It's a hot summer day in Anytown. Kids are playing in their own or neighbor's yards and running through the sprinklers. From a few blocks away, the faint strains of the "The Entertainer", "Pop Goes the Weasel" or "Camptown Races" can be heard drifting down the street. Kids burst through their front doors begging parents for money or go running for piggy banks. The music gets louder, and like a Pied Piper, the ice cream truck draws the neighborhood kids (and even a few adults) to come buy the tantalizing frozen treats being offered. The electronic music box inside the truck has done its job.
One company, tiny Minnesota-based Nichols Electronics, controls not just a vast majority of the ice cream music box market; it is the market. Owner Mark Nichols estimates that the company, which he inherited, is responsible for up to 97% of the music boxes in circulation.
Original owner, Mark's father Bob Nichols had no experience with music boxes. After founding Nichols Electronics in 1957, the WWII vet set his sights on testing TV and radio parts and manufacturing a few one-off products, like a coin-operated foot massager.
But when ice cream driver John Ralston asked him if he could put together an electric music box, Bob decided to give it a go.
They worked out a deal together: Ralston, who was well-connected in the ice cream vending scene, would promote the new music boxes for Bob in exchange for a small cut of profits.
Within just a few years, orders started pouring in from across the country.
Bob never did any print advertising — he didn’t have to. Word spread so quickly in the tight-knit ice cream truck world that ice cream music soon became Bob’s main business.
Convincing ice cream drivers to buy his electronic music boxes wasn’t always smooth sailing.
Read about the history of ice cream truck music, running a niche ice cream business, the art of choosing ice cream truck music, how the ice cream truck business has a strange quirk: it typically sees a bump in the wake of a financial meltdown, and how the current pandemic that has produced a record unemployment rate has been good for ice cream trucks signing up people to drive them with booming sales at The Hustle.
Image Credit: GRUBBXDN via Wikiemedia Commons
Nichols’ current music box (it looks like it comes straight from the 1970's) — called the Omni 2 ($225) — is preloaded with 32 songs, all in the public domain. Image Credit: The Hustle