Entrepreneurs are expected to hustle and do a bit of everything. When one runs a food cart, however, it brings a whole new meaning to the word “hustle.”
Allen “Uncle Al” Plumber doesn’t have a wide variety on his menu. What he offers, though, is an experience that hits the spot, wherever he may be.
Plumber runs Uncle Al’s Ice Cream and Uncle Al’s Street Hot Dogs in Danville. Uncle Al’s Ice Cream began two years ago, and upon popular request, Plumber expanded to add hot dogs earlier this year. Uncle Al’s Ice Cream typically runs seasonally from March to November, “depending on how the weather is,” he said. “Sometimes, I may do a few events in December. With hot dogs, I plan to be year round.”
The cart began on a tricycle with a large freezer attached to the front, which could hold up to 500 pieces of ice cream. With his free-standing hot dog cart, Plumber can hold 500-600 hot dogs and sausages of various types.
“Most days, I start my day off on my hot dog cart,” he said, “typically, with 3-4 cases of hot dogs,” or about 320 he added.
Not to worry, though. Uncle Al’s loyal customers can get both—lunch and dessert. Al uses his Ford F-150 to carry both carts.
At lunch time, Uncle Al can be found in the river district, usually at the corner of Main and Craghead streets in downtown Danville.
“My ice cream cart is on wheels, so I’m able to move around,” when selling frozen wares, he said. However, “You can’t really move the hot dog cart around like the ice cream cart can.”
Plumber got the idea for Uncle Al’s Ice Cream when he started giving it out to kids at True Holiness-Apostolic Church on Southampton Avenue after service. That’s also where his business got its name. Kids started calling him Uncle Al, so “it seemed to fit when the time came to start a business, to call it Uncle Al’s,” he said.
After a couple of years as the River District’s resident Ice Cream Man, Uncle Al’s clientele asked for more.
“I was out riding about, and a guy actually approached me and said, ‘We need some hot dogs now.’” Plumber knew this was the sound of opportunity knocking. “When you become an entrepreneur, you kind of listen to the public.”
One advantage Plumber had that many businesses didn’t have was a certain degree of immunity to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The good thing, because the ice cream is outside, the pandemic didn’t hurt me too bad,” he said. “Any events that were outside, I was able to participate, so that alone was good for me. When everything else was going bad, ice cream was still kind of thriving.”
And thrive he does. So much so, in fact, that people regularly ask him to continue to add to what’s already in his loaded cart.
“They come up wanting burgers, but I’m a hot dog cart,” he explains. “That’s not to say that I’m never going to expand, but for this season, hot dogs are working.”
“It’s a lot to keep up,” he adds.
Before taking on his latest challenge, Plumber was a member of the Danville Fire Department for eight years. While he did that, he felt called to a career in counseling, so he pursued a degree in psychology and Christian counseling from Liberty University.
Plumber, a man who feels called to help others, also worked on staff at Danville-Pittsylvania County Community Services before his entrepreneurial spirit took hold.
“Initially, I was going to counsel. But Uncle Al’s Ice Cream got birthed, and then Uncle Al’s Street Hot Dogs got birthed, and they sort of got swapped.”
Much like the ice cream business, Plumber believes certain things in life are seasonal. Therefore, the dream of counseling didn’t go away just because he has a successful business.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the mind and helping people,” said Plumber, who is also a certified life coach. “I still desire to be a counselor, it’s just not number one right now.”
Either way, Plumber always feels called to help, even if it’s helping keep people fed. “In everything I do, I find myself in the field of servitude and helping people,” he said.
That’s why regardless of whether it may seem like Plumber’s various enterprises differ from one another, he believes everything he does is something he is called to do.
“I’m a faith-based person,” he explains. “I’m a firm believer of when you know who you are and what you were created for, you don’t go searching for things outside of who you’re supposed to be. That doesn’t mean you don’t try new things, but when you work the gifts God has given you, then you prosper.”
Uncle Al’s is already getting booked for the summer, Plumber said. He will head to the food truck rodeo on June 4, a children’s festival on June 18, and possibly at the July 4 festivities at Carrington Pavilion in Danville. Plumber takes bookings where he dresses up as superheroes (with ice cream in tow, of course) at birthday parties. He also does a lot with the River District Association.
Plumber can effectively sum up his career, whether it’s being a firefighter, counselor, working with disabled adults or selling ice cream and hot dogs. His philosophy is simple: “No skill is wasted. Everything has a purpose,” he said.
And right now, his purpose involves delivering smiles in the form of hot dogs and ice cream, whether the time for that is long or short.
“Things have seasons and times,” he said. “You have to stay close to God to stay in the right season in your life. For that reason, the ice cream and the hot dogs, I feel like I’m in the right season. When it’s time for that season to change, God will let me know.”