What's It Like To Be An Ice Cream Seller In London?

Kyra Hanson
By Kyra Hanson Last edited 6 months ago
What's It Like To Be An Ice Cream Seller In London?

"I remember selling my first ice cream. It was a nerve-wracking day for me. I was young so there was tonnes of pressure to get it right. It was a 99 and it came out terrible. But we had a laugh about it and I made a new one."

Danny Trigg was just 13 years old when he started working in the ice cream van with John Bonar, head of the Piccadilly Whip fleet of vans, one of the biggest in the industry. "We both got to eat a lot of ice creams back then 'cause I made so many wrong ones".

We meet Danny one Sunday evening at Piccadilly Whip's burgundy kiosk opposite Tower Hill station. He's been up since 5am, but still has a smile on his face, the kind of toothy grin you'd expect from a guy who gets to eat one ice cream a day (or more, if we're being honest). Danny was born in east London, but his family moved to Essex when he was five. 15 years have passed since he first went to work with John. Now he's manager of the company, married to the boss's daughter with one kid, and another on the way. Not bad for a 28 year old.

Piccadilly Whip has been serving punters since 1963. Photo: Kyra Hanson. (2017)

Danny is polite and unassuming, yet obviously passionate about his product and the customers. "I always try to make people happy, that's my job, to make everyone I serve feel special," he says.

There was one lady who stood out when we had the pitch on Westminster Bridge. She used to come twice a week to buy an ice cream. She was about 88 years old and mentally not all there, so we'd help her to get her across the road and walk her back again so she wouldn't get knocked over. Every time she came, she'd written a new poem for us. She was a nice lady and we tried to help her out as much as we could.

"I don’t suppose anyone grows up wanting to be an ice cream man. I haven’t got no qualifications but this is something I’m good at. I’m a firm believer that if you’re nice to customers, they can’t be difficult. You can’t have an argument with someone if they’re being nice to you". Aside from being a people pleaser, what does he look for when he's hiring his summer staff? "You don’t need qualifications from college, university, or GCSEs. You just need to be able to handle customers and a bit of maths, cause you’re adding up orders all the time in your head, cause we still use cash tills."

This kiosk at Tower Hill station is open seven days a week throughout the year and only closes on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Photo: Kyra Hanson (2017)

The council has since withdrawn Piccadilly Whip's Westminster pitch but you might have encountered its sky-blue and custard cream-coloured vans at St. Katharine Docks, in the shadow of Tower Bridge. And if you ever hear the tinny tune of the Pied Piper echoing over the din of the traffic, it's probably the sign of an approaching Piccadilly Whip van. That distinctive, excitement-inducing sound that instantly conjures up sweaty handfuls of change and snaking queues in English summer heat is known as a chime, though it's increasingly a rarity on London's streets. "The business has changed over the years, it used to be: pull up, put the bells on and people come out from their homes. Nowadays everybody's got ice cream in their freezers," John Bonar tells us over the phone.

Now the company's main source of income is Ice Cream Express, an ice cream van hire service which pops up at corporate events, festivals and concerts up and down the country. But the decline of the ice cream van really started when councils started clamping down on illegal street trading, EU regulations on emissions followed and concerns over obesity prompted ice cream van exclusion zones, including at schools.

Now you have to have a licence, (it took John 21 years on the waiting list before Tower Hamlets granted him one), health and safety certificates, and there are even regulations on how long and how often a chime can play, though these were relaxed in 2013. Now chimes can ring out for 12 seconds instead of four at two minute intervals instead of three.

This is one of ten vans run owned by Piccadilly Whip, which uses fresh milk (not long life) for its soft vanilla ice creams. Photo: Kyra Hanson (2017)

From the age of 11, Bonar was selling ice creams with his uncles. "Before we started using Whitby Morrison vans, we'd sell from wheelbarrows. I remember going around the Serpentine — that's how I spent my summer holidays. You know, when I was a kid, the only time you could get an ice cream was from the ice cream man. It's not like that anymore. So you have to change with the times."

While there's not much that can beat Piccadilly Whip's soft vanilla — a Cadbury flake plunged through its light fluffy centre and a swirl as stiff as Johnny Bravo's golden quiff — there is one relatively new kid on the block who's managed to carve a niche out of London's iced dessert scene.

Photo: Edd Kimber

We met Richard Makin, founder of Blu Top on a typically overcast day in London's Citypoint Square, where a food market has been open since March 2017. Makin specialises in ice cream sandwiches, all made in-house from scratch. The milk is organic, the eggs are free-range and the cookies are baked by the same hands that'll serve you from the titchy hatch of the van (affectionately known as Barbara).

Makin is instantly likeable, speaking with a friendly Scouse lilt which'll put anyone at ease. "When I was a teenager, I'd treat myself to "icey dinners". Every Friday I'd spend all my lunch money at the ice cream van on two Maxibons and a Mini-Milk. Me and Sam, the ice cream man, we were like best buds — though he probably should have stopped serving me when he saw me get over 16 stone.

"I think my mum always assumed that I was unhappy at school and was eating my feelings but actually I was just really obsessed with food and have really happy childhood memories of baking and cooking. I guess that's why I wanted to do ice cream sandwiches — because of the baking element."

Richard Makin's converted van didn't come with a chime so he arrives with "a beep... and me singing out the window". Photo: Joe Perry

After graduating from SOAS University with a linguistics degree, he secured an internship in the States, where he pretty much ate his way around San Francisco's vibrant street food scene. On returning to London he bought a van "from the sweetest Italian Jehovah's Witness family" and was selling ice cream a week later, though it took three years to build up his brand.

"When I sold my first ice cream it was a mixture of total pride and terror. It's a weird feeling to put a price on something which you've laboured over, literally, for years. But in the end, driving away from a market with an empty freezer and a little bit of cash in my pocket was honestly like a drug — I was absolutely ecstatic."

While Bonar says there's not as much fighting over patches as there used to be, evidence of ongoing ice cream wars can be summoned instantly via the internet, "Mr Yummy attacks his arch-rival Mr Whippy" and "an L Lewis driver calls another driver a fat bastard" – that sort of thing.

Has Makin encountered any hostility? "The ice cream community, regardless of whether it's a van or a shop, has been quite a difficult thing to break into," he says. "It's really competitive so there's a lot of tension and it's quite territorial. People are fine with you existing as long as you're not on their turf. I totally understand, everyone is precious about their baby," he adds. "But the way I see it, a rising tide lifts all boats, the more people that are interested in good quality ice cream, the better we'll all do. It's like those streets in London with 25 barista coffee shops — they all do great because the street becomes a destination".

"It's new but in a sense it's traditional. Ultimately it comes down to the ingredients, everything is done in-house using raw, fresh ingredients." Photo: Sammy Jack Baker

Rather than going through the process of getting a licence from the council and parking anywhere Makin sticks with food markets, where he knows they'll be an audience for his product. Are there many differences in clientele between Brockley Market in Lewisham and here at Citypoint? "People in the City always care way more about the price, which is weird because they've clearly made a lot to be here. Down in Lewisham, it's a real food market, so people know the product is premium, whereas here maybe they feel like they're being ripped off."

Makin trades through spring and summer, then switches to pop-up restaurants and hosting ice cream making classes for the rest of the year. He's racked up nearly 20,000 Instagram followers and says business is doing well. Listening to Makin talk about ice cream is mouth watering business.  

I love a Mr Whippy. I'm not an ice cream fascist in any way. All ice cream serves a purpose.

"Anything nostalgic [is popular] — raspberry ripple always does well. But I'll change the berries or infuse the cream with something to keep it interesting. The best seller in the last couple of months has been malted milk ice cream, infused with malt extract, malt powder, salted cookie crumbs (so it's nice and chunky). It tastes like Horlicks and malt loaf and barley rusk. Cardamom and honey go down really well."

What about his own ice cream preferences? "My favourite ice cream in the world is from Odd Fellows in New York. It's made with Red Cedar vanilla, so it tastes maple-ly, evergreen and piney. You wouldn't think it would work. But that's why I love it so much, once you understand how to make a good base you can just experiment and go crazy with it." In London, he recommends Gelupo, for traditional Italian gelato, and Camden's Chin Chin Labs for texture (the smoothest ice cream you'll ever taste because it uses liquid nitrogen).

So to the 99 dollar question; does Makin still enjoy the ice cream that comes from a van or a box from a freezer in Tesco? "Of course, I love a Mr Whippy. I'm not an ice cream fascist in any way. All ice cream serves a purpose. Mr Whippy is insanely delicious. Supermarket Neapolitan ice cream still has a place in my heart. I'm obsessed with those old fashioned choc ices that come in that wax paper wrapping and it's all melted by the time you get to the bottom."

Find Piccadilly Whip opposite Tower Hill Station, underneath Tower Bridge and St Katharine Docks.

Find @bluetopicecream at Citypoint Square, 1 Ropemaker Street, EC2Y 9HT on Thursdays 11.45-2.15pm and Brockley Market, Lewisham Car Park, Lewisham Way, SE4 1UT on Saturdays 10am-2pm.

Last Updated 15 June 2017