Cracking down on imitation trucks is serious business for Mister Softee
Mister Softee isnt just dispensing vanilla ice cream this summer, hes also trying to dish out soft-serve justice to cone-head wannabes.
Mister Softee distributors arent soft or sweet when it comes to rogue franchisees who routinely rip off the companys trademarks without paying the licensing fees.
They hire private investigators to tail imposters and send the U.S. Marshals Service to tow offending trucks. They even spend tens of thousands of dollars every year to sue about 40 truck owners for lifting the cone-head logo, the white-and-blue color scheme and the jingle.
These guys are mobile, said Peter Bouzio, the Mister Softee distributor for the Bronx and Manhattan. Its an uphill battle.In midtown Thursday, an ice cream truck called Softee Treats infringed on Mister Softees trademark, according to the companys lawyer.
Im not Mister Softee, nowhere on my truck does it say Mister Softee, shouted the ice cream vendor, who declined to give his name.
Last month, marshals confiscated two trucks from a depot tucked away in Greenpoint. A federal judge ordered the Queens vendors repaint their trucks and pay $20,000 in legal fees in January, but they kept driving the streets until investigators busted them.
Weve made a dent in the problem, but its continuing, said Jeff Zucker, the companys lawyer.
Mister Softee was born in 1956, when two enterprising brothers started selling green ice cream out of truck for St. Patricks Day. The jingle came along in 1960, and the New Jersey company eventually cornered the city market, with Good Humor ceasing street-truck vending in 1977.
Six hundred trucks in 15 states more than half of them in New York City now dispense banana shakes, ice cream sandwiches and vanilla soft serve dipped in sprinkles.
Softee distributors say they dont mind competitors, but cant tolerate copycats. Franchisees pay $5,000 for the right to drive a Mister Softee truck, and about $3,000 in royalties for the summer season.
To do business on the back of Mister Softee is what I take umbrage with, said Hilary Doc Guishard, distributor for a fleet of 90 trucks in Brooklyn. Thats where the rubber meets the road.
Imitators are getting crafty. They download the jingle online and form shell companies that are hard to trace, Zucker said. In the case of the trucks confiscated in Greenpoint, the owners acquired the vehicles from former Mister Softee drivers.
Kerry John Katsorhis, a lawyer for the Greenpoint vendors, said his clients are new to this country and didnt understand American trademark law.
Now they are aware of their rights and responsibilities, Katsorhis said.
The city Department of Health requires ice cream trucks obtain a permit for mobile food vending, and they are inspected at least once a year regardless of brand name, a spokeswoman said. The citys 311 line received 21 complaints since last year about dairy food vendors.
Ice cream lovers in midtown were mixed Thursday on how much a true Mister Softee cone mattered. One became offended when he noticed his vanilla shake from Softee Treats came in a Ranch1 cup.
Im fired up by this, said Allen Loupo, 41.
Anastasia Economides contributed to this story.
How to spot a fake
Imitation Mister Softee trucks will often use a spin on the companys name
Look for taglines like Mister Soft, Mister Soft Freeze and Mr. Softee
The company trademarks the name, cone-head logo, jingle and white-and-blue color scheme