At first, the 15 parents, children, tie-dyed teens and dogs in Bonner Park maintain a wary distance from the big bright-yellow truck with the Montana "CONEBOY" license plate, its bullhorn speaker blaring "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." Some are mulling flavor options, but others simply aren't sure there's really free Big Dipper ice cream, purchased for 100 people by Community Medical Center's "Random Act of Community" campaign.
"Do you take debit cards?" one hopeful/nervous guy with wife and child asks. His day: made.
The ice cream isn't always free, but since April 16, "Coneboy" has been all over town. Big Dipper owner Charlie Beaton and general manager Bryan Hickey have long dreamed of a second Missoula location (a franchise in Helena opened in April); instead they now have several dozen, depending on when and where the truck stops.
The "ice cream man," of course, has been around forever, but Big Dipper's truck is more a product of the current upscale food cart revolution.
"Charlie actually got the idea from the Van Leeuwen trucks in New York City," says Hickey, who has 50-50 equity with Beaton in the venture. "They're basically doing gourmet ice cream in an ice cream truck, rather than like, popsicles."
The truck only does cones, dishes and pre-made ice cream sandwiches (with chocolate chip or molasses cookies, both from Bernice's Bakery); regulars know that it always carries cookie dough, even when Big Dipper's store does not.
"I've pulled up to plenty of playgrounds where I just feel like a rock star with the little kids," says 22-year-old driver Justin Cimerone Morley.
Except, that is, when kids whose parents aren't with them realize this is no two-bit Good Humor truck, literally: a child-sized scoop is $1.75. That's when the free samples come in handy.
"Big samples," Morley admits. "I mean, what are we doing if we're not a happy maker on an ice cream truck?"