At 10:30 at night in the dark parking lot of an abandoned retail store, a group of young, muscly guys are engaged in what looks to be a very intense debate.
Their voices grow more heated, until finally, they shove one guy toward the metal-plated truck nearby. But this isn’t a street fight, it’s Treatbot, the ice cream truck from the future.
At Treatbot, this action could mean only one thing: the man has decided on a karaoke song to sing. He picks up the mic, steps into the purple spotlight adjacent to the truck’s built-in karaoke station and waits—a little nervous despite his swagger—as the opening strains of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” begin to play. The crowd, with cones and cups of ice cream in hand, cheers wildly.
Behind its armored exterior, Treatbot is a bit of a love story. Husband-and-wife team Ryan and Christine Sebastian began Treatbot with a vision for delivering ice cream to the masses in a fresh way.
A San Jose native himself, Sebastian found the social scene in the area lacking “something to do that doesn’t involve shopping, getting wasted—or bowling,” and he wanted to bring another option into the picture—one specifically tailored to San Jose’s unique personality. “I didn’t like my city growing up,” confesses Sebastian. “I left, but then I came back, and now I’ve come to terms with the place. It sounds sappy, but Treatbot is like a love letter to my hometown.”
With a selection of artisan flavors, root beer floats and ice cream sandwiches (all for $5 or less), Treatbot definitely has Sebastian’s hometown returning his affections. Treatbot’s flavors are handpicked for San Jose, including horchata, ube, macapuno, cantaloupe and The 408. The flavors rotate nightly, but the ones most likely to sell out are horchata and The 408. When word goes out through the lines that Treatbot is out of The 408—an indulgent blend of Oreos, fudge and caramel in rich vanilla—you’d think tickets just sold out to everyone’s favorite concert.
The source of these unique flavors is a Treatbot secret, but whoever’s making it, they know what they’re doing. Their sorbets taste like fruits picked at the height of the season, and the ice cream is lavish with the cream, light on the ice. Treatbot also offers made-to-order ice cream sandwiches, and all persons with a sweet tooth should definitely try the horchata packed between two fresh oatmeal cookies.
Before settling on Treatbot, the Sebastians considered naming their truck “Milk and Honey” but soon realized that it wasn’t tech enough, not diverse or forward-thinking enough, to get to the heart of the San Jose scene. Equally important was the fact that it just “wasn’t masculine enough.” Tired of soft, frilly dessert places, Ryan wanted “a place even gangsters would be proud to go to,” basing the idea on the premise that “if you can engage the men in the process, it’s going to be a winner.”
Sure enough, there’s a fascinating mix of both men and women that follow Treatbot from one end of San Jose to another. At the late-night Evergreen and Milpitas locations, teenagers mingle in large groups and play football between parked cars. In a quiet, Sunnyvale parking lot, techies wander out of their offices for lunch. Downtown, in front of The 88 high-rise condos, men in suits and women in yoga pants stop to see what the lines are for. It’s a phenomenon that’s turning ordinary public places into vibrant social spaces where people don’t just come for food—they come for the experience.
With Sebastian’s background in city planning and traffic engineering, this sort of concern for urban spaces is especially relevant. He notes, “We’re so overzealous about zoning and regulations that we prevent a lot of interesting things from happening, especially in San Jose. We try to separate everything—shopping, eating, sleeping—and I think we need to mix that up a little more.”
Treatbot also commits to promoting community interests by serving only local, sustainable ingredients. Although the Sebastians remain tight-lipped about their exact source, Treatbot’s goods are all grown and made within a 50-mile radius of San Jose, and the products that aren’t local—the spoons, napkins and bowls—are biodegradable, corn-based derivatives.
Sebastian predicts that while the trendiness of food trucks my die down, other urban places where food trucks have succeeded, such as Portland, indicate that food trucks could become a permanent fixture in the San Jose landscape. Treatbot already has plans for introducing a second truck and a fleet of treat-toting tricycles with trailers in tow, and they’re collaborating with clothing store the Usuals on Aug. 27 for a streetwise pop-up shop featuring local artists and musicians.
For now, Treatbot is partnering with Waze, a new mobile navigational system for smartphones, to provide free scoops for customers who download the equally free application. Don’t have a smartphone but still want free ice cream? Just score a 90 or higher on their karaoke game, and you’ll win both ice cream and a little bit of celebrity in your night. But whether you end up having to pay the three dollars for two scoops or not, Treatbot is worth the trip.
Follow the Treatbot ice-cream truck on Twitter.