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SpongeBob Popsicles, anyone? Parents compel ice cream vendor forced indoors to ‘come back’

Mr. Frost Ice Cream truck
Ed Hassan, the owner of Mr. Frost who started staying indoors as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, now makes his rounds selling snow cones, Popsicles, chips and candy. He stops regularly in Irvine, Santa Ana and Tustin.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

“Mister! Me, me, me!” the kids will say, streaming forward with bills and coins, skipping alongside the truck blaring ice cream jingles. Masked and ready, Ed Hassan, the owner of Mr. Frost, tries his best to satisfy all manner of cooped-up people with a sweet tooth.

For part of the year, the affable, no-nonsense vendor studies electrical engineering at a trade school. But since January, he’s been operating a business out of a cargo van he bought from a different ice cream seller, who was stricken with cancer.

During his third month of carting snow cones, the coronavirus forced him into quarantine and he had to tap into his savings. Yet the customers kept calling.

Now, reopened for more than three weeks as the state lockdown has eased, Hassan covers north Orange County in his truck, delivering a chilly, sugary rush.

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In Irvine, the 23-year-old said families tend to “look at my truck and see how clean my truck is. That’s super important to them.”

In Santa Ana, where he said his prices per item — ranging from $2.50 for a Big Stick to $3 for a chocolate taco — are known to be “cheaper than many gas stations,” many in the crowd “ask about flavors and stuff. It’s about choices.”

And in Tustin, the regulars remain loyal. In a post on the neighborhood app Nextdoor, when Mr. Frost faced criticism for venturing out and not remaining in isolation, dozens of parents jumped in to defend him, he said. Some of them told the critics to “leave him alone.”

“I felt very grateful,” he said. “Everyone is home, but they don’t want me at home. It’s surprising — I thought they would.”

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By late April, Hassan said his voicemail had filled up completely with families pushing him to “come back.” Because California law allowed food businesses to operate as long as there’s no seating, he could have stayed open — but he intended “to be safe to protect customers and myself.”

With schools switching to distance learning, “the kids are bored. They’re eager for the truck to come by,” he added. “One family even requested that we bring a whole case of SpongeBob Popsicles for them. Do you know how many parents are making appointments for me to be there at certain times?”

The Beckman High School graduate, born and raised in Irvine, said he is very careful to keep his rolling business sparkling — inside and out. Each day, he wipes everything down, from shelves to freezers to the steering wheel. And because he handles so much cash, he’s using hand sanitizer at clocked intervals and keeps a big dispenser bottle available to young customers. He also changes his mask by the hour.

Tucked inside his truck, he’s lucky he hasn’t had to remind too many ice cream fans to socially distance. “I can tell the adults have already had that talk with the children,” he said. “They’re trained.”

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To reassure parents, everything he sells is prepackaged. He doesn’t offer soft-serve ice cream. Another precaution is focusing on his driving — trying to be “four times more careful than you usually are, with kids running around the area.”

“If I see a child come up alone, I tell them, ‘Go get your mom or dad.’ If they order something and they have an allergy, I need to know they need something nut-free or gluten-free. And I tell them to wash their hands.”

Customers appreciate the precautions.

“I noticed that his car is quite clean. That’s so necessary nowadays,” said Sue Hill, who grabbed $20 from her handbag to give to her nephews for frozen treats and Gatorade as they awaited Mr. Frost to drive down their shady Tustin block.

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“You know how you go into a restaurant and your first impression is whether there are stains on the table or if the seats are sticky?” Hill asked. “We can’t eat out yet, but at least we can check if our snacks and food are coming from a trusted source.”

While in quarantine, Hassan repainted the vehicle’s exterior, splashing a colorful image of SpongeBob on it. Apart from an assortment of ice cream sandwich flavors, Mr. Frost also hawks fruit Popsicles, frozen bananas and those irresistible Drumsticks, along with chips and candy.

He says the question kids most often ask is: “‘Are you coming back tomorrow?’ But really, I have no idea what goes through their heads when they order. It could be they want something with Spider-Man on it, or Powerpuff Girls. I’ve seen little boys buy Hello Kitty.

“It’s great to be back. During the springtime, summertime, there’s literally nobody that turns down ice cream,” he said. “It’s a small thing to do to keep people happy.”

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Mr. Frost Ice Cream truck
“I thought they wanted me at home so I was at home, but there are huge demands,” said Ed Hassan, the owner of the Mr. Frost ice cream truck.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)


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