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[May 16, 2006]
WHEN THE ICE VAN COMETH Sun blazing in the sky and the jingle of chimes still have us queuing round the block for the ice cream van. But energetic marketing by the lolly giants means small vendors are feeling the queeze. As competition hots up for this su
(The Sunday Herald Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)THE ice cream van is a joy to behold. Parked halfway up a hill called Swallow Crescent, standing in a patch of evening sunlight between the shadows cast by semi-detached houses, painted with eye-popping colours and convivial slogans which use exclamations instead of question marks - "Have You Been Rippled Yet!" - it must qualify as a work of art, because it makes you feel proud to be human.
A line of customers winds down to the bottom of the street. It consists of three adults, 14 children (four of them on bikes, two on scooters, two carrying heavy-duty pump-action water pistols) and a little dog. If none of them is "screaming" for ice-cream, as the song goes, it may be because they know, trust, and respect the man who drives this van. "He's a very good icey man, " says one girl while she waits for her Harkie's Wonderwhippy cone. (Actually, she sings it. ) John Harkins is indeed the very best icey man, having won first prize for UK Mobiler Of The Year at the Ice Cream Alliance Annual Exhibition in 2005. This suburban estate in Inverkip is the second stop on a daily route which runs from his Wemyss Bay base through a chain of towns and villages down the Clyde coast.
And he may be one of the last in this profession, or any other, to love his work enough to take inordinate pride in it.
"Vans like mine are at the forefront of the ice cream trade, " says Harkins. "Ask anyone what comes into their head when they think of ice cream, and it's not the big supermarket freezers, it's the vans that come down the street. They just know that ice cream always tastes nicer from a van." He accepts this may be a case of "mind over matter", since his famous Wonderwhippy is essentially the product of a standard prepacked synthetic mix poured through a Taylor Softech freezing machine, powered by a 10 KVA diesel generator. But it is still incontestably true.
And there is no real reason why the six bright multicoloured stripes added to the soft white stuff by a device called the Rainbow Ripple Juicer should make it taste even better, but somehow they do.
When everyone has been served their 99s, or slush drinks, or cigarettes, or 20p sweetie mixtures, we move on quickly to the next stage of the round.
"They'll be waiting, " Harkins says of his regulars, and they are, with big smiles. The past few days have been good for business, as summer suddenly broke out even here in the rainiest area of the rainiest country in Europe. Who knows how long it will last?
"If the sun shone like this for six months, " says Harkins, "I probably wouldn't have to go out in the winter. But it never, ever happens like that."
AT the age of just 24, he's been doing this since he was a kid. Both his parents ran ice cream vans around Greenock as a double act in the 1970s his father's was blue, his mother's pink; they called themselves Mr and Mrs Top Hat. Harkins bought his own first van as a teenager, with pocket money saved from selling lollies and candyfloss, and paid someone else to drive him around. "It's in my blood, " he says. He has since read up on the history, and carries reference books around in his van with titles like 50 Years Of Ice Cream Vehicles and The Mr Whippy Story. But as hard as he works 16 hours every day except Christmas and New Year and as well as it seems to be paying off tonight, he also knows that a tradition is coming to an end. "On the street, " says Harkins, "this is a dying trade." When his parents were still in action, there were more than 20,000 vans serving ice cream across the UK. Today, there are fewer than 4000. And while the weather has rarely been in their favour, there are many other forces now acting against them.
The so-called Glasgow Ice Cream Wars of the mid1980s reportedly had less to do with frozen confectionary than with the drugs and stolen goods then being trafficked from certain vans on certain routes, causing rival traders to shotgun each others' windscreens, and culminating in the notorious murder by arson of an entire family in Ruchazie. The real and ongoing ice cream war is global, non-violent and entirely above board, fought over retail price and market share, and reaching an ever-rising annual pitch through the summer months.
"What we call the 'wrapped impulse' market can be very competitive, " says Mark Gossage, chief executive of trade association, the Ice Cream Alliance, "and I think it will get especially so this year.
The big boys will really be slugging it out." Only two companies match that description. There is the market leader Wall's, who produce up to 40-per cent of all ice creams sold in the UK, and can draw on the resources of their mighty international parent company Unilever to promote major house brands such as Magnum, Cornetto, and Solero.
And then there is Richmond Foods. Founded in 1985 by Yorkshire dairy farmer Jonathan Roper, this company has spent two decades buying up smaller regional ice cream suppliers, eventually taking over Nestle and Rowntree's stock of lollies, which include Smarties pops, Screwball cones, and best-selling favourite, Fab on a stick. Last week Richmond Foods were themselves bought over by the American equity firm Oaktree Capital, a fact which is unlikely to slow their progress. "The Richmond Treats brand has recently started coming back into the market in a more aggressive way, " says Gossage. "Basically, these major players do battle by offering bigger and bigger trade discounts to retailers. I've seen those discounts rise to 60-per cent on large buys. We're big believers in letting the market sort itself out, but would probably prefer to see a bit more stability. The industry can't grow if the bottom end is continually being put into promotions, rather than factories. This kind of competition might eventually become a longterm threat to the business." For now, though, the business is robust turning over pounds-1 billion every year in the UK even as the very word "business" threatens to take some of the democratic magic away from ice cream in general. Its very existence surely constitutes one of humanity's greatest, if least useful, achievements. Myths have sprung up around its origins, in the absence of any hard evidence about that long distant metaphorical moment when mankind first held a block of burning cold ice in one hand, squeezed the teat of a cow with the other, and shouted to the heavens: "From this mixture shall come universal pleasure!" Folk legends say, for example, that the Chinese King Tang of Shang commissioned 94 "ice men" to blend a new dish from buffalo milk, flour and camphor circa 620 AD, and that the rogue Italian Marco Polo stole this recipe (along with the formula for spaghetti) during his later wanderings. Such stories are fun, but unverifiable, and the documented history of ice cream records a drier process of scientific, economic and industrial development.
First it was realised that food could be cooled with ice, later that salt and ice could be productively mixed, and eventually, mechanised refrigeration was invented by German engineer Carl von Linde in the 1870s. That technology has gradually become so affordable, it's commonplace, and ice cream can be eaten all year round. In other words, any battle between modern manufacturers won't necessarily be won or lost this summer. Freezers and thermostats mean almost every household can regulate its own ice cream season "47-per cent of ice-cream is consumed in winter these days, " says Gossage. "It might be cold outside, but it can still be 25infinity centigrade indoors." This has been better news for some than others.
According to Wall's publicity manager Will McIntosh, their ultimate goal is to "sell with absolute consistency from January to December". But the weather still affects those sales. The Wall's Cornetto was first launched in 1964, but only became sublimely popular during the stifling British heatwave of 1976.
The most recent boom came with the long hot summer of 2003. Market research group Mintel have since established that 16infinity centigrade is the optimum average temperature for public ice cream buying frenzies, and major supermarket chains apparently employ teams of "trade planners" who monitor Met Office weather reports so that they can rapidly supply any sudden demand. Everyone invested in ice cream must now be waiting and hoping.
"Oh absolutely, " says McIntosh. "We check the weather index ourselves. We put feet on the street to make sure retailers are well stocked at all points of sale, and our freezers are prominent. The key to the impulse market is to capture the customer's mind at that moment on a nice day, when they see the freezer, they see the ice-cream, and they think, 'Right, I want one of those, now.'" He freely admits that Wall's try to undercut the competition "early in the season, to get our products out of the wholesalers and into the retailers' consciousness as quickly as possible". He also admits, in the abstract, that it would be "ideal" to have Wall's products occupy every freezer and mouth in the world. "But we understand that it's good to have a certain number of rival products around. And of course there are laws which restrict how much of one company's product can dominate the available outlets." There is no fear, then, of an ice cream monopoly. But no supplier smaller than these giants can compete on the same level.
"We're seeing fewer and fewer medium-sized ice cream makers, " says Gossage. "The industry is being polarised between the big boys who have the resources to get bigger, and the smaller operations who are condensing down to dairy farm shops and retail parlours." Scotland, he concedes, may be a bit of an exception. "Because you guys really love your ice cream." Statistically, that's undeniable. This country consumes around 10 litres per person per year (up to four litres more than the rest of the UK).
This may relate to certain widely lamented tendencies in the national diet, but might also have something to do with Scottish social history. When the master ice cream artisans of Italy were forced by famine and war to emigrate into our port cities from Lucca, Frosinone and La Spezia in the early 20th century, they took their sweet white dream with them, and built new lives on it. Their exotic products were held in contempt by church leaders out of antiCatholicism, plain racism, or a presumption that such needless deliciousness must be immoral (one described those parlours as "perfect iniquities of hell itself"), but mainly because they were so popular.
In 1905 there were 336 ice cream joints in Glasgow alone. Although most of them are gone, ScottishItalian entrepeneur David Equi says the "artisan tradition" has persisted since his own grandfather arrived to open one of those businesses in the 1920s.
"You just have to watch for the trends, " says Equi.
"And it looks like upmarket, destination ice cream parlours are on the way back in." This can only be to his benefit, since he owns the award-winning Equi's of Hamilton, and is a player in the consortium which recently bought Scotland's most famous defunct ice cream business, Nardini's of Largs. His plans for the new Nardini's, which opens later this year, include a "micro-factory" in the middle of the room, where the ice cream will be made in plain view. "Things have changed a lot, " he says. "American ice creams have had a big influence with all their different flavours, and the supermarkets are now a big factor. But you adapt to these things, and make space for yourself as a niche manufacturer. Ice cream is a bit like water people like to buy regionally. As a result we've been able to supply Equi's to 16 local Asda stores; not bad, considering it's still made in the back of our cafe." Mackie's of Aberdeenshire, meanwhile, "competes directly with the multinationals like Wall's", according to spokesperson Karin Hayhow. "Of course we can't match them for resources, " she says, "so we have worked hard on creating our own niche as the nation's local ice cream." Lovingly harvested from Mackie's own field of particularly placid and accommodating Jersey cows, on a farm where much of the power is generated by windmill, this acutely Scottish ice cream now shifts half of its stock south of the Border and exports to South Korea.
NONE of these trends bodes well for the old ice cream vans. Not the move upmarket, which has seen the world domination of pricier items such as Wall's Magnum range, now selling in sufficient quantities to stretch around the planet almost five times every year. Not the rise in health-conciousness, which has resulted in lower-fat Magnums, Skinny Cow diet lollies from Richmond Foods, and Mackie's new calorie counted sorbets.
And certainly not the hot combination of politics, nutrition and education, which recently led local councils such as West Dunbartonshire to refuse new licences unless mobile snack vendors agree to stay at least 600 yards away from school gates. Gossage calls this "unjustified, unfair and impractical"; Joe Cox of West Dunbartonshire argues it's a positive step. "Recommendations have been made by the Scottish Executive, " says Cox genially. "And we agree with them. Although it was probably Jamie Oliver who kicked off the whole shooting match." Speaking from the spanking clean, colourfully stocked and custom-built interior of his Wonderwhippy wagon as we drive around Inverkip tonight, Harkins sounds indifferent to this development, simply because he doesn't do business near schools.
But if he did, he suggests: "I would try to do it properly. Talk to the school, agree to sell healthy sandwiches and fresh orange juice." The ice cream man of the year will broadly agree that these vans have slowly been run off the road by the weather, the supermarkets, home freezers, the general break-up of communities, and the corporations "who've gotten so big they've lost their touch".
He stocks Wall's products "because they're good, and they sell" but unlike many others, he has refused to become one of their mobile franchise operators.
"There's too many stipulations, " he says. "I don't like their colours. I'd just rather stay independent." Harkins's extraordinarily infectious passion for this vocation he wants to know if I like the vinyl whippy graphics on his hubcaps, if I'm curious about his chimes (pop hits and old ice cream classics recorded on a clockwork music box and downloaded on to iPod), if I can imagine the various child-pleasing sailboat and spaceship-shaped desserts he has designed on whims makes him reluctant to bad-mouth others in the trade. But if anyone has ruined the livelihood of ice cream men, he thinks it may have been the drivers who just haven't cared enough.
"There have been too many cowboys in this game.
Too many dirty vans selling toilet rolls and dog food, everything but ice cream. Because of them I think the rest of us are sort of looked down on in Scotland." What Harkins offers is "a million miles away from that", and he shows it as a matter of routine. The professional pride. The artisan's sense of invention, when most new ice creams are riskfree frozen versions of familiar chocolate bars. And as he says himself, "the banter".
When one little girl is stricken with indecision on finding herself at the front of the queue, Harkins points over her shoulder at a more mature customer.
"Would you think faster?" he says cheerfully. "Look how old that woman's got waiting for her cone. She was four years old when she came out to the van." Even so, selling ice cream can be "like pulling teeth". The cones sell on nights like tonight, but still not as much as the cheap little bags of sweets. And in January, Harkins spends more on fuel than he puts in the till. The middle-class kids have less money to spend "because their parents are tied up with mortgages". "You make better money in the harder places, where people still all know each other, and they live more day-to-day." Can Harkins see a time when he's the last of the icey men? "Aye, on the street at least. There will come a day when they're almost gone. Then you won't have that moment on a Sunday afternoon, when you drive into the street and put the chimes on and see the curtains twitching. That drama will be gone, that sparkle. But I'll still be around."
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