The Retired Investor: Can Neighborhood Ice Cream Man Keep Trucking?
|Richard Rockefeller, the neighborhood Mr. Ding-A-Ling man.|
The demise of the neighborhood ice cream truck business has been predicted several times over the years. Higher costs, new delivery methods, and lots of competition from grocery stores and other sources threaten the business. But don't count them out quite yet.
Earlier this summer, The New York Times published an article, "Melting Profits Threaten the Ice Cream Man," which prompted me to delve a little deeper into this business on the local level.
Nationally, most ice cream vendors are individual entrepreneurs who lease their trucks from a regional company on a yearly basis. Many lessees also buy their ice cream products from the same company. They are on the hook for all their costs, and in an inflationary environment like we are in now, those costs could sink an inexperienced vendor in a competitive market such as New York City.
The internet and a variety of takeout apps have increased competition to the street tucks. Walmart sells any number of Good Humor products and ice cream parlors promise not only designer ice cream but all sorts of exotic experiences. Illegal street vendors and food carts also provide alternatives, and more often than not, can undercut prices charged by the trucks.
Selling ice cream on the street has been around in American urban centers since before pasteurization was invented. In 1904, the ice cream cone was introduced at the St. Louis World Fair. In the 1920s, Harry Burt of Youngstown, Ohio, developed a smooth chocolate coating over ice cream that was eaten on a stick like a lollypop called a Good Humor Bar. Burt purchased 12 refrigerated trucks in 1922 so that he could distribute his new ice cream bars throughout the neighborhoods. The company expanded its truck fleet, especially after World War II, when ice cream production boomed. However, the competitive landscape began to change.
During the 1950s, when I was a kid back in Philadelphia, the Good Humor refrigerated truck was a fixture on my block. Several times a week, a white-shirted driver opened his rear door and for 25 cents presented me with my favorite, the original chocolate-covered ice cream bar.
In 1956, competition came to my Philadelphia neighborhood. A new ice cream truck entry, Mister Softee (founded by two brothers in my hometown), arrived complete with a fantastic new kind of soft serve ice cream. The arrival of this new sweet treat vehicle was preceded by the enticing sounds of a catchy tune that could be heard several blocks away.
In my neighborhood of row homes, kids (and many parents) listening for the approach of this new Pied Piper of ice cream, would line up. Everyone had enough change jingling in our pockets to sample these afternoon delights, covered in multi-colored candy sprinkles, and all sorts of wonderful toppings on many a hot summer day.
The Good Humor company finally sold off its truck fleet in the 1970s, preferring instead to concentrate on distribution of its ice cream products to grocery stores and other sales avenues. Unilever purchased the company in 1989. Mister Softee trucks are still plying the streets. However, as time goes by, ice cream trucks are becoming less and less common. But not in the Berkshires.
Several days a week this summer, while I was day trading the markets, the dulcet tones of the "Theme from The Godfather" drifted up through my windows. In the street below, a white Mr. Ding-A-Ling truck drives slowly by on his usual route.
It is one of a fleet of 66 trucks owned and then leased to independent operators by Brian Collis, the 70-year-old owner of Ding-A-Ling Inc., a family business, established in 1972. Headquartered outside of Albany, N.Y., the company distributes ice cream products, which he buys from the Good Humor company. His trucks roam territories within a 150-mile radius, which includes parts of Vermont, Massachusetts and New York. Three of his trucks service the Berkshires, including Lenox, Lee, Great Barrington, North Adams, and Pittsfield.
"It is a steady business and fairly predictable," Collis said. He laughs at the dire predictions of his imminent demise. "Back in 2012, when gas prices were $4.29 a gallon, there were predictions that we would suffer and some ice cream trucks would be run out of business, but that never happened."
He admitted that ice cream costs, like everything else, have risen, but so far customers seem to accept the higher prices. As for the independent operators who lease the trucks and sell the ice cream, "I have a waiting list of drivers who want into the business."
I chased down one of his independent operators this week. Notebook in hand, I simply followed the "Godfather" music. Ding-A-Ling operator, Richard Rockefeller just turned 59, and has been serving the same route for the last 15 years, working seven days a week. "I have built up a lot of repeat customers over the years," the gray-bearded, neon, T-shirt-clad entrepreneur reminisced. "Pregnant mothers were customers back then, and now their children are customers, too. Just seeing these kids grow up and the joy on their faces when I come around, well … ."
Inflation, he admits, has taken a heavy toll on his wallet. "I spend $210 a week on gas alone. You add in the lease on the truck, the local fees, background checks, etc. that I'm paying, plus everything else, and I need to make $120 per day just to break even."
But he's not singing the blues. "I make a good living, but it wasn't like that at first," he explained. Starting out years ago, he had to learn where and when to find repeat customers and then stick to a predictable schedule to build his client base. "Sometimes, when I have a party to serve, I get holy hell from my customers when I don't show up."
I asked what keeps him driving and showing up day after day. "Three words," he answered, it's fun, enjoyable, and it's a commitment." Sounds like a recipe for success in my opinion.
The Retired Investor: The Dishwasher Debates
In most new homes there is a litany of appliances that buyers almost automatically purchase, one of which is the dishwasher. While ovens, refrigerators, washers, and dryers are used almost daily, the dishwasher is among the least-used appliances in American homes.
The global dishwasher market is well over $7 billion and projected to grow by 7.5 percent to $10 billion by 2025. Much of that future growth is due to smaller-sized food service organizations. This list includes companies, businesses, institutions, and organizations that prepare meals and serve them to consumers and other customers. Of course, restaurants, cafeterias, hotels, and catering businesses are included in this demand base.
On the consumer side, busier lifestyles, increased employment, especially among women, and the expansion of nuclear families in both the developed and developing world have contributed to dishwasher demand. The increased convenience of shopping, thanks to the internet, has also made the purchase of most household "white goods" easier and faster. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply lines, reduced travel, and increased prices for most home appliances, including dishwashers. However, these issues are beginning to lessen.
Dishwashers go back a long way. The first mechanical dishwasher was patented in the U.S. in 1850. It was made of wood and cranked by hand. Other machines improved the first, but few were commercially viable.
It required the widespread use of indoor plumbing and running water in the home before dishwashers could be considered as a viable household appliance. The postwar boom of the 1950s saw some of the wealthier households purchase such machines, but it wasn't until the 1970s that dishwashers became commonplace in both the U.S. and Europe. By 2012, more than 75 percent of homes on both sides of the pond had dishwashers.
However, unlike other kitchen appliances like the refrigerator or the electric stove, the dishwasher has not proven to be indispensable. Today, more than 89 million American homes have a dishwasher, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but almost 20 percent (nearly one in five), fail to use it.
A breakdown of weekly dishwasher use statistics reveals that about 4 in 10 households don't use theirs in a given week, and just 11 percent of Americans use it once a week. Only 11 percent use it daily. In our own household, I would guess we run the dishwasher every other day between the two of us.
The reasons for its scant use are varied. There will always be a segment of the population that simply distrusts technology of any sort. Then there are those, usually older folk, that grew up washing dishes by hand. They don't see a reason to start letting some automated contraptions do what a little elbow grease can do better, and in a shorter time period.
Recently, climate change and the resulting worldwide drought has added another reason for not using the dishwasher. The growing recognition of water scarcity and the estimated lack of access to safe water for an estimated 771 million people worldwide, according to Water.org, has influenced even more people to use their dishwasher sparingly. All in the name of wasting less water.
That is a mistake. The Environmental Protection Agency says Energy Star dishwashers use nearly 5,000 gallons less water per year, compared to those who wash dishes by hand. This has not escaped the attention of companies that produce or sell products that require water to work. Proctor & Gamble, for example, the maker of the dishwasher detergent, Cascade, has argued and promoted the idea of "rethinking the sink." The company argues that skipping the pre-rinsing of dishes and instead running the dishwater daily will save you gallons of water. Another detergent brand, Finish, sold by consumer products company Reckitt, is urging consumers to "skip the rinse" as well.
This summer, our area (Berkshire County) is under certain restrictions to conserve water. I confess that my wife and I are in the habit of pre-rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. My thoroughly modern daughter, who uses her dishwasher daily, simply shakes her head at this practice. She says it in not only redundant but wastes water. I promise to stop that practice, and at the same time, up our use of the dishwasher further. What about you?
The Retired Investor: Too Late to Stop Climate Change?
Invest in energy infrastructure now. Our grandchildren's future depends on it.
The argument over climate change has been going on for years. Disagreement over how bad the effects will be, how long we have left to act, and, how much needs to be spent in combating this worldwide danger has resulted in delays, underspending, and even ignoring the threat altogether. And now it may just be too late.
Here in the U.S., we tend to focus on our own needs. After years of wrangling, we have finally passed the $1 trillion, bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It promises to address America's dilapidated infrastructure. On the shopping list of investment projects is an upgrade in power infrastructure and additional spending to increase the "resiliency of our infrastructure" in relation to climate change, cyber-attacks, and extreme weather events.
While I applauded the effort, I was disappointed with the amount of spending, and said so in past columns. As far as Congress is concerned, the subject is now closed with this one-and-done spending effort. To me, this spending is not only insufficient, but will cost a heck of a lot more to resolve in the years ahead — if we have the will to do so.
Almost everyone agrees the globe is getting hotter. Fossil fuels, as we know, contributes a great deal to global warming. Renewable energy seems to be the answer. Unfortunately, we need to develop both alternatives for the foreseeable future thanks to the geopolitical state of world affairs. Equally important, we need the capability to move the power generated from these energy sources to where they are most needed. That is where the electrical grid becomes of vital importance.
Here in North America, the power grid is divided into five distinct regions. Texas, Alaska and Quebec comprise three smaller grids, while two larger ones serve the East and West.
Although some money in the infrastructure law addresses the grid, it is woefully inadequate, in my opinion. A recent Princeton University research paper estimates just upgrading the U.S. transmission grid alone will cost $2.4 trillion by 2050. That sum is many times the amount of investment spending earmarked for the power grid in the new legislation.
Most readers are aware of the precarious state of the power grid in Texas. Recently, California's grid has made the headlines as it joined several states buffeted by heat wave after heat wave that threatens widespread blackouts. These heat waves are expected to continue. Switching to hydroelectric power and its transmission, the Colorado River Basin supplies 57 percent of renewable energy in the West through hundreds of hydroelectric dams along the river's main stem and tributaries. Drought is threatening that power generation output.
Take Lake Powell, the nation's second largest reservoir. Its water moves through generators that churn power to more than 5 million people in seven Western states. Thanks to the historical, 21-year megadrought, the water levels of the Colorado Rivers biggest dams are fast-approaching, or already at record lows. Power generation is already down 20 percent in the last two-plus decades. Further declines are expected this year and next.
In prior columns, I explained that the decline in the number of U.S. oil refineries has translated into a lack of refining capacity. It has hamstrung the nation's abilities to process usable grades of oil, no matter how many barrels we pump out of our wells. I could go on and on, but what is happening here is also happening overseas.
In Europe, the Ukraine War, Russia's response to European Union (EU) sanctions, and the continents over reliance on Russian gas has thrown the EU's energy infrastructure into chaos. Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse, has been especially short-sighted in its energy decisions. For years, cheap Russian gas has allowed the country to produce and pursue economic leadership, while reducing alternative sources of energy such as nuclear power.
China is also reeling from its own policy mistakes in infrastructure. Its massive, decades-long, decision to replace coal with hydropower as their source of power generation has been crippled by drought. Unfortunately, the government failed to diversify sufficiently into alternative forms of energy. Instead, they are now expanding their coal-fired power capacity with 258 coal-fired power stations proposed, permitted, or under construction. India and some African nations are even worse off. These large coal users have yet to even consider energy infrastructure investments.
Climate activists, some policy makers, university think tanks, environmentalists and many economists have spent more than a decade begging global governments to spend or borrow the multi-trillion dollars necessary to address climate change and its damage to world economies. It was a time when interest rates were practically zero, and the cost of borrowing trillions was historically low. That window has closed.
Interest rates are rising and are predicted to keep rising. Economies are slowing and inflation is adding additional costs to solving what is fast becoming an insurmountable problem that will make COVID-19 look like child's play.
There are estimates out there that the cost of achieving a net-zero global economy by 2050 would require $5 trillion in spending per year between today and 2030. The financing cost of such spending in a rising interest rate environment is anyone's guess.
The hard truth, however, is that expansion of power generation capacity throughout the energy space faces opposition from voters who do not want a smelly refinery, or bird-killing windmill in their backyards or mountain tops. Politicians are only too happy to oblige. After all, why should they worry about what happens to your grandchildren when they are no longer running for office? Unless we all do something now, those grandchildren may not be around to solve this problem.
The Retired Investor: Where Have All the Workers Gone?
Help wanted posters continue to populate storefront windows in a multitude of service-related businesses across the nation. The U.S. has 3 million more job openings than it did before the pandemic. This labor imbalance is entering its third year. Why has it been so difficult to remedy?
First, I would like to dismiss any assumption you may have that American workers are lazy and simply don't want to work. That attitude is neither true, nor particularly helpful, in understanding the major forces that are at play in this nation. Instead, I see four main areas that largely explain America's labor dilemma.
Let me start with older workers like myself, who left the work force. Prior to COVID-19, neither my wife nor I had any plans to retire, although we were both close to, and over, the typical retirement age. However, the risk to our health and life in the pre-vaccination days convinced us to leave the work force. More than 3 million Baby Boomers did the same and retired early. That was 2.6 million more people than labor experts predicted. That left a big dent in the available work force.
In addition to early retirement, COVID-19, itself, continues to be an important reason for our labor shortage. The Brookings Institute believes COVID could be keeping as many as 4 million workers out of the labor force,
Despite its disappearance from the daily news feeds, mutations of COVID-19 are everywhere. In just 13 days, between June 29 and July 11, 2022, more than 3.9 million workers took sick leave due to catching the virus or having to care for someone who was infected. That is double the rate of sick leave due to COVID-19 in the same time period last year.
Another factor in this lopsided labor imbalance is the shortage of women in certain areas of the workforce, especially Black and Hispanic women without college degrees. These women made up a goodly portion of the work force in some service sectors like restaurants and retail stores. COVID infections are a factor in the decline in numbers, but the lack of access to affordable childcare is the bigger problem keeping many women at home.
The simple fact is that there just are not enough people working in the child-care sector to meet demand. Employment levels are 8.45 percent lower today, than in February 2020. Even before COVID-19, the child-care industry was in trouble, but its poor financial health today prevents most programs from offering competitive compensation in an already-tight labor market.
As it is, child-care expenses are equal to or higher than the wages earned in many minimum wage jobs.
Immigration, or the lack thereof, has also crippled efforts to address the supply/demand imbalance of labor in the U.S. Normally, when a country can't find enough workers to do the jobs necessary to keep an economy humming, they import labor from abroad. Not so under America's recent immigration policies.
From picking apples in New England, to staffing high-tech positions in Silicon Valley, our present partisan policies have reduced those workers to a mere trickle. The U.S. issued 4 million nonimmigrant visas in 2020, which is half as many as it issued in 2019, and nowhere near the 10 million issued in 2016.
Last year, the number of L-1 visas (used to transfer an employee from a foreign country to the U.S.) dropped 68 percent to only 24, 863, while temporary work visas saw a similar drop in numbers. The situation is expected to get worse as old visas expire and new visa issues continue to decline. Many of the sectors that have the highest rates of unfilled positions are those that historically were filled by immigrants like hospitality and transportation. The unfortunate truth is that many immigrants often take jobs that Americans do not want to do. Most businesses know that, but that does not seem to matter to the voters and their representatives opposed to immigration.
There is some good news. Recent data has pointed to a rebound in workers re-entering the job market, which has caused a rise in labor force participation. In August 2022, 786,000 people re-joined the labor force. My wife, for example, decided to go back to work, part-time this year.
However, the rate of gain for workers over 55 years of age fell in August 2022 to only 38.6 percent of the work force. Overall, just 2.8 percent of early retirees went back to work since the beginning of this year, according to data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.
As a result of these factors, the wage growth spiral we are experiencing will continue. And as it does, the inflation rate will continue to be a major problem for the Fed, for the economy, and for the stock market. Is there a chance that somehow the labor shortage will fix itself?
Doubtful, since I see little enthusiasm to expand immigration, nor for a comprehensive and universal answer to child care. The rate of COVID-19 infections will continue to grow, since most Americans have decided to pretend it does not exist. And as for Baby Boomers like myself, we aren't getting any younger.
The Retired Investor: The Supreme Court Loves Business
Over the past seven decades, the U.S. government has embraced business. Both political parties and their leaders have continued and expanded a broad, business-friendly agenda. However, the judiciary tops the list when it comes to ruling in favor of American business.
In fact, the current Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) appears to top the tape in handing down favorable decisions to corporations and small business, according to a research paper by the Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research. The authors, Lee Epstein of the University of Southern California, and Mitu Guli at the University of Virginia School of Law compared the last decade and a half of Justice John Roberts' court rulings. Businesses won a lot more cases than they lost. The authors concluded it may well be the most pro-business Supreme Court in the last century.
Historically, SCOTUS has only ruled in favor of businesses 41 percent of the time. In the Roberts Court, however, that number shot up to 83 percent in 2020, and 63 percent since John Roberts assumed the role of Chief Justice.
If you look at the makeup of the court right now, six justices with the best record for supporting businesses in their voting habits were nominated by Republican presidents. That list includes Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and John Roberts.
However, that does not mean that Democrats' appointees are anti-business. Elena Kagan, for example, has a better pro-business record than Antonin Scalia. Sonia Sotomayor ranks last of the justices at 48 percent in favor of business but that is still above the historical averages. The areas in which the Court has actively ruled in favor of business are in the realm of upholding arbitration clauses and denying class-action suits in the securities sector.
The study found that there were several factors that may be influencing the justices' decisions in coming down on the side of business. Government, for example, has a strong influence on the court's decisions. When the Solicitor General, whose office represents the Federal government in front of the Supreme Court, takes an interest in a case, the court listens. It just so happens that the Solicitor General has rarely (20 percent of the time) opposed business interest during the Roberts Court and neither has the Court.
Over the last few years, there has also been a change in who pleads the case of businesses in front of the Court. A small, but savvy group of elite attorneys with extensive experience before the Court, are now representing business 77 percent of the time. That compares to just 25 percent of business attorneys during the Burger Court between 1969 and 1985, when voting in favor of business was much less common. And whether a justice was appointed by a Republican or a Democrat, they were more likely to vote in favor of businesses represented by a SCOTUS-experienced lawyer.
It is a common belief that through the years, SCOTUS had done a fairly good job tracking public sentiment. However, in the case of business, while public opinion toward business has soured, the courts' decisions have gone the other way since the 1960s. Recently, the Court seems to be willing to ignore, or in some cases, even go in the opposite direction of prevailing public sentiment.
In any case, given that the Republican-nominated justices represent a six to three majority on the court, businesses can continue to count on even more favorable rulings in the years ahead.