It happened almost by accident. An American working as an English teacher was walking around the streets of the city where he taught and noticed a deluge of American fast food franchises, but found nothing resembling the kind of soft-serve ice cream that his college roommate’s family had turned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
And that is how Mr. Softee went to China.
Now this staple of New York City life is being served 7,000 miles away, on the streets of Suzhou, an ancient city of more than six million people about 50 miles west of Shanghai. Mr. Softee or Mr. Soft Heart, the English translation of “ruan xin xian sheng” — there is no Mandarin word for Softee — has been a hit, with sales doubling every year since the first truck started rolling three years ago.
There are now five Mr. Soft Heart trucks in Suzhou, and one in a nearby city, Taicang.
“There is a franchising boom going on in China that is similar to what was happening in America in the 1950s and 1960s, so we really jumped in at the right time,” said Alex Conway, the president of Mr. Softee China, whose grandfather James Conway helped found the company in 1956.
Customers like Meng Xiangbo, 19, a college student, have proved Mr. Conway right. He is a regular customer of the Mr. Softee truck that peddles its treats in Suzhou’s university district.
One recent balmy afternoon, Mr. Meng ordered a kiwi sundae. “They have six flavors,” he said of the sundaes. “I eat a different one every day. On Sunday, I rest.”
It was Mr. Conway’s college roommate, Turner Sparks, who first broached the idea that China might be ready for Mr. Softee.
“The only soft ice cream available was in places like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Mr. Sparks said. “I called Alex, who majored in business, and we started kicking around the idea. Before you knew it, we were talking to government officials and putting this thing together.”
Putting it together, however, was not easy.
Because Mr. Softee, which is based in Runnemede, N.J., is a foreign company, there were “a lot of forms to fill out, a lot of red tape,” Mr. Sparks said. A hygiene license had to be obtained, and company officials met repeatedly with Suzhou’s traffic police to explain a concept they had little knowledge of: selling products out of a truck. Mr. Soft Heart trucks were assigned specific routes and parking spots, with no deviating allowed.
In a reversal of New York’s noise restrictions, the trucks were allowed to play the Mr. Softee jingle only when parked.
Anyone that’s been around Suzhou a while probably knows Turner either as “the ice cream guy” or drummer extraordinaire. He’s also a comedian. Turner can routinely be seen performing standup comedy at the Drunken Clam down on Shiquan Jie.