You should believe CVT’s Joe Nicchi when he says he’s doing this for his family.

By Andy Wang
August 16, 2019
Courtesy CVT Soft Serve

It was ridiculous, really, all those times social media “influencers” asked CVT Soft Serve proprietor Joe Nicchi for a free ice cream cone instead of just paying $4. It was offensive, really, when he got messages asking if he’d cater a party for “exposure” instead of money.

Here Nicchi was, a working actor who became an L.A. food-truck entrepreneur, grinding to feed his growing family. He and his wife had an 8-year-old son, a 5-year-old son, and twin boys on the way. Every $4 cup or cone he sold mattered. So the requests for free ice cream bothered him.

Plus, wasn’t it clear that CVT was nothing like the ice cream shops that go out of their way to create crazy flavors that might be popular on Instagram? Nicchi had launched CVT in 2014 because he was inspired by a simpler time. He missed the ice cream he grew up eating in upstate New York, so he took the soft serve recipe his restaurateur father has used for decades and updated it with local California milk. CVT only serves three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and twist. Nicchi only offers minimal toppings like rainbow sprinkles, chocolate sprinkles, and sea salt out of the two vintage 1960s Mister Softee trucks he’s converted into his CVT vehicles. As CVT’s own website declares, “We don't believe in hiding behind gummy bears. Our ice cream would be insulted.”

In an era of unicorn sundaes and ice cream with ingredients like mushrooms and bugs, CVT is refreshing because it has never calibrated its product for social media. But that hasn’t stopped influencers from sliding into its DMs. So after CVT got a request to cater a 300-person party for free, Nicchi decided enough was enough.

He thought the things that so many small-business owners around the world have thought. Exposure doesn’t pay my bills. Exposure doesn’t feed my family. I’m not doing this as a hobby. I’m not doing this to be cool. This is my livelihood.

“I have to say this in every interview: I don’t think all influencers are terrible,” Nicchi says. “There are relevant ones. The ones that have approached my business have not been.”

So in late June, Nicchi decided to put a sign in both of his trucks with a simple message: “Influencers pay double.” And then CVT went viral. A post about the sign showed up on the front page of Reddit’s Los Angeles page, and then Nicchi did interviews with local, national, and international media because his story resonated with so many people worldwide.

Ironically, Nicchi’s disdain of influencer culture turned him into a social media sensation. CVT’s Instagram followers quadrapuled from about 5,000 to more than 20,000 in “roughly a week.” Tourists, including one from Italy, visited the trucks because they had read about CVT. Summer is already a busy time for CVT, but Nicchi says the requests for paid events went from five to 10 a week to between 20 and 30 a day after the sign went viral.

He has other trucks he owns on standby, but he’s not sure whether he’s going to start operating them. The primary way he’s expanding is through his CVTeeny soft-serve machines around Los Angeles.

“I jokingly call it a ‘free franchise,’” Nicchi says. “We literally give you our branding, product, everything.”

The way it works is that Nicchi provides restaurants, bars, or other establishments with a CVT-branded soft-serve machine. He’s also willing to vinyl-wrap existing machines. CVT then wholesales its soft-serve mix for each machine.

CVT’s ice cream is currently available at Silver Lake’s Burgers Never Say Die (where many customers know the move is dipping fries into soft serve), Westwood Village’s Espresso Profeta (where the matcha powder you can get atop soft serve is “the craziest thing that’s happening” with Nicchi’s ice cream), and Long Beach’s Queen Mary ship. Nicchi says that he’ll soon be announcing the latest CVTeeny location, which will be at a brewery in the San Fernando Valley. Expect there to be spiked root-beer floats made with CVT’s soft serve.

Nicchi shows up at our meeting this week wearing two hospital ID bracelets that say Twin A and Twin B. His new sons were born on August 7 and are still in a downtown hospital’s NICU. His wife, who was on bedrest for five weeks after her water broke at just 27 weeks pregnant, is also still at the hospital.

It’s an understatement to say that this has been the craziest summer ever for the Nicchi family. One thing about life is that the most life-altering moments don’t adhere to your timetable.

“It hit Reddit,” Nicchi says, thinking back to a recent day that he’ll never forget. “I had my phone off. I turned my phone on, and I had all these texts about being on Reddit. That night, my wife’s water broke. It was insane.”

It hasn’t stopped being insane. Nicchi managed to do many phone and email interviews from the hospital, but he declined to let an Australian TV show set up a shoot outside because he didn’t want to leave his wife’s side for a press opportunity. He remembers doing a BBC interview with the sounds of screaming women in labor as background noise. He hung up the phone, and then he felt the 7.1 earthquake that shook Southern California on July 5.

Nicchi tells me he’s planning to put up an Instagram post that will let customers know why CVT’s trucks have been off the streets more than usual in recent weeks. He wants his regulars to understand that it’s not because he’s become too popular and is doing more events. He also wants people who’ve contacted him about parties to know that he’s not just blowing them off for no good reason.

“I couldn’t keep up with all the requests,” he says. “We did our best. But there’s only so much that we can do. We’re a small business, we have two trucks, limited staff, and then throw in some personal things, babies being born and bedrest and all that. Total shitshow.”

But this family man knows all he can do his figure out it piece by piece, cone by cone. Life, when you’re a small-business owner and a dad, sometimes means long spans when you have no days off.

“I worked the day my kids were born,” Nicchi says. “That sounds like I’m such a shitty father. But I’m just trying to support my family.”

His twin sons were born in the morning, and Nicchi considered canceling the event he was doing for CBS’ Big Brother that night. But he saw that his wife and new babies were stable, and he knew that Big Brother was a longtime client.

“I want to maintain the relationship,” Nicchi says. “I left for three hours and I worked the event.”

Nicchi has no plans to change the formula of CVT in any way now that his business is a lot more famous. His goal, as ever, is sticking to chocolate, vanilla, and twist.

“It’s basic, classic,” he says. “I just want to keep it as simple as possible. When the food truck thing was taking off, I was working all these crappy actor day jobs. I would go to these trucks and I was like, where’s the ice cream truck? They have all these different kinds of fusion trucks. Where’s just the basic, really good soft serve truck?”

To fill the void, Nicchi opened CVT in March 2014, back when his second son was just a month old. In July 2014, Nicchi saw his business pick up after Bill Murray showed up for soft serve. Nicchi had heard that Murray was filming nearby, so he decided to invite the neighborhood and the cast and crew to a “Bill Murray ice cream social.” Murray arrived, and a Reddit post and lots of media attention followed. This was the first time Nicchi learned about Reddit, and he didn’t really think about it again until this summer.

“In this weird way, these two Reddit stories happened right around the births of our children,” says Nicchi, who’s grateful that the attention CVT’s received has helped him provide for his family. “People have asked me: Do you want to do ‘influencers are gross’ T-shirts and really play up the thing? Same thing with Bill Murray: Do you want to make Bill Murray ice cream truck shirts? No, this is a fun thing that happened, but let’s just get people to the truck. It’s a marketing tool. I’m confident in the product and I feel like once people try it, they’ll come back.”

By the way, if you happen to be amused by Nicchi’s story and offer to pay $8 for a cone at CVT, you should know that he won’t actually sell it for more than $4 (although you’re welcome to tip the staff as much as you want). He just wants to make it clear that there are no freebies at CVT. That’s why he still has the sign.

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