The Sharp End: My day with the ice man

Scoop! Our man in the van Rhymer Rigby learns to churn a mean single cone...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ice-cream vans tend to be independently owned and I hadn't the foggiest about how to get in touch with an ice-cream vendor, other than flagging one down in the street. But every industry has its trade body and ice-cream is no exception, so I got on the blower to the Ice Cream Alliance and they helpfully provided me with a few numbers. I plumped for Steven's Ice Cream Van in Deal, Kent more or less at random.

Confusingly, Steven's Ice Cream van is run by a man called Melvin Nobbs. Melvin had bought the van second-hand from the eponymous Steven, and the re-sprayers wanted an inordinate sum to re-do the signage. So Steven's it stayed.

Inside it was bijou but impressively kitted out: hot and cold running water, a machine that churned the ice-cream, fridges for drinks and ice-lollies, and racks holding sweets and crisps - all suffused with a delightfully nostalgic sweetshop smell. It was also absolutely spotless: you could have eaten your '99' off the floor.

This fastidiousness extended to the product too. Melvin used a superior ice-cream brand from an Italian company. It cost a little more but, he said, customers could really taste the difference. There were, Nobbs said, real cowboys out there, their principal failings being appalling hygiene and cheap blends with that unmistakeable vegetable oil-meets-synthetic-emulsifiers taste.

After a cup of tea we headed out, first to a local junior school where kids queued up for their 99s. Kids being kids, the weird blue bubblegum sauce was favourite. A lot of councils, he said, wanted to ban vans outside schools (because of obesity) and if this happened many ice-cream vendors would go out of business. Although in this case, he'd probably just park round the corner.

We moved on to the secondary school, which let out later. Here, ice-creaming became an interesting lesson in applied economics. Cheaper freeze pops were more popular than cones - seemingly counter-intuitive. But when you get to 14, ice-cream has to compete with all sorts of other goods and services - everything from ringtones to cigarettes, alcopops and dope.

In fact, the ice-cream van proved a fascinating microcosm of the business world. Melvin did a 50p mini-cone that made very little money, as it wasn't much smaller than the £1 version, but it kept regular customers happy and loyal when they didn't have a quid to spend. And he sold a lot of low-priced sweets - if someone spends £1.75 on ice-cream, they will top their spend up to £2 if they can buy a few small items to mop up the difference.

Melvin sometimes does parties and functions too - although even a party of 100, for example, isn't financially viable unless he is paid for attendance on top of his take. Ice-creaming is a year-round business. And rain is far worse than cold for trade.

After the schools, we moved on into the innumerable cul-de-sacs that make up most of Deal's low to middle-income housing. Rich pickings - one girl bought an astonishing 30 freeze pops.

Deal is a seaside town, but we didn't go to the beach. Ice-cream vans are not allowed to park on the seafront. Humbug.

As things got quieter, I was allowed to do a little ice-creaming myself. The skill needed to make a cone is greater than that for pulling a pint of Guinness. But after a dozen tries, my singles were perfectly acceptable and my sprinkling technique not bad. I never progressed to the difficult double cones though, and the chocolate dip was a sauce (ha-ha) of constant anxiety for me.

Melvin told me a bit about himself. He'd run a taxi company, then someone suggested he get into ice-creaming. So he bought a van and hired a driver. He'd had to let the driver go, but decided he preferred ice-creaming to taxi-driving.

Ice-creaming isn't what it once was. In the 1970s, there were 60,000 ice-cream vans in the UK; now there are just 6,000. Locally, Deal's economic base has shrivelled and it is now a place where Londoners retire to, few of whom eat ice-cream; the town has only two vans. There is plenty of maddening red tape, too.

Still, it wasn't all bad. Despite the patchy weather, we had a pretty good day, with the chimes drawing punters out right to the end at 7.30pm. The reward? A daily take of £130-£140. Never mind his customers, Melvin isn't going to get too fat on that. But he'd rather be working in the van than anywhere else. Recently, an old ice-cream man who had hung up his scoop to work on Eurostar asked him how he put up with it: 'I told him you don't even think about it - you just go out ice-creaming.'

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