Joshua Delgado gives a kiss to his nephew Julian Delgado as they get ice cream novelties from Ryan Lowe’s ice cream truck in Portland. Estrella Delgado is holding Julian. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When he was 21 years old, fresh off a stint in the army at Fort Hood and newly enrolled at the University of Southern Maine, Ryan Lowe answered an ad in the Portland Press Herald for a summer job driving an ice cream truck.

That was 23 years ago. Today, Lowe may be the last ice cream truck driver of his kind in Portland, and one of just a handful in the surrounding region. The traditional ice cream truck, Lowe thinks, has fallen victim to video games, sound-proof windows, aging trucks and the fact that kids don’t play outside anymore.

Still, while many other local ice cream trucks station themselves at music festivals and parks or sell their services for private events, Lowe regularly makes the rounds of Portland neighborhoods on summer evenings, evoking instant cravings in children and instant nostalgia in adults as the repeated tinkly tune grows near. (Lowe is partial to playing “Sailing! Sailing!” though inside the truck, he likes to listen to the Grateful Dead.)

He drives an old-school, piece-of-Americana white ice cream truck, leased from North East Ice Cream and still boasting a decal from Good Humor, which pioneered the trucks-in-neighborhoods business in the 1920s and got out of it in the 1970s. Lowe has personalized his vehicle with stickers, among them Bernie for President 2020 and Black Lives Matter.

But while such trucks occupy a sweet, indelible place in our collective imaginations, their actual history – here and nationally – is somewhat more checkered. Lowe himself has been accused, several times, of harassing competitors.

Ryan Lowe says dealing with the kids is simple. “You are nice to them, you smile at them, you treat them like they are humans.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Each year, from April 1 through Halloween, Lowe sells what the industry terms “novelties,” prepackaged items like Bomb Pop Cups, SpongeBob SquarePants, Big Mississippi Mud Sandwiches and – on an early August day – the last of the discontinued, to much outcry, Choco Tacos. (Now it appears they may be reintroduced.)


Lowe was selling the Choco Tacos, his last box, at a steep markup. He said he’d been steadily raising the price over several days. He spends summer days selling ice cream at Fortunes Rocks in Biddeford, a beach community. “The people at the beach are very well off, so they don’t even blink at a $10 Choco Taco,” he said. 

Actually, by that point, Lowe had raised the price to $20, and under the photograph of the taco-shaped treat, he’d written “The Farewell Tour ’22.” By the end of the month, the Choco Tacos were gone. He ate the last one himself. “I posted on Instagram, me eating it,” he said. “The ice cream man gets certain privileges.”


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Deering Ice Cream (@deeringicecream)


After he finished at the beach in Biddeford that evening, though, Lowe drove his truck around downtown Portland, stopping at parks near low-income housing developments in Bayside where more than a few children did not seem to have money to buy ice cream. Excepting the Choco Tacos, the ice cream sells for $2 to $7.50.

Ryan Lowe hands Cole Kapteina his change after the 4-year-old buys an ice cream treat. Lowe has been driving an ice cream truck in the Portland area since 1999. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Lowe offered, to any child who hesitated at the cost, a $1 “mystery bar.” The catch? They didn’t get to pick the item; they had to take what comes, which was a trial for at least one small girl who cried when she was handed a popsicle. Lowe, who was gentle and respectful with all the children who approached the truck, said later that these items are imperfect – dented, damaged by frost, broken-sticked – which enables him to offer the deal. He began the practice about two years ago, when his lowest-priced item jumped from $1 to $2.

Whimsical pricing is just one aspect of Lowe’s unusual business approach, which could be called quirky, or – according to some of his competitors – unsavory. His classic ice cream truck is crowded with luxuriant plants and vegetables – lettuce from his own garden, potted heirloom tomato plants that are heavy with fruit. For years, he made his rounds with Stella, a black lab riding shotgun.


“She’d sit right in the window. Everybody would see her. Everybody would touch her,” Lowe said. “She’s just getting older. She’s not interested. I ask her every day if she wants to go to work, and she turns the other way.”

His current co-worker is Sam, a shy border collie, who, though restricted to a corner of the truck as far from customers as possible in the small space, seems to cause an enthusiastic commotion whenever he is spotted.

Ryan Lowe pets his dog, Sam, a shy border collie who rides around in his ice cream truck with him as he meanders through Portland neighborhoods off Forest and Ocean Avenues. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Lowe, an avid reader, also sells secondhand books from the truck. At the moment, his bookshelf is stocked with an eclectic assortment, including Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower V,” Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” Ibi Zoboi’s “My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich” and Al Franken’s “Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot.” He sells the books – if he sells them at all – for $2 and up “or whatever someone wants to pay,” an idea that fits nicely with a volume he said he likes to sell when he can find it: “The Communist Manifesto.”

“I wouldn’t say I sell a ton of books,” said Lowe, who is still working his way through the 19th century in a collection of thousands of books he bought privately some time ago. “Nobody reads anymore,” he added, sadly. He suspects customers who add a book to their ice cream order probably do so mostly for the novelty of it.

Lowe, by the way, feels no disconnect between his leftist leanings and the fact that he is a businessman – his business name is Deering Ice Cream. He also runs a small business called Dog Jog, in which he jogs with overweight dogs, or any in need of exercise.

Lowe, an avid reader, also sells secondhand books from the truck. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Capitalism is billionaires buying and selling companies,” he said. “I am engaging in entrepreneurship, in free enterprise.”



Some other local ice cream truck drivers say they have seen the dark side of that. In Biddeford, there is a history of complaints about Lowe and North East Ice Cream from competitors dating back to 2009. They say Lowe has threatened them, harassed them, cut them off with his truck, followed them, cursed at them, told his customers not to buy their ice cream, and failed to get the licenses he needs to operate. “This is my beach, buddy,” one alleged Lowe told him.

Lowe said it was the other way around. Those ice cream operators lacked his experience, and “they were causing problems for me.” The owner of North East Ice Cream ignored repeated requests for an interview, and a colleague of Lowe’s – the drivers are independent contractors – declined to talk to a reporter.

In 2018 and 2019, Robyn Parlin, who used to contract with North East Ice Cream but now operates her own business, Robyn’s Ice Cream Truck, took Lowe to Portland District Court. The two agreed to a court order that, among other things, required Lowe to stay 200 feet away from her truck and have no direct or indirect contact with her. The order, which Parlin provided to the newspaper along with a complaint she lodged with the police, was made “without findings of harassment.” The original order was later extended. Parlin said in an email that the situation, “gave me constant anxiety, and I almost threw in the towel because I felt so defeated.”

Asked about it, Lowe maintained that the accusations were untrue. He agreed to the court order, he said, because he wanted nothing to do with Parlin, but he accused her of lying out of anger that “people prefer my ice cream truck. Our argument was basically, ‘This is her business plan – to get the police harassing her competition to scare people away.’ ”

Kim Wells and her daughters Bella, 5, and Evie, 2, walk off with their ice cream. Wells said her daughters were waiting by the door; they get ice cream from Ryan Lowe every time he comes by. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

It’s hard to square these incidents and complaints with the scene as Lowe drives around selling ice cream. It feels like Mayberry. In Portland in late August, 5-year-old Joshua Delgado was so excited when he heard the truck approach that he ran out of an apartment building in his underwear and did a little dance. The month before, at the sound of the truck a boy in the city’s Rosemont neighborhood came out of his house carrying a giant piggy bank.


In Fortunes Rocks, 6-year-old Leonardo Sergio waited, wide-eyed as the truck circled his grandfather’s street just steps from the ocean. He was visiting from New York City and in his excitement, he stumbled as he ran to catch the truck and skinned his knee. “Maybe we’ll have to amputate,” his mother, Catherine Casalino, teased as they bought ice cream. An elegant older woman wearing a cream-colored blouse, a gently swirling floral skirt and a straw hat strolled by. “It’s so nice that they still have this,” she said, gesturing at the truck.

And at Kennedy Park, a small boy looked at Lowe with wide-eyed awe. “You are so lucky,” he said. “You can get all the ice cream you want.”

Tito Drice ushers his daughter Paityn Drice away from Ryan Lowe’s ice cream truck after buying her a cold treat. The novelties generally cost between $2 and $7.50. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But the mobile ice cream business has long had a dark side. In 1975, Good Humor in New York was fined for hiding evidence of bacteria in its products. Lowe casually compared the ice cream truck business in Portland “in the old days” to “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a David Mamet play about a fictional cut-throat real estate office. Customers used to be bombarded with music from competing companies, he said. And if the college kids hired to drive the trucks didn’t come back with solid sales, they were fired on the spot.

“It got out of hand. Five songs coming at you from different directions, trucks running you off the road,” Lowe said. “We were all about the dollars, about making as much money as possible. It’s not the way to run an ice cream truck, for sure.”

In 1997, this paper ran a story about a turf war between two competing companies, including North East Ice Cream. Ice cream trucks had returned to the streets of Portland just a few years earlier after a near 30-year absence. The city had banned them in 1966 when a child was hit and killed by an ice cream truck.



Lowe grew up in Portland and graduated from Portland High. His father was a maintenance man for the city. His mother worked in insurance. He has a half-brother, but said he doesn’t speak to him. “He’s a Republican,” Lowe said wryly. His father served in Vietnam, his grandfathers in World War II, the generation before that in World War I.

Unlike some kids, Lowe had no idea what he wanted to do when he grew up. “That was a lot of the reason I ended up in the military,” he said. “I had no compass.”

Though he was frequently in trouble, he said the military was good for him. He has struggled with ADHD since he was a child, and his stint in the army helped him figure out how to cope. He came home, enrolled in college, where he studied economics and math, had a daughter and was married briefly. That marriage led to his one stint away from the ice cream truck business – at a bank.

“She wanted me to get a quote unquote real job,” he said of his then-wife. “Not really my thing. Sitting in a cubicle all day doing boring stuff on a computer.”

Ryan Lowe chats with a customer from inside his ice cream truck. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At first, Lowe said, he wasn’t much good as a driver. “I wasn’t the most personable person.” But he was still a student, and he soon had a child to support, “so I just kept rolling with it.”

A good driver, he went on, needs “a human connection between the parents and the ice cream man. A neighborhood connection that you develop over time. The kids are simple: You are nice to them, you smile at them, you treat them like they are humans.


“The driving isn’t really the thing,” he continued. “It’s the customer service. Being the ice cream man, the personality.”

While working, Lowe drives at “walking pace” in the areas he anticipates he’ll have customers. He has a good handle on where that will be because he’s driven the same streets for years. Quieter streets he might “zip” through at about 20 miles per hour. He tries – he said it can be difficult in high summer – to cover every neighborhood in Portland every two weeks.

Lowe said if he works hard during ice cream season, he can mostly take it easy in the off-season. His reading list for the coming winter is ambitious, and includes “East of Eden” and “Waiting for Godot.” Ice cream trucks lease for $10,000 to $15,000 for the season, he said. He makes that back, but declined to give sales figures. “Nobody is getting rich off this,” he said. “It’s more about fun and freedom than money.”

“I am trying to keep the ice cream truck alive,” Ryan Lowe says. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Several other ice cream truck drivers crisscross neighborhoods regionally, including Robyn’s Ice Cream Truck, Kelly’s Ice Cream Truck and Dottie’s Ice Cream, but at least in Portland, Lowe feels the weight of maintaining this disappearing tradition.

“I am trying to keep the ice cream truck alive,” he said. “People are really disappointed and feel underserved if the ice cream truck doesn’t come to their neighborhood.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.