A Sweet Business Deal? Tacoma's bicycle ice cream vendor aims to expand

Jeff Smeed looks at Tacoma in a way few other people do: in ice cream sales. When the weather is good (usually a 12-week span of spring and summer), Smeed knows which neighborhood he needs to be in, and at what time of day, to sell the most frozen treats.

Smeed is Tacoma’s only bicycle ice cream vendor.

As a youngster growing up on his family’s farm in Walla Walla, Wash., Smeed grew to love the outdoors and learned how to be a handyman of most trades. If he’s not buying, restoring, and selling mobile homes, he can be found pedalling throughout the city to deliver his wares.

If you’ve been to any local festivals, car shows, or block parties recently, you might have seen Smeed on his classic bike, wearing a retro cloth cap, and pulling a freezer filled with ice cream treats. Smeed sells the usual stuff, such as ice cream sandwiches and bars, and popsicles. But if you flag Smeed down for an ice cream, treat yourself to the traditional Mexican paletas that are made in Quincy, Wash., and delivered to Tacoma. The fruit and ice cream bars are creamy and delicious, and include interesting flavors such as pistachio, pico de gallo with chili, and mango cream.

Smeed is preparing for his third year delivering ice cream.

He is also launching a micro-business of sorts for people who might be interested in selling ice cream. For $1,000, Smeed will sell you a kit — freezer, trailer, and bicycle — to start your own ice cream delivery service. He also offers financing, training, and a wholesale agreement. Smeed custom-makes all the equipment in a huge storage shed on the Tacoma tide flats. The Tacoma Daily Index recently met him there to discuss his new project.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: Explain your new idea for selling ice cream.

JEFF SMEED: It’s self-employment. You’re buying your own job, basically. It’s been done a lot of times in a lot of different ways. Maybe somebody doesn’t want to put down the money — or doesn’t have enough money — to buy the bicycle, trailer, and freezer up front, and then go out and buy their ice cream. and the freezer up front and then go out and buy their ice cream all at the same time. What if I set it up so that it was reasonable enough that somebody who wanted to buy the bike they could? Or if they wanted to finance it, I could do that and tie it into a wholesale agreement?I had a couple reasons for that. One was that I wanted to push more Washington-made ice cream out there, and that’s one way I can do that. The other reason is there’s a minimum ice cream purchase. I set that based on what I sold last year and just divided it over the 12 weeks of the season. If I can sell it, you can, too.

INDEX: For someone getting into this business, what would they need to do to get started?

SMEED: For the trailer, bike, and freezer, it costs $1,000 just to cash out. [To finance the purchase,] it’s $100 down and $80 per week for 12 weeks, and then $500 in ice cream per week for 12 weeks. If someone bought the trailer, bike, and freezer in cash, they can buy their ice cream wherever they want. I can’t tie them into a wholesale agreement. The only way I’m really tying them into a wholesale agreement is if they finance it. So basically for $100 down and $500 for your ice cream, you can start hitting the road today. By the end of the week, you should have sold all of that ice cream and you should have your money. I try and make it so the margins usually end up being about 40 percent or more, so they can start positive cash flow right away. It’s really more of a self-employment instead of like a job where you know you are going to get paid in two weeks or a week or however it works out. In a business, when you get into it, you realize that you are not going to get your money back right away. It doesn’t come back next week — not in most businesses. But with a micro-business like this, we can make it to where you can start positive cash flow very quickly.

INDEX: The $1,000 fee pays for the bike, trailer, and freezer, right?

SMEED: Right. I’ve tried to stick to a lot of refurbished things or building a lot of the things myself to keep the costs low so I don’t have to charge a whole lot and I can kind of pass some of those savings on. The wholesale agreement is really what I want. For the term of the note, for the 12 weeks you will be making payments, you will have to buy a minimum of $500 worth of ice cream every week. What I will do is deliver that to your house. You will pay for it at that time, then go out and sell your ice cream for the week. The wholesale agreement [means] I really don’t want you to sell other ice cream off the trailer while you’re still making payments on it. If you buy [the bike, trailer, and freezer] outright [for $1,000], you can sell whatever you want out of it. But as long as you are making payments, I really want to make sure that you are going to make enough money to make those payments and to make money yourself. That way you are happy with the arrangement and you see that it’s working out for you. I want to do it to keep a little bit of control if, say, you didn’t sell enough this week and you have some left over for next week. Maybe I’ll ride along with you. Also, when you sign the note, we do a training class on how to ride the bike, how to stop — it’s more equipment at that point — and a little bit on how to hit your neighborhoods and how to work a neighborhood. After a couple weeks, we go over good selling areas and how to use social media to boost your sales. Tentatively, I have it set up to do advertising jingles — to run your iPod through your music box and do your own little jingle.

INDEX: Who do you think will be the ideal person to do this?

SMEED: What I’m really trying to do is get younger people, like graduating high school, college age, that group. Primarily the younger crowd, both guys and girls. Ideally, it could be a summer job that kind of teaches them how to run a business. If next summer they want to buy another one and rent one out, then that can become an option at that point. But this is definitely a place to start. If you are just looking at it for summer employment for college and when you graduate college, sell it off or pass it on to a nephew or whatever.

INDEX: In which neighborhoods or areas of Tacoma would this work well?

SMEED: McKinley, Lincoln, Fern Hill, and Hilltop to some degree. Hilltop is kind of a time-sensitive market. It’s not a neighborhood you can go through every day and sell ice cream. You can go through certain times of the month and sell ice cream. North Slope, the University of Puget Sound, Proctor — those areas will sell more of the Made in Washington ice cream than Lincoln or Fern Hill. I haven’t really explored the Puyallup market, but I’m not sure why it wouldn’t work there.Part of it is population and density. If you go from I-5 to Canyon Road and all the way down through Spanaway, as long as you find a neighborhood that’s fairly populated, it works.

INDEX: For someone reading this article and thinking about contacting you, what do they need to know about delivering ice cream on a bicycle?

SMEED: You need to be prepared to put in a good eight hours a day — at least — and go out fairly early in the morning — shortly before 10 a.m. and before lunch time — so you can start establishing your route a bit and people start seeing you in the neighborhood. You also need to be patient. There are times when I have gone down the same street three times in a day over an eight-hour period. But I know that different people come home at different times. Just because I’m going down the street right now and nobody is buying ice cream, that doesn’t mean the next time I come down this street three or four houses aren’t going to come out. It just depends on who is home, what time of day it is, and if they just had lunch and are ready for dessert. You’ve got to be patient enough and alert enough to know that, say, this little neighborhood over here I go through in the evening because that’s when they want ice cream. They don’t want it at lunch time. So you come through at the time that they want you there and you sell ice cream. A lot of it is just getting out there and doing it. That’s the beauty of being on a bike. If you’re sitting there and not selling ice cream, go somewhere else. You know the neighborhoods. Go into the neighborhoods and parks where people gather.

More information about Jeff’s Ice Cream is online here and here, or by contacting Smeed at (253) 606-0252.

"A lot of it is just getting out there and doing it," says bicycle ice cream vendor Jeff Smeed. "That's the beauty of being on a bike. If you're sitting there and not selling ice cream, go somewhere else. You know the neighborhoods. Go into the neighborhoods and parks where people gather." (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)
“A lot of it is just getting out there and doing it,” says bicycle ice cream vendor Jeff Smeed. “That’s the beauty of being on a bike. If you’re sitting there and not selling ice cream, go somewhere else. You know the neighborhoods. Go into the neighborhoods and parks where people gather.” (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.