CINCINNATI -- "Life is hard enough, your ice cream should be soft," read the words painted across Green Man Twist's custom-made soft-serve trailer.
"It's a hard-ice cream town, and it's also (that) life isn't easy," said Mark Leeman, one of four owners of the trailer -- based in Walnut Hills' Green Man Park -- along with his wife, Anne, Katy Dietz and RH Sweeten.
The mobile business had a quiet "soft" opening during weekends in April, but it is now open every day for the season, weather permitting.
"Maybe we'll do something outrageous like stand in the rain and party with ice cream," Sweeten joked. "That's what this thing is all about -- going outside the box."
Sweeten and Leeman, who work together in the neighborhood doing re-entry housing for people getting out of prison and rehab, met about nine years ago, when they were neighbors in Walnut Hills. They shared a fence, which Sweeten said he used to hop over to hang out with Leeman.
"I bring the book theory, and RH brings the Walnut Hills and people wisdom. It really is a good partnership," said Leeman, an associate professor of communication studies at Northern Kentucky University.
Four years ago, the men started talking about starting a business in the neighborhood, and ice cream seemed to be the most viable. Sweeten, who had mulled the idea for an ice cream business for years, has spent most of his life in Walnut Hills, so he has seen the neighborhood's peaks and valleys.
"I wanted to bring the neighborhood back together," Sweeten said. "We started thinking about what makes people happy: good music, ice cream and people mingling."
Dietz met Leeman and the others through a student group at the University of Cincinnati called MUD (Mission Urban Development), for which she would volunteer to help fix up houses in Walnut Hills. She developed Green Man Twist last spring as part of Over-the-Rhine's MORTAR program, which teaches entrepreneurship classes and helps people develop business ideas. But it took the group another year to launch Green Man Twist.
Walnut Hills statuary
Green Man Twist sells standard dairy-whip fare such as slushies, flurries, milkshakes, glaciers (ice cream and a slushy), sundaes, banana splits and its signature cone, the Green Man, which is covered with green sprinkles, candy eyes and a flavored dip. The most expensive item is a large sundae ($5), and the cheapest is a bag of chips (75 cents).
"Everybody likes ice cream, and everybody can afford it," Leeman said. "We have a dollar cone."
The truck's namesake is the mythical Green Man statue, which watches over the park. The building with the statue on it was torn down in the '80s, but the slab remained, Leeman said, and the Green Man is a male version of Mother Nature. The park used to be a vacant lot until the city transformed it into a lush green space this year.
Michael Jackson and other singers routinely blast over the trailer's speakers while customers sit at picnic tables and eat their frozen desserts. Though stationed in the park most of the time, Green Man Twist has a mobile license, which requires it to move every 40 days.
A social experiment
Green Man isn't Leeman's first business. In the late 90s, he worked for a nongovernmental organization and ran an American restaurant in Bulgaria.
"We had the first burritos and nachos (in Bulgaria)," he said. "We brought ranch dressing powder in our suitcases. Ice cream is a lot easier than a full restaurant."
Sweeten and Leeman said they want to use ice cream as a means to bring together all walks of life together in the neighborhood, like a social experiment. Walnut Hills is "in flux," Leeman said, citing this spring's closure of the Walnut Hills Kroger and the opening of businesses such as barbecue eatery Just Q'in.
Leeman said he would like to see the neighborhood integrate, similar to Northside.
"We're going to fight for a place for everybody," Leeman said.
With both ice cream and life, Sweeten follows his own adage and wants others to do so, too: "Keep everything simple," he said. "If you simplify everything in your life, then life is great."
"And when he says simple, that's a relationship thing," Leeman said. "The problem is we don't know each other."
"People look at me and see criminal, because they don't know me," Sweeten said. "We don't get to know each other, and we always draw our own conclusions. One of my biggest things is to get to know each other. I mingle with people and welcome them, and I already see it working."
Can chocolate-vanilla twist cones usher in social change?
"It's hard work, but fun and interesting work," Sweeten said. "It's the kind of thing that drives you to keep going, because you have this hope it'll really work if you just stay optimistic."
Green Man Twist
Green Man Park, 770 E. McMillan Ave., Walnut Hills
Hours: 2 p.m.-dark Monday through Sunday (weather permitting)