, as Allen tells it: “When we first started talking we were like, what about if we went to music festivals. So, we went down to All Tomorrow’s Parties in Long Beach.” Getting in took some legwork as well, and the ice cream didn’t start out totally free. Allen and his crew would sell it to the festival patrons to cover their basic costs but always saved some for the staff who did get them for free. When it was announced that ATP would be coming back for another year, they sold just enough ice cream to get them to the festival, and with the festival passes provided, kicked the mission into full gear. From there it was on to Sasquatch! Festival. Eventually they would hit almost every festival in the U.S. big and small. These festivals have become a second home for Allen, the people and musicians his family.

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