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Ice Cream Theft On The Rise In New York City


It's been a hot summer, and with summer comes crime and ice cream. From NPR's Planet Money podcast, Nick Fountain has a story about where the two meet.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: Robert Montalvo is a manager at a New York supermarket called Gristedes, and lately he's been watching the freezer aisle.

ROBERT MONTALVO: Ben and Jerry's, Haagen-Dazs, Talenti...

FOUNTAIN: Got the Lactaid.

MONTALVO: ...Lactaid, Friendly's...

FOUNTAIN: You got a lot of ice cream.

MONTALVO: Yes. There's a lot of ice cream in the market, all different brands - yes.

FOUNTAIN: Earlier this summer Montalvo started getting emails from other managers telling him that people were stealing ice cream, lots of it. So he gathered his employees and said, look out for thieves, and don't let them get away.

MONTALVO: If you were able to stop them and recover the merchandise, then it is a successful event, you know?

FOUNTAIN: So you had a plan.

MONTALVO: We had a plan for it, yes.

FOUNTAIN: So when on a hot summer day the call came, Montalvo was ready.

MONTALVO: One of my employees came here, and they saw the two individuals pulling ice cream out of a freezer. They let me know about it, and then we have the game plan in effect that had everybody waiting for them so they don't go out through the door.

FOUNTAIN: They ditched the ice cream, got away, but Montalvo caught them on camera.

This is the evidence.

MONTALVO: Yeah, this is the evidence - two shopping carts, one cart with Haagen-Dazs ice cream and another one with Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

FOUNTAIN: That's a lot of ice cream.

MONTALVO: Ninety pints in that case. Six dollars a pint, we're talking about $540.

FOUNTAIN: Gristedes, the supermarket, said this has to stop. Montalvo holds up a sign.

What do we got?

MONTALVO: Wanted - $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the individuals below or of anyone stealing ice cream from Gristedes.

FOUNTAIN: Five-thousand dollars.

MONTALVO: Five-thousand dollars. So be alert. Maybe you can win.

FOUNTAIN: Economists say that people steal things that are easy to sell, that aren't traceable but have a good value for their size. Think detergents and razors, diamonds and ice cream. But there's one problem with stealing ice cream - the heat. The day of the crime, temperatures were in the 80s. Where all these thieves taking their ice cream? I ask the police.

FOUNTAIN: Deputy Chief Joe Dowling (ph), commanding officer of the Grand Lawsons Division, New York City Police Department.

FOUNTAIN: And I'd imagine you don't think about ice cream thefts that much.

DEPUTY CHIEF JOE DOWLING: You know, what it - ice cream theft is important. It's part of our organized retail theft.

FOUNTAIN: Organized retail theft - Dowling says there's a pattern here. He says there have been more than 250 ice cream theft complaints this year alone - 130 arrests. Here's the pattern.

DOWLING: They take them. They put them into bags, and then they flee out of the store. They then take that ice cream that they sold. They bring it to bodegas and smaller grocery stores.

FOUNTAIN: He says the bodegas, the corner stores - they buy ice cream for 10 to 25 cents on the dollar, make a pretty profit. I had to test this theory.

Robert, good to see you again.

MONTALVO: Same here. How are you?

FOUNTAIN: Great. And thefts since we last talked?

MONTALVO: Believe it or not, no.

FOUNTAIN: I'm here because I'm going to try an experiment. I'm just going to buy five pints of ice cream and go try to sell them at a bodega.

MONTALVO: Well, that's on you. (Laughter) I have nothing to do with it.

FOUNTAIN: Just up the street, there's a classic New York deli - behind the counter, Wada Ali (ph). He says he gets offers all the time, people trying to sell him stolen stuff - but ice cream - no way.

WADA ALI: I make sure it's cold, come from the truck, has freezer, stuff like that, you know?

FOUNTAIN: Ali sells pies for 650, so I make him an offer.

What if I told you I'd give it to you for five.

ALI: Oh, I don't feel comfortable about it, you know?


ALI: No.


ALI: No.


ALI: No.

FOUNTAIN: One dollar.

ALI: No, no, no, but anybody want to buy ice cream for a dollar - see, nobody.

FOUNTAIN: Do you have a spoon?

FOUNTAIN: Yes, you want a spoon? I give you.

FOUNTAIN: Nick Fountain, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Fountain produces and reports for Planet Money. Since he joined the team in 2015, he's reported stories on pears, black pepper, ice cream, chicken, and hot dogs (twice). Come to think of it, he reports on food a whole lot. But he's also driven the world's longest yard sale, uncovered the secretive group that controls international mail, and told the story of a crazy patent scheme that involved an acting Attorney General.