RALEIGH — Mike Beggen spends most of his weekdays on Fayetteville Street wearing a bowtie and shorts, selling Italian ice from a 1950’s-style mint green bike cart.
Three blocks away sits one of his best friends from middle school, Rich Conroy, also in a bowtie and shorts, hawking the smooth and silky frozen mixture that comes in flavors such as orange, pistachio and peanut butter and is made in Queens, New York by a family using an 80-year-old recipe.
Beggen and Conroy, both 31, make up SweetWater Ices, a company with a mission to bring quality and authentic Italian Ice found on many New York City street corners to the Triangle.
The idea was conceived when the two friends, then New York residents, visited friends in Holly Springs in February 2011. One of their friends was pregnant and asked them to find her real Italian Ice.
“We failed,” Beggen said. “It doesn’t exist down here.”
They returned with a sad grocery store substitute and an idea to bring the dessert to Raleigh.
At the time Beggen was a high school history teacher on Long Island. Conroy delivered water to schools and businesses. “It was just a bunch of guys talking about a pipe dream,” until Beggen got laid off a couple months later, he said. “We decided that if we are ever going to do this, now would be the time.”
Beggen started delivering water, and they both started saving money.
Initially, the model centered on creating a 1950s experience with a vintage-like truck. They sold the truck when they visited Raleigh in early 2012 and learned it would be easier and cheaper to get downtown with a cart.
“On top of that, you can have two bikes for the price of one food truck,” Conroy said.
A Queens company, which made the Good Humor bikes in the 1920s, constructed the vision.
On June 1, 2012, they drove to Holly Springs, where they lived with their friend rent-free for four months.
They sought a city business license, insurance and a Pushcart Vending Permit, which allowed them to sell at an assigned spot downtown.
Initially, all the vending spots on Fayetteville Street were taken, so they sought one permit on East Martin Street outside The Mecca Restaurant.
“It was just a matter of introducing ourselves and showing people something they haven’t tried before,” Conroy said. “Or showing people who are familiar with it that they can get what they remember.”
On July 1, 2012, SweetWater Ices renewed one permit and added a second, securing spots on the 100 and 400 block of Fayetteville Street.
Customers started asking if SweetWater Ices would come to places such as weddings, businesses, festivals and fairs. It was invited to set up at American Tobacco Campus in Durham on Fridays and at the Durham Performance Arts Center for their Broadway series.
Beggen and Conroy moved into their own apartment in Morrisville in October 2012 and took a winter break from Fayetteville Street and American Tobacco. Conroy took a seasonal retail sales management job, and Beggen took a position as a substitute teacher in Durham. Over the winter, they listed all the events they wanted to attend during the spring and summer months and put application deadlines on a giant calendar. These events now make up the bulk of their business. At the end of March, The SweetWater carts returned to Fayetteville Street and American Tobacco campus. They will shut down again in October, but still be available for private and indoor events.
Next, they plan to start making and distributing their own Italian ice, then they want to open an event space.
“We want to make a fun place to not just come get ice, but hang out and do stuff,” Conroy said.