Ice cream man makes annual pilgrimage

Matt Allen, who's gained national exposure since setting the goal of giving away half a million ice creams, is once again going back to his roots.

The celebrity ice cream man will return to Ashland to give away free ice cream for the fifth straight year, Saturday from 3-5 p.m. at Garfield Park.

In 2004 Allen started by purchasing his ice cream truck, Bessie, in Grants Pass. He drove through the neighborhoods of Ashland selling ice cream. At the end of the summer, he decided to give away his remaining ice cream. After publicizing the event and hanging flyers around town, he decided he would need to buy more ice cream to supply everyone he was expecting.

The event was such a success Allen decided to make a business model to reach the goal of giving away half a million ice creams.

He's returned at the end of each summer to treat Ashland to an ice cream social.

"You can learn a lot about someone from their first reaction to free ice cream," Allen said.

"If you think about it, business is changing. Everything on the Internet is basically free," he added. We think that will transcend to the physical world."

Ice cream is "perishable, so you can't hoard it, and relatively inexpensive," he added. "One free ice cream can make someone so happy."

Now based out of Long Beach, Calif., Allen travels around the U.S. giving away ice cream, predominately backstage at music festivals.

"We do all kinds of crazy stuff, school programs, animal shelters, high school graduations," he said. "We want to do as much as we can."

"We've been on MTV a couple of times already," he added. "We do all kinds of press all over the country."

He estimated that he has given away about 160,000 ice creams. He has about two years left of this project, with an additional year to wrap it up.

His business model works primarily with the help of sponsors. For Saturday's event, sponsors such as Blue Bunny, Charter, LocalsGuide, Rhonda Lewis and Today's Dentistry made the annual event possible.

"The logistics of setting it up is hard and getting sponsors on board," Allen said.

Shields Bialasik, editor of LocalsGuide, has been on board with Allen's project since its inception and has done most of the work setting up all five giveaways in Ashland.

"Big companies are trying to find new ways to market locally and this is one way we have come up with which is both positive and long lasting," Bialasik said.

People have told Allen that he cannot build a business by giving away free ice cream. He's rolled with the punches.

"Anytime you get notoriety, you get a backlash," Allen said. "So many people have told us, 'Wow. That idea is genius.' I wish my mom could hear that."

Despite the national exposure, Allen said it's been tough to get by.

"Even if this doesn't work out, even if our business fails, we have created something very special," he said.

The ice cream social is more than getting free ice cream; it's an opportunity to play with your kids and talk to your neighbors, Allen said.

"The kids grow up so fast," he said. "Can you imagine the growth of these kids in five years? It's funny because a lot of kids don't think I remember them."

"Even though giving away free ice cream is fun, the big picture idea is to motivate, empower and inspire people to go out and do stuff," he added.

Allen said he looked forward to this year's ice cream social, and catching up with friends from the area.

"I was so happy living in Ashland," he said. "I was happier living in Ashland than anywhere I've lived and I knew it. I would sit at our house on B Street and be so happy; it's those times you have to remember."

"I always told myself as long as I was doing ice cream man, I would come back to Ashland," he added.

Allen said it's important for him to come back to Ashland and say, "Hey kids, I said I was going to do this, and I've done it!"

He added, "I think it's good to find non-traditional ways of doing things."

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