Ryan McNesby pushes his makeshift cart, two coolers propped up by plastic pipes on oversize wheels, up and down the beach in Sea Isle City, N.J., seven days a week as he hawks cold treats under the simmering sun.

"It's the best job in the world," said McNesby, 24. "Can't beat being on the beach all day, man."

It's a rite of a New Jersey Shore summer to hear the call of the ice cream man trudging along the sand.

But the tradition of mostly older military veterans selling the treats is fading, and the beach-based ice cream brigade is undergoing a youth movement.

Call it the new era of the Fudgy Wudgy.

Ryan McNesby helps Cecelia Colella (middle), 3, and her sister Madeline Colella, 5, make their selections.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Ryan McNesby helps Cecelia Colella (middle), 3, and her sister Madeline Colella, 5, make their selections.

"We still got a couple older guys," said McNesby, who is into his fourth year, "but there are not as many as there used to be."

"Fudgy Wudgy," for the uninitiated, is the traditional call of the Shore ice cream vendor as he makes his way along the beach.

Since the early 1900s, a state law gave veterans a strange advantage: special preference when it came to selling ice cream products on beaches along the Shore. Exactly why is not clear, but while other veteran benefits have come and gone, this particular perk remained.

The law did not bar towns from granting ice cream licenses beyond those it gave to vets. Yet by the 1950s and '60s, nearly every Shore town's Fudgy Wudgy workforce was made up exclusively of veterans.

But in the 1990s, towns started to see the licenses, as many as 15 per town, as cures for rising taxes. Slowly, towns stopped renewing licenses for individual salespeople and put them out to bid, typically ending with one contract with a single vending company. The companies hired their own sales force, which usually translated into young guys working for lower wages.

In Stone Harbor, there are a lot of teenagers. In Sea Isle, college students, recent college graduates, young teachers.

There are some holdouts, including Brigantine, Atlantic City, and North Wildwood, where individual licenses are still awarded and veterans get preferential treatment.

In Ventnor, ice cream vendors have mostly been veterans and retired firefighters, paying $55 a year for individual licenses. Earlier this year, the city proposed to change that by ending contracts with its 15 vendors and instead holding an auction.

That quickly caused an uproar from residents loyal to their longtime ice cream vendors.

Debbie Silverstone of Cherry Hill, who has had a house in Ventnor for more than a decade, said the town's culture includes seeing the same faces on the same beach, a mini-beach community within the larger community.

"You get to know the people around you," she said. "You get pretty loyal."

She only bought from her favorite salesman, John McLaughlin, who last year celebrated his 50th, and final, year in the job.

Her kids worked for McLaughlin, serving as runners, helping him re-up his supply.

At the end of summer 2017, about 20 of John Mclaughlin’s best customers, led by Debbie Silverstone (right), gathered in matching shirts on the Ventnor beach.
Debbie Silverstone
At the end of summer 2017, about 20 of John Mclaughlin’s best customers, led by Debbie Silverstone (right), gathered in matching shirts on the Ventnor beach.

At the end of last summer, about 20 of McLaughlin's best customers, led by Silverstone, gathered in matching red shirts on the Ventnor beach and surprised him with an anniversary party. A small acknowledgment of the end of an era.

This year she has noticed a crop of new and younger salespeople. And also a lot more.

"It's not always the same guys," she said. "It's just a new world. I don't think people care as much anymore, but people genuinely cared about John."

So now she has a new guard, and new relationships to form.

"Either that, or I think people are to the point now, with John not here, they just say, 'I guess I'll take whoever.' "

McNesby, who grew up in Sea Isle, graduated from Stockton University in May.

While he considers his options, he's decided he'll do this job as long as he can.

"Until my girlfriend yells at me," he said.