A Sweet Deal on Wheels

Tacoma resident Jeff Smeed doesn’t stay idle for too long. It makes sense considering 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 (at least in the spring and summer) 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, mamey, pico de gallo with chili, and mango cream.

Smeed just wrapped up his second spring/summer delivering ice cream (though he’s still accepting orders online here and here and by phone at 253-606-0252). You can find him at the Tacoma Art Museum on Nov. 1 for the Día de los Muertos festival, and King’s Books on Nov. 15 for R.R. Anderson’s book release party. He also stocks a freezer full of paletas at Dorky’s Arcade downtown.

The Tacoma Daily Index caught up with Smeed this week at Amocat Cafe to discuss his business.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How did you get started as a bicycle vendor selling ice cream?

JEFF SMEED: I painted houses part-time to get myself through college. I graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in 1994 with a business degree and started doing some accounting after that. I grew up on a farm so I didn’t really like being inside [an office]. I found myself just staring out the window. It didn’t really matter to me what I was doing outside, I just couldn’t be inside. So in 1997 I started painting houses again.

Once the [housing] market started turning down, I started looking around at other ways to make money. I found a way to buy mobile homes, fix them up, paint them, turn them around, sell them and carry the paper on them. I kind of noticed a pattern — in the winter I could find great deals on mobile homes. In the summer, it was a great time to sell them. While I was working on these mobile homes in Lakewood, I kept noticing there was this ice cream vendor going through the mobile home park. I kept shaking my head thinking, ‘That guy just picked up forty bucks in 10 minutes. How hard is that? Drive around, smile at people, hand out ice cream, and they give you money.’

Last year, I rented a Cushman scooter and drove around and it turned out pretty good. I started thinking I could make more money if I did this myself and started looking at vehicles. I was kind of looking at motorized versus bicycles and the difference in insurance and maintenance. For the cost of one Cushman scooter I could buy three or four bicycles.

That’s where I started off. I went down to [Portland, Ore. to] purchase a trike. I was actually going to purchase three of them, but I wanted to see how it did on the hills. I was glad I just bought one. It’s a tadpole trike: two wheels in front with a cooler in between, and one wheel in back with the seat. You’re pushing about 400 to 500 pounds up the hill. By the time I got to the top of St. Helens Avenue, I had to stop for awhile and just rest. I like the trike for my events, but it just kills me on the hills. I actually like the trailers better. They are easier for me to pull. I found the plans for a trailer I liked. It was a trailer I could build. I made one and it worked out nice

INDEX: Tell me about the paleta bars from La Michoacana Paleteria. They are delicious. I have never seen them before and they seem unique to Tacoma.

SMEED: When I went down to Oregon to pick up the trike from Portland Peddleworks, [the owner] said, ‘You have to try these paletas.’ He was getting them from a family business in Hubbard, Ore. I tried one and thought, ‘Wow, these are good coconut bars.’

Michoacan is a state in Mexico that is known for sweets. Paleta is a name for little suckers, sweets, and candies. It’s kind of a traditional thing and it’s just ice cream — cream, sugar, fruits. if you go to a Mexican store, this is what you find. In eastern Washington, especially, you will see a lot of Mexican vendors and this is what they are selling. It’s what they have come to expect.

I met Humberto from La Michoacana Paleteria in Quincy, Wash. He was the first one I found that was willing to deliver and had the quality I was looking for. I’ve found that when I come across smaller family-owned businesses, the quality is there. They take such pride in their product. When I talked to Humberto and he came out with the pistachio bar, I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen pistachio bars and I love pistachio ice cream.’ He said, ‘We thought no one else was making these bars, so we decided to make them.’ The pistachio bars sell well for me.

Once I came out with paletas, it opened up a lot of doors for me. I like fruit bars. I’m not terribly keen on chocolate bars or cotton candy flavors or whatever. If I’m going to go around and sell ice cream, I want to sell something that I like and that I know other people are going to like. I also thought this was another way I could cater more to adults rather than just kids. That’s kind of more where I was trying to target my market. There are a lot of ice cream men out here for kids. They sell some stuff for adults, but a lot of them are so expensive that three or four bucks for a treat doesn’t sound like a treat to me. But when you can come up and spend a buck or two bucks for a bar, that’s a treat. I’ve had a really good reaction to the paletas. The best marketing tool I have is the product. Once people try it, they like it. They are hooked on it. It’s something new. It’s something different.

"Once I came out with paletas, it opened up a lot of doors for me," says ice cream vendor Jeff Smeed. He sells traditional Mexican paletas that are made in Qunicy, Wash., and shipped to Tacoma. "If I'm going to go around and sell ice cream, I want to sell something that I like and that I know other people are going to like. I've had a really good reaction to the paletas. The best marketing tool I have is the product. Once people try it, they like it. They are hooked on it. It's something new. It's something different." (PHOTO COURTESY JEFF'S ICE CREAM)

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.