Door-to-door vacuum salesman to $120 million shaved ice truck franchise

How one man cracked the "creepy ice cream truck" problem
How one man cracked the "creepy ice cream truck" problem

More than a decade ago, Tony Lamb's young daughter had an interesting run-in with an ice cream truck driver.

"My four kids hear the music, and instinctively go running for the front yard. My wife and I come around the corner and there is the sketchiest van you've ever seen in your life," Lamb recalls. "It's a '72 Chevy van, smoke rolling out of it and a very suspect character sticks his head out and my daughter, who was about three, just stops and screams."

Tony Lamb shares the success story of his company Kona Ice, a shaved ice store on wheels.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC

She still ordered a Popsicle.

While the couple had a good laugh, the experience wound up changing the course of their lives. Lamb was running his own marketing consulting business. In a previous career, he sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Lamb, 47, spent the next two years obsessing over what a better ice cream truck business model might look like.

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"We said, 'Imagine if that truck had been nice. Imagine if it was an open-kitchen concept, it was all glass and you could see in.'" he recalled.

Kona Ice
Sophie Bearman | CNBC

By 2006, Lamb decided to turn that obsession into a shaved ice franchise, Kona Ice. He launched the business from his basement, designing prototypes and working with engineers. In 2007, his first Kona Ice trucks rolled out, and he drove a truck around Florence, Kentucky himself for a full year.

The trucks are a new spin on the traditional model. For starters, the truck doesn't play the iconic, tinkling music from your childhood. New music selections are upbeat and tropical. And each truck features Lamb's "Flavorwave" on the side. Tubes of flavors exposed on the side of trucks allow kids to mix up their own flavors.

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Sales were strong his first year, and after several people inquired about the business model, he decided to give franchising a go in 2009. That's right, he began to test out a shaved ice franchise in the middle of a recession.

Year one in 2009, he sold 50 franchised trucks. In 2010, it was another 60. Today, the Lambs have 700 locations In 46 states including a few in Hawaii, where shaved ice is very popular. Last year, system-wide sales hit $120 million.

"I wasn't inventing something that only a small segment of society would use," Lamb explains. "The ice cream truck is iconic and it's been around for 50 years. It's an established industry, but a devastated industry and I knew I could resurrect that."

The truck's shaved ice flavors range from "Tiger's Blood" (which tastes like fruit punch) to "Wedding Cake." Prices are under $5. Shaved ice is also lower in calories than traditional ice cream and dessert options, and caters to ever health-conscious consumers. A few franchised trucks also sell ice cream.

The business is also "turnkey," Lamb says. For about $100,000 per franchise, buyers get a truck, access to a regional territory and attend "Kona Kollege," a training session at company headquarters in Florence, Kentucky.

Beyond just profits, franchisees are also raising money for local charities. While it's not something that's required, Lamb says a philanthropic push is a draw for many franchise owners.

Since launching Kona Ice, franchisees collectively have raised $35 million for local schools, youth sports teams and community organizations.

Tony Lamb and Kona Ice, a shaved ice store on wheels.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC

Lamb says Kona Ice has changed his family's life for the better. His dad and daughter, the Popsicle buyer who started in the business at age three, work for the business. Lamb also was constantly on the road for his last job. Now spending time with his family on a project he created has proved much more rewarding.

He also still drives trucks whenever he gets the chance.

"I am still in the business—I think a lot of the time, entrepreneurs are trying to figure out how to get away from the thing that made it in the first place," he says.

His only remaining goal?

"I'm not in Maine, North Dakota or Alaska. But let me tell you something—when I get in Alaska and I've sold ice to Eskimos, its over."