The Cut-Throat Business Of Being An Ice Cream Man

The ice cream van isn't just all chimes and happy children, it's a lucrative and cut-throat business as our man reveals exclusive insight into the trade...
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Despite our British summer, the ice cream vendors are roaming the streets up and down the country, playing their chimes on the 'round' and keeping school kids happy come 3:30pm when we all scream for the soft stuff. 'Mr Whippy', '99', 'pop-eye', 'screwball', we have all tried them and liked them, and, any vendor will tell you the profits are eye-popping, no need for rate rigging here.

I know because I used to run an ice-cream van for my best friend when I was studying at University a decade-ago. I remember being hustled by traffic wardens and police when I used to stop around places in central London trying to earn a living, but not only wardens and the Met, competition with other vendors is rife, and the stories of knives, screwdrivers and baseball bats being used just to fly-pitch go on.

The area around the London Eye and Westminister used to be particularly bad, I stayed away though, too risky. Instead I used to move to other 'secret locations' to ply a trade which is hardly regulated, but the law does state you can stay in one place for a maximum of 15 minutes before moving on.

A typical day would start at the garage, stock up, buy the ice cream mix from a place in Battersea and then drive into town for lunchtime trade. Find a decent place, ring the chime and wait for the tourists, commuters, office workers and students to come flocking for business until the authorities knock on the window and tell you to move or risk the van being 'seized' and 'destroyed' - no joke.

Competition with other vendors is rife, and the stories of knives, screwdrivers and baseball bats being used just to fly-pitch go on.

After that, it would be the school run, easy, find a school - not a private one - or the principal will come out and hit the van with an umbrella - and wait for the kids to come and buy one or cry all the way home because their mum said 'the ice cream costs less in Tesco', - yeah but Tesco don't do 'Mr Whippy's', you need a 20k Carpiggiani machine from Italy for that.

School run over, and it was time for the round - where the Ice Cream van speeds down residential streets and council estates in search of final takings for the day - this is where it gets interesting as kids would often ask for free ice cream and bubble gums. 'you got anything for 10p?', 'nah mate, this isn't a charity, know what I mean?'

Some kids were damn right rude and dangerous. One summer evening I was driving around Barnes, South West London on the round. Kids I knew turned sour when I refused to give them a free Mr Whippy. As I drove off one of the boys jumped on the serving ledge and was hanging onto the van for life as I drove off.

Luckily I noticed instantly when looking in the mirror. I stopped and had a moan at him, as had he fallen off the chances are he would have gone under the van - kids and ice cream - a matter of life and death.

Unless you have a licensed pitch to trade legally with public liability insurance, running an ice cream van is always getting harder. The low emission zone in London saw many traders forced to sell or scrap old vans and invest 50k in new ones to meet the emissions standards, others just changed career, one previous ice cream man is now a black taxi driver - me, I am trying to be a journalist.

However, if you want to make easy money by taking risks, then it's worth a shot as on some days the van would make up to £600, take away expenses, diesel and stock, about £100 and you are left with big money - no wonder things get ruthless in certain areas.

Recently I was browsing YouTube and there was a video where two vans doing the same round on the same street had a war, windows were smashed, vans were crashed. I had some run-ins here and there, but never a brawl over a 99 flake. Welcome to the dodgy world of the ice cream van.

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