Jan and Johnny’s Ice Cream still scoopin’ after 25 years in town

There are two things John Donnelly of Jan and Johnny’s Ice Cream fears the most.

“The most depressing thing that can ever happen to an ice cream man is his truck breaking down. And if the music goes down, I’m done. No music, no money!” said Donnelly.

It was 25 years ago this month when the Donnellys bought an old truck, which needed extensive body and engine work, and began what would become John Donnelly’s lifelong passion.

On any given afternoon, a white Aeromate utility truck, complete with hand-painted art brushed on the outside and lime green and blue rims, can be seen driving down busy Watson Boulevard.

Inside are dozens of fresh treats packed into a freezer — Nutty Buddies, Screwballs, Bullets, strawberry shortcakes, sour cherry, fudge bars, snow cones, colored Popsicles, ice cream sandwiches and more.

Not wanting to stop with just iced goodies, about 15 years ago Donnelly added boiled peanuts. His personal favorite? The Bullet, of course, a long red, white and blue Popsicle with a flavor that resembles cotton candy.

Today the business not only offers ice cream and nuts, but also potato chips, candy, other snacks and soft drinks. Ice cream offerings run no more than $1.50.

The local entrepreneur pretty much keeps to the same route, staying more on the northeastern end of the city. Neighborhoods filled with children, trailer parks, apartment complexes — its residents all know Johnny, the friendly, fast talkin’ Italian with a hint of accent from his beloved New Jersey.

Although ice cream trucks are common where he grew up, Donnelly said when he and his wife moved to Middle Georgia in the 1980s, it was a business his brother-in-law Joe was already taking up down South. His brother had also tried his hand at it.

After riding with Joe one day on his route, Donnelly decided to follow in his footsteps. Now, 25 years later, Donnelly is the only one who’s stuck with it.

In the beginning he offered about 10-15 ice cream flavors. Although the menu has expanded and his route has remained relatively unchanged, he observed that the faces he’s come to know are still around.

“They make my day,” said Donnelly of the children and parents. “You get a strong bond with some of these kids. I love doing what I do.”

He remembered when his wife used to work at a local bank. She had told him she’d drive his route one day, and if she liked it, she would have news for him.

“She said ‘John, I’ll quit my job’ ” he said. “And she loved it! She said the heck with the dresses and going in at 8 o’clock.”

Ask Donnelly about his wife and he speaks of a woman he has promised to care for in sickness and in health.

Jan hasn’t been able to go out on routes with her husband for several years due to an illness that leaves her weak and in bed most of the time.

Donnelly said the only time he is away from her is during the three or four hours he delivers ice cream.

Surprisingly, summer is the slowest time for Donnelly’s ice cream businesses. The oppressive heat and humidity keep many of his customers inside, he said. Plus, driving around in his small truck with no air conditioning can be draining.

The 53-year-old with the salt and pepper beard knows just about every customer on his route. Small children hear the truck’s familiar music, recorded exclusively for Jan and Johnny’s, and come running to the street. Even a few dogs have come to love his ice cream.

“I don’t see them today,” said Donnelly of one pair of neighborhood dogs. “Normally they come running to the fence. They prefer ice cream sandwiches.”

And it’s not just the four-legged creatures who love the treats.

“A lot of people chase me down. Some chase me in cars!” he said with a laugh. “I enjoy the job. I love what I do. I can’t wait to get out every day.”

A few times his trucks, the current one with 139,000 miles, have broken down, but he has rarely run out of ice cream during his time in the International City.

As Donnelly spots potential customers, he puts the brakes on, jumps out of his driver’s seat and pops his head through a small, rectangular window. He’s also been known to sprinkle ice and water into a few faces, much to the delight of those waiting for a sweet treat.

He only has a few feet of workspace situated along a black and white checkerboard floor. Between his work station, wall of potato chips and snacks, and large freezer toward the truck’s rear, it makes for a tight space.

After a transaction is made, he quickly hops back onto his seat and steps on the gas.

“I like to move. I don’t like to sit still. Time is money,” he said.

So to what does this ice cream man attribute his successes?

“The biggest thing you got to have is patience,” he began. “It’s not a job for everybody. Not everybody can do it.”

It’s a job he said he has thoroughly enjoyed.

“I put a lot of my heart into it. I just can’t believe I’m still doing this. Every day I pinch myself,” he said.

To contact writer Jenny Gordon, call 923-3109 extension 240.