Beaches resident Abby Vega left corporate America after 33 years for the soothing sounds of calypso music and flowered leis. But instead of chilling out on sandy beaches, she is shoveling icy snow into cups for eager customers hot for a cool treat.
Vega launched Kona Ice, a mobile sno-cone business, last August. She had been looking to start a business and tried to think of something to inspire her new venture. She asked herself what makes her happy.
The answer was ice cream.
“It always gets me through the worst possible days,” said Vega.
While sno-cones aren’t sundaes, the response has been all smiles when the island-themed truck arrives at everything from school fairs to corporate outings.
“When our customers get a glimpse of the decked-out truck with its Tiki hut top and vibrant colors, the looks on their faces say it all,” said Vega. “At first they’re amazed, then they just can’t stop smiling — regardless of age.”
But for the owner of the mobile sno-cone business, it’s the giving back to her local community that makes her new venture so sweet.
Nationwide, Kona Ice has donated more than $16 million dollars to community-based organizations since it was founded in 2007. That same philanthropic philosophy is something Vega practices locally.
“[She] shares our passion for giving back,” said Tony Lamb, founder and president of Kona Ice, who created the concept after seeing fear in his daughter’s face during a visit from an old rusty ice cream truck. “We want to ingrain Kona Ice into the fabric of the towns where we live, work and have families. Returning a portion of what we earn back to the groups helps ensure that they continue to make a positive impact on the lives of our friends, neighbors and family members.”
As Vega books events with local school groups, teams and community organizations, she pledges to give back a percentage of the proceeds from each stop. Within a three-year period she has the potential to donate $80,000 to the local community.
In fact, she donated the entirety of profits from her very first client to the organization she visited because she was so moved by the joyous response she received from its customers.
These customers weren’t carefree children though, but adults recovering from drug addiction.
A woman whose nephew was spending his 21st birthday in a drug rehabilitation facility hired Vega to bring the rhythmic sounds of Calypso music and the icy indulgence of sno-cones to rehab.
Vega said when she pulled up to the treatment facility she was asked if she was lost. After she explained what she was doing there she had “20 to 30 grown men running out to the truck.”
That was Day One on the job and while she supplemented with hot chocolate and teas during a particularly chilly winter, she has managed to keep the smiles coming and the donations going.
Sometimes Kona Ice partners with local corporate sponsors, including Ferdinand Formoso, D.O., a pain management specialist at Coastal Spine and Pain Center, which helps underwrite expenses so she can provide product to events including one at Wolfson Children’s Hospital dubbed “Operation Sno-Cone and Teddy Bear.”
“Our practice is very involved in the community and this most recent event is close to our hearts,” said Formoso. “We felt the need to give back to the hospital that has delivered such wonderful care to our children. The first time my wife, Elisa, and I heard of what Abby was doing … we immediately thought to sponsor her to bring the truck to Wolfson and bring smiles to the kids there.”
Little red wagons delivered fuzzy bears and flavored treats to delighted patients, one of whom exclaimed, “This is the best hospital ever!”
It’s that kind of happy response that motivates Vega.
“You could tell you made a difference in their lives, at least for a day,” said Vega. “I wanted to do something that was fun, but I also want to give back to my community.”
Vega credits the interactive experience of Kona Ice, where customers can fill their heaping cups of ice with any of the 10 most popular tastes, as part of the business’s appeal. There are additional flavors inside the truck such as cappuccino, mango and margarita.
“It’s an opportunity to enjoy a unique, tropical treat,” added Vega. “Kids go crazy and we see adults getting just as excited as the young ones. We’ll even throw a few leis or Kona T-shirts on our customers, and send them home with a fun Kona Ice cup. From start to finish, we engage all their senses.”
For Vega, Kona Ice channels childhood memories of the beloved ice cream truck, but with a tropical twist and a focus on area neighborhoods.
“Taking giving to the next level beyond my family, and into the community gives me the greatest joy and happiness,” said Vega. “If I can make someone smile for just 10 seconds while I shave their ice and engage in conversation I feel I am making a small difference in their life. When I financially give back, I know that multiplies the impact over and over again.”