Hamilton residents Anthony and Lissa LaStella serve ice out of one of their two Kona Ice trucks. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)
During the summer, just about nobody has more power than the ice cream man. What else but the sight of the truck or the sound of tinkling music pumping through its speakers could make someone drop what they’re doing and run out to the street in the sweltering sun?

Anthony and Lissa LaStella know that well. The Hamilton couple owns two Kona Ice trucks, and while their business is run differently than that of a traditional ice cream vendor—circling a neighborhood, stopping when kids run out—they know how in-demand their product is. They even get approached in their own driveway, or on the way home after a long day. But neither of them mind.

“I get people who follow us home,” Lissa said. “We keep the trucks at the house. I’ll pull over, ‘Can we get some ice?’ The kids in the neighborhood, if they see the trucks in the driveway, they knock and ask for ice. There will be six or eight kids out there and I’ll serve them in the driveway. They’re happy.”

The happiness frozen treats can bring was apparent during a recent visit with Lissa at Village Elementary School in West Windsor. Kids sat outside, playing with their friends, but when Lissa pulled up, they came running. Within seconds, a long line formed, and Lissa got to work.

While the truck sometimes offers traditional treats like ice cream sandwiches, popsicles and the like in addition to Kona’s shaved ice, it was just the ice today, and Lissa had her hands full—filling her machine with chunks of ice, shaving it down one serving after another with lightning speed. At least, it looked like lightning speed to a casual observer. A queue of elementary school children mulling over flavors—blue raspberry and tiger’s blood (a mixture of strawberry and coconut) are two favorites—is nothing new for Lissa.

“We can serve up to 400 in an hour,” she said. “Kids, like, middle school age and up know what they’re doing. They get in and out. Something small like this, we’re not in a rush. That was slow. Fast enough for them to enjoy it, but not like it could be.”

It’s all in a day’s work for Lissa and Anthony, who often work in separate trucks due to high demand during the summer. The Friday afternoon Village visit wasn’t the first (or last) stop of the day—they typically travel to around five locations every day (up to 45 minutes in any direction), including working a shift at Mercer County Park seven days a week.

They also operate a Robbinsville Little League concession stand (a percentage of the proceeds go back to the league) and, during the school year, make stops near Alexander and Reynolds schools when students head home at the end of the day. All this in addition to the countless parties, fundraisers and public events that book them throughout the year. Between travel time, working and booking events, handling business calls and e-mails, and stopping at their warehouse on Sharon Road in Robbinsville to clean and prep the trucks, a normal summer day starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m.

“Everybody’s like, ‘You work for yourself, how nice is that?’ I’m like, ‘Hard. Really hard,’” Lissa said. “It’s just us. My parents help out. My sister, my sister-in-law, niece and nephews. They’ll help out when they can. It’s really just me and Anthony doing it. We’re finding events, applying to events, shopping for everything, serving everybody.”

But it’s something the LaStellas love—and something they never imagined they’d be doing full-time. Nine years ago, Anthony was working a corporate job and was told just eight days in advance that the business would be closing. He’d always toyed with the idea of operating an ice cream truck on the side for some extra cash, and when Lissa found Kona online around midnight one Sunday night in March 2007, they were intrigued.

Anthony called the company, prepared to leave a voicemail, but when someone actually answered—it was after midnight—he and Lissa froze, and he hung up.

“We looked at each other like, ‘Somebody answered, now what do we do?’” Anthony said.

They decided to call back, and after a conversation with Jeff, their representative, they bought in—at the time, they were the 36th vehicle in Kona’s relatively new fleet. Their truck arrived that Memorial Day and about an hour later, Anthony found himself at a Robbinsvile daycare at Jeff’s behest.

“As I pull up, the front doors of the place come busting open,” he said. “I didn’t even stop the truck yet. [A teacher] goes, ‘I don’t know who you are, I don’t know where you came from, but I want to book you.’ I was like, ‘Is this for real?’ Once the truck gets in front of people, they go crazy.”

Handling that many customers at once was a shock at first, but now, it’s second nature. The couple added a second truck two years after the first when Lissa’s department at the non-profit special needs school she worked for closed, and they often go out separately because they can handle the workload individually. Sometimes, though, they do get help from their nieces and nephews, as well as Lissa’s parents.

And it turns out a lot of the concerns and issues they faced early on are common with new franchisees. They often field phone calls from potential new truck owners curious about the costs and demands of owning an ice cream truck.

“Writing the check [for the truck] that first time, my hand was shaking,” Anthony said. “If this doesn’t work out, how do we eat? I was kind of nervous. The new franchisees call us and say, ‘Hey, how’s it working out for you?’ I didn’t have anybody. It’s a good opportunity to help other people. They have a list of questions, and I’m honest with them. I’ve never worked so hard.”

For both Lissa and Anthony, though, it’s one of the most fulfulling jobs they’ve ever had. Though they don’t have a specific, consistent route like a standard ice cream truck might, they do have regular customers who call to check in about the day’s stops, especially from Robbinsville Little League. They cook food at the concession stand and service ice and ice cream from the Kona truck from April into July every year. Local schools and the daily Mercer County Park stops have also helped make the Kona truck a favorite among local families.

“My husband remembers his ice cream man, the day that he would come, the hours that he would come,” said Lissa, a lifelong Hamilton resident. “It’s part of your childhood. Doing this nine years, kids are starting off 2, 3, 4, 5 years old, but nine years later, they’re older. You get to see them through their whole youth. It’s really, really good. We’re driving down the streets and they’re beeping and waving. It’s really cute.”

Lissa and Anthony recently added a mini Kona cart that can be used for indoor sporting events (they can be often be found at middle school wrestling matches and basketball games during the winter), as well as a hot dog cart and popcorn machine. A food truck is also on their radar.

During the cooler months, Anthony does some car detailing and snow plowing, but for the most part, their summer business is usually enough to sustain them throughout the year. It took awhile for locals to catch on, but once they did, the concept stuck, Lissa said.

“When we first started, it was a new concept for a lot of people just because we’re mobile,” she said. “If it was a brick and mortar, you’d drive past it and get more familiar with it. But we’re a mobile, so it’s still a new concept for some people. You pull up, and things go flying. Toys. They’re either checking it out or yelling ‘Kona Ice!’ I love hearing that. Just a few years ago, it was like, ‘What is that?’ You get the raised eyebrows. Now, it’s ‘Kona Ice is here.’ I love that. They really get it.”