Scooping up old-school nostalgia with Kayla’s Kones

Nikishiea McKnight launched her third business, Kayla’s Kones, last month. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON –– “I remember when I was a kid, my friends and I would hear the ice-cream truck music, and we would stop and take off running through Hillcrest,” Nikishiea McKnight said.

The entrepreneur always had a preference for the Nutty Buddy. 

She now serves it on her own ice cream truck, Kayla’s Kones, which McKnight launched last month. It’s been two years in the making, as life tends to be busy in her world. She runs Kayla’s Korner Child Enrichment Center and K&K Gift Wrap, the latter of which she started with her daughter, Kayla — the namesake of her enterprises.

“She is 15,” McKnight said, “and she helps me run the truck and the gift-wrapping businesses.”

(The two design specialty gift wrap for Christmas, birthdays and other holidays.)

McKnight opened her childcare center in 2015 at Castle and 8th streets. She said Covid forced the daycare’s closure from April to October 2020. Even though most clients returned, she still took a financial hit.

“The families that did not [come back] just didn’t enroll their kids back in any other daycare, period,” McKnight said.

When the holiday season rolled around, K&K Gift Wrap helped sustain some of the income loss. McKnight then decided to move forward to get Kayla’s Kones up and running. She bought the truck in 2019 from a man who operated it in Burgaw, fully functioning and loaded with freezers and refrigerators, air conditioning and stainless steel counters.

“The only reason he was selling it was because he was moving to Florida and he couldn’t take it with him,” she said.

Having an additional business — specifically, an ice cream truck — appealed to McKnight for financial reasons, but also out of sheer nostalgia.

“My grandmother used to sell ice cream and drinks in Hillcrest,” McKnight recalled, where she lived until she was 16. “I used to help her scoop it and put it on cones, count the money, help her purchase it, so this has really come back full circle for me.”

She decked out the truck in bright colors — purples, pinks and greens — and dots and stripes to make it noticeable when it’s set up in the parking lot of her daycare center on Saturdays.

“There’s a lot of traffic that comes through,” she said.

McKnight focuses on old-school offerings that almost every kid will have some memory of enjoying, complete with juice that drips down to their elbows during sweltering summer months. Strawberry shortcake, red, white and blue pops, orange creamsicles, ice cream sandwiches — McKnight carries it all. She also will start scooping eight flavors of old-fashioned Hershey’s ice cream this weekend.

“I just ordered a new freezer,” she said. 

Already, she had to shift some of her inventory, though she’s only been operating for a month. In the age of Covid, shortages seemingly affect the ice cream industry too.  

“We only have Powderpuff Girls faces right now,” McKnight said, in reference to one of the most popular items on the Kayla’s Kones menu. Normally, she carries multiple kinds of popsicles with imprints of kids’ cartoon characters on them.

“SpongeBob and Space Jam are no longer available,” she said. “So I had to take those off the menu.”

She also had to replace the popular vanilla bar with fresh fruit bars.

Kayla’s Kones ice cream truck will park at local arts and farmers’ markets, as well as at McKnight’s primary daycare business at 8th and Castle streets (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

It’s a small hiccup in an otherwise happy business. She focuses primarily on doing private events and birthday parties, and plans to add more arts and farmers markets into the schedule as well. 

Just don’t expect to track down the truck through a cul-de-sac anytime soon. “I don’t go cruising through neighborhoods,” McKnight said. 

Ice cream truck music is not allowed to be played within city limits, according to City of Wilmington spokesperson Jennifer Dandron. The ordinance has been on the books for 38 years; it went into effect June 28, 1982.

“Additionally, this isn’t just for ice cream trucks,” Dandron clarified.

The noise ordinance doesn’t allow any loud projections of sound — from a business truck or individual vehicle — in neighborhoods to solicit or draw in attention to a business or a person.

McKnight still plays the music parked on her own property or at events. In fact, she was one of 100 ice cream truck owners to win national brand Good Humor’s music-box contest, which launched in spring.

In August 2020, Wu Tang’s Rza wrote a new jingle to better represent ice cream trucks in the modern era. Rza revealed in a video the most well-known song, “Turkey in the Straw,” that played on trucks nationwide throughout the last century has racist roots. It was popular at minstrel shows in Europe and was rewritten to include bigoted lyrics in the mid-20th century. Rza said he wanted to strip its tainted past and bring joy back to it.

“The ice cream box that they gave us has 50 new songs,” McKnight revealed. “We play it and the kids love it. We also have a bubble machine.”

McKnight sells around 20 ice cream novelties and scoops for $2 to $4.50. She will be set up Saturday, July 17, at Northern Regional Park in Castle Hayne from 1 p.m. – 3 p.m., and then at her own business, Kayla’s Korner (816 Castle St.), from 3:30 p.m. – 6 p.m.

Kayla’s Kones’ upcoming schedule:
July 24 — Kayla’s Korner, 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.
July 26 — New Hanover County Courthouse, 12:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
July 30 — New Hanover County Courthouse, 12:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Aug. 7 — Kayla’s Korner, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., with free backpack giveaway and ice cream to the first 100 people
Aug. 14 — Pender Community Market, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. 

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