James Karagiannis has built his ice cream cart business serving the underserved.
Karagiannis and his crew leave the North Buffalo headquarters of Ice Creamcycles pedaling three-wheelers, each carrying an ice cream cart, to destinations on the East Side, West Side and Riverside, where they sell ice cream and frozen ice novelties for $1 apiece.
“We’re driving through inner-city neighborhoods,” said the 36-year-old Karagiannis, who started his business in 2007.
“When I first started, everyone said I should go to Elmwood Avenue, Thursday in the Square, Delaware Park. But I needed to be right here,” he said during a stop at a street corner in Central Park. “I like bikes. I like joking with the kids and exploring my city.”
With his reflector sunglasses and sneakers the color of a blueberry popsicle, Karagiannis is a familiar sight in many parts of the city. That is where he is known as James the Ice Creamcycle Dude.
But after almost a decade in business, Karagiannis still feels the sting saying no to a kid who doesn’t have a dollar for ice cream. So he and his drivers keep a stash of freebies to give to children who cannot afford a frozen treat.
Still nothing is free, he said. Not a Sour Apple Buddy Bar or Jolly Rancher Bomb Pop.
He asks the youngster a math or history question.
Whose picture is this? he asks, unrolling a dollar bill from his pocket. Karagiannis hints heavily until the youngster answers correctly.
George Washington? the youngster says.
And Karagiannis hands the child a frozen treat.
Word spread. Other customers began to kick in donations of $5 and $10. It became difficult for his mobile crew to keep track of the donors.
Once again, Karagiannis tinkered with the business plan.
“We came up with the idea that, if they want a free ice cream, they’d have to write a thank you note,” he said.
The notes were mailed to the people who donated.
Those notes over time morphed into postcards designed by Ezekiel Miner, a freshman at the Buffalo Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts.
“The kids totally get it,” Karagiannis said.
Adults get it, too, as seen from a message posted by a Clark Street woman to Karagiannis’ Facebook page after she received a thank you postcard.
“Getting this in the mail kind of made up for a not-great morning today,” Christine Lo posted. “Love the ice creamcycle dude’s commitment to the kids he serves. I’m looking forward to getting more cards and seeing who got the ice cream from the rest of my donation. Win-win.”
There’s been so much interest that Karagiannis started a “Pay It Forward” campaign online to allow people to buy ice cream for deserving children. The fund, touted on his Facebook page, is growing fast.
“I thought maybe $400 to $500 max, but we’re at $4,500 right now,” he said. “It’s crazy. People add comments when they make their donation online. I really didn’t think it would make such an impression. Ex-pats thank me for taking care of their hometown.”
Karagiannis is a Bennett High School graduate Class of 1999. He finished two years at Northeastern University in Boston where he studied business administration.
He admits to an “extreme wanderlust” that last winter took him to New Orleans, where he pedaled bicycle cabs. This October, he’s heading to Seattle. He once started riding his ice cream cart to New York, but only made it to Medina.
Through his time peddling ice cream on city streets, Karagiannis has learned that outdoor temperatures affect his customers’ ice cream habits.
“Sales are the best when the temperature is in the 80s,” he noted. “When it’s mid-70s and cooler, it’s harder to sell ice cream, and when it’s so hot, people are not outside.”
Many schools invite Ice Creamcycles to their closing celebrations in June. Karagiannis said it took 1.5 hours to pedal the 400-pound cart the 7.3 miles to Meadow Elementary School in North Tonawanda.
Among his crew of ice cream cycle dudes is Hakeem Salem, 18, a recent graduate from City Honors High School who is heading to Boston in September to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology for computer science. Peddling ice cream is his best summer job yet, he said.
“I’m biking through neighborhoods of people I know,” he said. “I’m bringing my neighbors ice cream on a hot summer day. One little girl gave me a hug after I gave her an ice cream.”
Another ice cream pedaler is Rex Herzberg, 18, who lives in the Elmwood Village. He just finished his first year at Washington University in St. Louis. This is his second year selling ice cream.
“There was a connection between ice cream and kids,” he said. “They know the bells mean ice cream, and they come running out of their homes.”
He enjoyed the way the donations spread goodwill.
“So many people have a desire to help these kids,” Herzberg said. “This is giving them a way to do it. It exploded more than I thought it would.”
Occasionally, Karagiannis and his crew work the Bidwell Concert Series on Tuesday evenings or the Art of Jazz Series Sunday afternoons at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. On a typical day, they don’t set out much before 2 p.m., averaging 15 miles total as they make their way to some of the city’s less-traveled neighborhoods.
“I’m not making a lot of money off ice cream,” Karagiannis said. “We have bells on the handlebars to alert people we’ve arrived, but I usually don’t like the hard sell.”