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Living the Dream with Matt Allen, aka Ice Cream Man

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    Oh, the power of free ice cream. It seems so limitless, like the gods are smiling on you and saying, “Here, let me help you enjoy life just a little bit more.” Even when it’s not free, those cold, creamy, delicious mounds of flavor are irresistible at any time of the year.

    Like the rest of us, Matt Allen, the founder of Ice Cream Man, has known this his whole life, and every summer this notion is affirmed as he tours the country in his high-tech ice cream truck. He drives from music festival to music festival, saving the patrons and bands from overheating with single servings of heaven. This has been Allen’s life for roughly the past 13 years, and behind this great adventure lies a story and a person driven to do anything for the sake of free ice cream.

    Allen is the unlikeliest of businessmen. Given his career path, he has to be. He’s chosen the open road as his marketplace, making music festivals all over the U.S. his unofficial home for the past six years. It’s been the past three, however, that he’s made his biggest mark, picking up Ben and Jerry’s as his ice cream sponsor and launching an online video series that’s turned him into as much of a music blogger as a freewheeling entrepreneur. Through all these outlets, Allen’s started a movement based on the simplest of missions: to give out half a million free ice creams and enjoy every last minute of it. There really isn’t more to it.

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    Since officially starting Ice Cream Man back in 2004, he’s been able to assemble people all over the world who are willing to set aside their day jobs for the chance to pick up a pushcart or an ice cream truck and join in the mission. Allen’s become a pied piper of sorts with trails of ice cream wrappers and cups crisscrossing the U.S. behind him. This kind of success doesn’t happen overnight. Far from it in fact. As I learned after talking with him this past month, it’s been a long, uphill battle but well worth every step.

    Ice Cream Man started small for Allen, the year he graduated from Fort Lewis College in 1997, with not much direction but a definite idea of what he wanted to do, which felt too natural for him to ignore. “The very beginning was Durango, Colorado,” he starts. “I was in school, and I wanted to buy an ice cream truck but couldn’t afford it, so I bought a three-wheeled bike and put a cooler on the front and then rode around the town and sold ice cream for my summer job.” Back then there was no website, no logo, or even a truck, but he knew from that first summer that he had something special, a venture that he felt could give him a name in the world.

    It would be several years, however, before Allen’s Ice Cream Man idea would get its due attention. After failing to lock up icecreamman.com in 1998, he put the idea down and set off on a series of adventures that would take him from Maine to California by bicycle, from Mexico to Canada on foot, and along the entire Appalachian Trail. In between those adventures, Allen moved to Ashland, Oregon, which he still calls home today. To pay the bills, he took a job in an Ashland chocolate factory. These wandering years would prove to be essential and inspiring for getting his Ice Cream Man idea up and going again, because as Allen frankly puts it, “What you think is and isn’t impossible after you walk from Mexico to Canada, it’s kind of skewed in your mind. You don’t have the limitations or doubts that a lot of people might have; you just kind of do things.”

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    Still searching for his calling, Allen took off for Austin, Texas, where he would re-open the historic bar Hole in the Wall, but that job would be short-lived. In all, Allen would go through two jobs in three months before coming to the conclusion that he was fed up working for other people and that it was time to get back to Ashland and revive Ice Cream Man. Once back in Oregon, he bought and fixed up an old ice cream truck, spent that first summer selling ice cream around Ashland, and started his now-annual ice cream social.

    From there, things began to take off. After years of hounding the domain owner, Allen finally got icecreamman.com, made a short movie, and created his first logo. The creative juices were overflowing, and Allen, along with his original crew, set out to find just what would be next for Ice Cream Man. The possibilities seemed endless. “From the day we went to buy the truck, my buddy and I, we were just so jazzed,” he continues. “This was in 2004, before YouTube, and I think Google Maps just launched. He and I were just freaking out on all the possibilities of what you can do with this ice cream truck, mobily, technologically, with video, maps, and all this stuff from way back when.”

    It was at this point that Allen cemented his ultimate goal for Ice Cream Man. He would set aside seven years and in that time give away half a million ice creams. However, this goal wouldn’t be without sacrifices, some of which he’s still making to this day. He says: “I had to sell everything I own, max out my credit cards, use any statements that I had, move back in with my mom, and live on the road for half the year.” The financial aspect hasn’t gotten much easier, and while he’s out of his mom’s house, he’s still scraping by. “I was down to two-hundred bucks in the bank account two days ago,” he says, later adding: “No one is getting rich off this, but we’ve been able to give away almost 300,000 free ice creams and had a great time.”

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    So, how did music festivals get involved? Back to 2004, as Allen tells it: “When we first started talking we were like, what about if we went to music festivals. So, we went down to All Tomorrow’s Parties in Long Beach.” Getting in took some legwork as well, and the ice cream didn’t start out totally free. Allen and his crew would sell it to the festival patrons to cover their basic costs but always saved some for the staff who did get them for free. When it was announced that ATP would be coming back for another year, they sold just enough ice cream to get them to the festival, and with the festival passes provided, kicked the mission into full gear. From there it was on to Sasquatch! Festival. Eventually they would hit almost every festival in the U.S. big and small. These festivals have become a second home for Allen, the people and musicians his family.

    For Allen, success has never been measured in dollars and cents but in individually wrapped ice creams. Since that day at ATP, he’s been able to hand out over half of his goal, all for free, asking nothing in return. This has built an endless stock of good karma leading to many perks, amazing places, and unreal experiences.

    Back at ATP, they’d made their mark that first year, and when they returned, a chance meeting with Wayne Coyne ended with them on stage dancing with The Flaming Lips later that night. Excitedly, Allen relives the moment: “We were giving away ice cream before the Flaming Lips went on, and Wayne let everyone know before they went on that Ice Cream Man’s giving away the rest of his ice cream. We ran back to the truck, then we danced with The Flaming Lips and called it a night.” These kind of starstruck moments would keep happening as the years went on and they traveled to more festivals and cities. Of those moments, a chance to film and meet his musical heroes The Gories has been Allen’s pinnacle experience.

    Through these moments, Allen has become a legend among the festival community and a friend to the bands that play them. “It’s nice because they really wanted to do it too and want to be a part of it.” Referring to MGMT, Allen unintentionally boasts, “We were hoping to get them back on board this year, but it just didn’t work out timing wise, but Andrew [Vanwyngarden] just walked up to the truck and was like, ‘Hey man, are we doing something?’”

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    The stories that come from Allen could fill volumes and feature just about everyone in indie rock and alternative music. A few highlights include getting chased out of a field with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros while filming outside Sasquatch and an impromptu jam session from Band of Horses that ended with their very own B.o.H. song. Having an ice cream truck as your modus operandi certainly helps, but so does being a genuine guy. He’s humble about every starstruck moment, and getting this kind of recognition over the past several years hasn’t gone to his head. Because of those qualities, people all over the music industry know him and love him for what he’s doing.

    You see this watching one of Ice Cream Man’s six-minute shorts. It’s like watching an endless montage of the summer you wish you had. You see him ride roller coasters, chow down at random hole-in-the-wall eateries, and hang out with music’s most talked about bands as if they’re longtime buddies. This kind of success can only come from years of dedication, and behind all the fun lies the reality that he’s running a business. It comes naturally for Allen, though. He’s very much a businessman who knows what he’s built and is planning a bigger future for Ice Cream Man beyond the mark of half a million ice creams. He’s already partnered with the biggest name in ice cream, Ben and Jerry’s, and has created a successful online video series and website. He’s very good at what he does, and behind his nice-guy personality is a very savvy entrepreneur.

    But everything must come to an end, and being at the 300,000 ice cream mark, Allen forecasts for next summer, “We can make a gigantic push and give away 175,000 to 200,000 ice creams and reach that half a million next year and ideally find a way for myself to move on.” Even though Allen’s ready for the next adventure, he fully intends to keep Ice Cream Man alive and well. At this point, he has a close staff of 10 people with over a hundred volunteers in cities all over the world ready to hit the streets and hand out ice cream. Allen also feels very confident that those 10 people closest to him will be able to take Ice Cream Man into the next phase of its life. This next phase includes building bases from Oregon to Texas and as far east as New York, where anyone who wants to volunteer can be Ice Cream Man. The crews are being assembled, and a free ice cream empire is building.

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    Allen’s thoughts on where Ice Cream Man will go for the time being are still broad. “The next year we’re going to get everything together so that when the time comes that I need to move on, that ideally the company will be owned by itself and be controlled in a trust, which will be run by the people that own it,” he explains. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, and I think we never have so we always just did the best we could.” Even with the future unknown, by boasting a strong staff that’s worked alongside him since the beginning, he feels very confident that you’ll still be able to get a free Ben and Jerry’s mini cup at a festival near you for many years to come.

    Since 1997, Allen has built something that’s gone well beyond his three-wheeled beginnings. After all these years and everything that Ice Cream Man has become, he’s still staying true to his original goal. As with any business, there’s always hope for some kind of return. But when it comes to finally making some money off all his hard work, he thinks nothing of it. “It would be nice some day if I got back some of the money that I invested, but at the same time it’s more important for the business to live on to me than it is to get tens of thousands of dollars back,” he digresses. “It’s about having fun, it’s about giving away free ice cream and all the awesomeness that happens around that.” Through the Ice Cream Man adventure, Allen’s learned more than just how to run a business. He’s learned about humanity and himself. He’s also learned that free ice cream is a very powerful thing, which takes him back to one of his favorite quotes: “You can learn a lot about someone from their first reaction to free ice cream.” How true that is.

    I’ll leave you with Allen’s last, and surprisingly inspirational, words that he offered me after I asked him what he’s taken from all this. “It will always be easier to fit in and go with the flow, but I think the happiest people in the world don’t follow that path. I created Ice Cream Man to be the best job in the world and to help me figure out if I can find ways to make myself the happiest person on the planet. I think I have a long way to go, but shouldn’t that be everyone’s goal? To be the happiest they can possibly be?”

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    He couldn’t have said it better.

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