Mount Carmel man has been dishing out ice cream, smiles for 20 years
MOUNT CARMEL - When the young woman with the long blonde ponytail reached the front of the line, she still wasn't sure what she wanted, so she asked for a minute to decide.
Instead of becoming impatient like many other food service workers, Larry Lipkin smiled.
"I love this job," he said with a laugh.
Lipkin is the owner of Pepe's Famous Italian Ice Inc., Mount Carmel, and operates an ice cream truck that roams the mountainsides of the coal region, visiting nearly a dozen communities.
"I do each town one day per week," said Lipkin.
Because of the rotating schedule, he has regular customers awaiting him in each town. He knows the names of many of his customers, as well as their usual orders.
"I remember when they were born," he said. "And most of the kids have kids now!"
Lipkin's decision to dedicate his life to ice cream also began in childhood. He always loved food trucks. He grew up in Philadelphia and can still remember the names of nearly a dozen trucks that visited his neighborhood regularly.
The list is extensive and features well-known ice cream trucks like Mr. Softee and Good Humor, as well as other foods, like a pizza truck, and even trucks with rides on them like The Whip, which featured a miniature version of the carnival ride.
Taking the leap
Before Lipkin began his foray into the world of sweet treats, he held a number of jobs, mostly in the fast food industry. At age 37 he was working as an assistant manager at Burger King when he decided to make the leap.
"When my son was born, I said, 'I have to do something,' " he said. "And this is what I've always wanted to do."
Lipkin knew how to make Italian ice from his childhood; he had worked for his grandfather's friend, an Italian ice salesman in Philadelphia nicknamed Pepe. Ice cream was later added to his repertoire after taking a few classes.
In 1994, the first Pepe's Famous Italian Ice truck rolled onto the streets.
Unfortunately for Lipkin, an error in his marketing plan made for a slow start to his new company.
"I called it water ice, and nobody knew what water is because of my Philly accent," said Lipkin. "I had to change it to Italian ice."
To add credibility to his truck, he opened a storefront at 51 S. Chestnut St., Mount Carmel, a few months later.
Word of mouth spread, and business grew slowly but steadily. Lipkin said he believed his dedication to a quality product brought his success.
"I don't consider myself a perfectionist, I just like really good stuff, so I used the best ingredients," he said. "If I can't do it that way, I don't want to do it at all, because that's something I created. Everybody can buy ice cream and serve it, but I get such a great satisfaction just making it myself."
Creating hundreds of gallons of fresh ice cream and Italian ice from scratch is no easy feat, so Lipkin enlisted his family to help.
His wife, Anna, co-manages the store, and his daughter, Kimberly Spears, is a mainstay behind the counter and the brains behind many of Pepe's original Italian ice flavors.
"She comes up with the best flavors," said Lipkin.
The mom-and-pop atmosphere of the store grants leniency in Kim's flavor creation.
"Sometimes we try things and we don't like them so we throw them away," said Spears.
Her recent concoctions include "Breakfast at Pepe's" and "Banana Nutella."
Even with the aid of his family, Lipkin still works many 14 and 16 hour days. Usually he arrives at the store at 9 a.m. or earlier. When school is in session, he'll take the truck out in the late afternoon until 9 p.m. During the summer he stays out an hour later.
Upon invitation, he also takes the truck to events like sporting games.
After he returns the truck to the store every night, the interior is wiped down and all food items are brought into the store.
Lipkin cites his family as his inspiration for carrying on through the late hours.
"My family is the reason for my success," he said. "Without them, I wouldn't have done it."
Passing it down
In the evening of May 9, Lipkin had his grandson, Christopher Feliciano, in tow as he cruised his truck slowly through the quiet streets of Gordon.
Feliciano, 17, is a senior at Line Mountain High School. He began working for his grandfather three years earlier and has loved the experience.
"It's my favorite job ever," said Felicitano. "You get to make people happy."
Gordon is one of Lipkin's favorite towns to visit because of its charming, tree-lined streets.
"Sometimes I just do (certain) streets because I like them," he said.
After finishing with a small group of customers he began to inch the truck down the street toward the next block.
Suddenly a small voice cried out, "Wait!"
Looking in his rearview mirror, Lipkin saw a tiny blonde girl chasing after his truck.
For Lipkin, this is the scariest part of the job - worrying that an unsupervised child will dash after his truck unseen and be struck.
"You have to drive really slow and look between cars," said Lipkin. "Sometimes I give out free ice cream to kids that wear helmets."
Fortunately for Lipkin, his clientele comprises more than just children.
"My customers aren't just kids, they're mostly adults," he said. "I have to put the music on really loud."
His jingle also attracts the attention of neighborhood dogs, which bark in delight at his arrival. Sometimes he even crafts frozen treats for his customers' canine companions.
Something for everyone
With the amenities in his truck, Lipkin is ready to make almost any treat imaginable.
Tucked against the wall dividing the front of the truck and the serving area is a soft-serve machine filled with chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Rainbow and chocolate sprinkles are situated next to the customer window for easy access.
A cooler along the rear of the truck holds nearly a dozen Italian ices. Five types of cones dangle in front of the rear window of the truck. The side of the truck opposing the customers has more coolers and a counter with every possible topping imaginable; hot fudge, pineapple, whipped cream and crushed candies are just a few items in his stock.
"We have to worry about allergies," said Lipkin.
Homemade signs are taped to the windows. Some customers spend several minutes analyzing the offerings on the lists, but others march up to the window and ask for their favorites - regardless of whether that item is on the official menu.
"I don't have rainbow (Italian ice), but kids still order it because they remember it," said Lipkin.
Scooping Italian ice brings back so many fond memories of his early days of "water ice" that gelatis are still his favorite dessert to make.
"I think we're really special. That's what I always wanted the story of our truck to be," he said.