Brigantine may trash its ice-cream tradition

Jim Vorraso serves (from left) Ronnie Spaide, Brianna Spaide, Emily Gavigan, Frankie Spaide, Conner Neville.
Jim Vorraso serves (from left) Ronnie Spaide, Brianna Spaide, Emily Gavigan, Frankie Spaide, Conner Neville. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)
Posted: July 15, 2012

BRIGANTINE, N.J. - People who sit on the beaches of Ventnor, Wildwood, and Atlantic City - where the ice cream man will put his box down and hand over a banana Fudge Bomb without your even moving, except to find the money - might be shocked to learn that in Brigantine, people lack this fundamental Jersey Shore right.

And that, for the most part, they do not care.

But that, possibly as early as next week, when the City Council is scheduled to vote on a seven-page ice cream ordinance 15 years in the making, they could at last be granted the right of beach ice-cream sales.

The existing Brigantine way of ice cream - the truck that sits parked at the end of a street while its driver rings his bell on the beach to let customers know he's there - would be limited to a small area in the north end, if the drivers even bother.

The new regulations - which appear to be headed toward passage - would even bring sellers to the Jetty and the Cove, inlet beaches where SUVs are allowed and whose tailgating, cooler- and grill-toting denizens do not lack for much other than an ice-pop and a view of Atlantic City's Fourth of July fireworks, newly blocked by Revel.

The city will be "bidding the beach out," said Jim Vorraso, who for 12 years has leased a Jack & Jill ice cream van (not to be confused with the blue Fat Jimi's truck). Under his current arrangement, he gets to keep 50 percent of his sales.

Vorraso could keep driving his truck under the proposed regulations, but he would not be permitted to park on street ends - those that abut the beach - where his sales are brisk.

"They want to make the money. I'm going to be pushed out," said Vorraso, who has experience fighting City Hall. Last year, his successful effort to prevent it from banning the bell-ringing was aided by Beach Patrol Senior Lt. Fran Masino - a Paul Revere with a whistle - whose voice boomed out from the back of City Council chambers:

"Release the Bell!"

Tradition is a funny thing, especially on an island like Brigantine, a place where the old guard fondly remembers childhoods spent chasing after the mosquito trucks that sprayed clouds of pesticide through the town.

If you think the controversy over where frozen treats should be sold and who should sell them is trivial, you should know that it involves the rights of veterans, civil rights, the economy, fair-trade considerations, and an online petition at a website called icecreamvets.com.

The ability to purchase ice cream on Brigantine's beach has been Councilman Bob Solari's dream for a decade and a half. But his efforts long went nowhere because businesses in town wanted to sell the stuff themselves.

Solari acknowledges that the city's motivation for changing the status quo is economic. "It's a way to get revenue," he says.

Frankly, the city wants vendors' bid money. Officials look at Margate, which won $40,000 from a company seeking the right to sell ice cream on its shore.

Under the new system, veterans - who will get preference when vendors hire staff to ply their goods on the sand - will get more seasonal jobs, Solari said.

"They're treating us like drug dealers," said Jim Callista. A longtime participant in the town's ice cream game, Callista - who is not, apparently, a veteran, though his buddy on the truck is - created the website icecreamvets.com to protest Brigantine's proposed move.

Callista was referring to the way the city has tried to get drivers off the streets, though someone overhearing a reporter talking to him via cellphone ("What corner are you selling from? Why won't you tell me? I need to find you") might have assumed Callista was a seller of contraband.

The practice of former service members' selling ice cream at the beach has its roots in a 1904 law that gave preference to honorably discharged veterans. The law was modified to allow beach towns to bid out vending as long as the winners considered veterans first when hiring.

The city would bid three zones - Eighth to 12th, 12th to 37th, and 38th to the south end, including the inlet - and the drivers believe the process will price them out.

Brigantine plans to set the minimum bid, for the right to sell through the rest of this season, at $2,500. Other towns, such as Ventnor and Atlantic City, license their beach ice-cream sellers - all veterans - directly for a small fee.

If they went to work for a bid-winner - such as Jack & Jill, whose manager, Paul van de Rijn, says he will hire vets if the company wins a contract - the former drivers' commission would be lower. And though sellers may push a cart or carry a box, walking on hot sand is not a particularly attractive prospect to those who are years past military service.

Van de Rijn said the whole ice-cream vending business is in a slump. Mothers aren't shelling out dollars every day for ice cream like they used to. Bringing the ice cream onto the beach would help.

On Brigantine's beaches this week, reaction among bathers was mixed. If they can overlook greenhead flies, they can overlook a small inconvenience like walking to the truck.

"We're kind of used to it," said Brandon Ferriero, 14, of Galloway, who walked to the street barefoot with brother Jason, 12, to get $3 cups of chocolate chip ice cream.

Lifeguard Michael Brooks said he grew up with the bell-and-truck tradition. "It's always been that way for me," he said. "You want ice cream, you walk off the beach."

Newbies have been known to misinterpret the bell.

"They think it means 'shark,' " Brooks said. Both interpretations - shark or ice cream man - tend to clear the water pretty quickly, giving guards a bit of a break.

In a nearby beach chair, Cathy DiChristofaro, 54, of Gloucester Township, seemed to welcome the idea of chair-side service, which she said would eliminate the need for her to "get up from my coma and walk all the way there to get ice cream."

David Feenan, 47, of Brigantine, said he had grown up with the Fudgie Wudgie man of Wildwood and had wonderful memories. But his friend Albert Cataldi, 53, visiting from South Philadelphia, worried about commercializing the beach.

"Everyone has survived all these years bringing your own food," he said.

On the 38th Street beach, Sarah Slimski, 14, of Voorhees, whose grandmother Bea Forman of Chester Springs had memories of the ice cream man on the beach in Atlantic City, didn't get bogged down in matters of geography.

"I want the ice cream," she said.


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com or on twitter @amysrosenberg.

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