For the better part of the last decade, Benny Earley has been putting smiles on kids and grownups alike. With his trusty ice cream truck, he motors around the region selling and handing out cold treats to any and all within an earshot of the melodies echoing from the vehicle into neighborhoods and downtowns.
“I just love doing this because it makes the kids happy, and that makes me happy,” the 63-year-old said. “You meet all kinds of kids and adults. They’re all nice people, and that keeps me going.”
Sitting patiently in his truck at a grocery store parking lot in Canton one recent afternoon, Earley looks up at the sky. It had rained most the day, but it had since ceased. The hope of sweet-tooth customers finding their way to the vehicle had once again emerged.
“It has been a little slow with the economy, but business has been picking up lately,” he said optimistically.
One of five drivers for Blue Ridge Ice Cream based out of Leicester, Earley works six days a week from the early afternoon until late into the evening. On Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, his route traverses Canton, Clyde and Waynesville.
“We try hard to keep the business going because we want to show the kids what the ice cream truck used to be and how important it was,” he said.
That iconic scene of children running down the sidewalk towards the ice cream truck is something that never gets old for Earley. It’s a special bond within small town life, one that is timeless and nostalgic for any who have partaken in the quest for sugary treats.
“Yes, the kids chase me down,” he chuckled. “They want ice cream and see me, then just start running to the truck.”
Known as “Mr. Benny” to innumerable children, Earley has spent most of his life in Leicester. He held an array of jobs, working as a parking lot sweeper and building birdbaths to name a few.
His daughter, who was a driver for Blue Ridge years ago, roped him into joining the company.
“She talked me into doing it,” he said. “That was over nine years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since — I love it.”
Earley remembers his first day on the job, fondly.
“I was a bit nervous,” he said. “I hadn’t learned the kids, prices and all the kinds of ice cream yet, but in no time I picked it up and have kept going.”
On an average day, Earley serves up to 100 customers, with over 200 on a busy route. He has more than 30 types of products, but the most popular selection is the ice cream sandwich. You can find his truck at public swimming pools, grocery store parking lots, recreation centers and town celebrations throughout the summer months. He works most of the year, from March until December.
“You get used to the people, and you miss them during the winter months,” he said. “I’ve learned all the different types of people out there and all the different types of ice cream they like.”
So, what’s the ice cream man’s favorite treat?
“Strawberry ice cream sandwich,” he said.
With a decade of service quickly approaching, Earley doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Though he has a few health issues now, all and all he’s still up to the job. For him, it’s all about those smiles radiating from the other side of the counter.
“This has been a good thing for me,” he smiled. “I hope to stay with it for a long time.”