In the 1950’s there were about 20,000 ice cream van operators in Britain – now there is less than a quarter of that number.
The problem isn't just the reliance on seasonal and sunny trade, but also the swamping of the market by supermarket chains and the introduction of legislation limiting where people can trade.
Having said that, there is still a very good market for ice cream and a potential to make a lot of money.
On a hot sunny day few things can beat an ice cream. When the weather is fine and the pitch is right, ice cream vans can clean up. Ice cream offers probably the best profit margins in catering. A quick check on one wholesaler’s website shows 12 litres of Mr Whippy for £15 which will make 923 x 50/60g servings of soft ice at 1.6p each, which is around 1% of your average £1.50 sales price. Obviously you have to also pay for the cone, petrol, running of the van, tax and wages out of that, but compared to most catering businesses - most businesses in fact - this is a very tidy margin.
Waste is not a major issue, the most you are likely to throw away is a litre of soft ice at £1.25 a pop. Imagine what it costs a burger trader to throw away 70 burgers, plus buns etc. Your major cost in terms of waste is likely to be petrol and wages if the heavens open. Due to the long shelf life of most of an ice cream vendor's stock, you are unlikely to lose much money on waste, avoiding one of the major headaches of any catering business.
Assuming that you are not making the ice cream yourself from scratch, there is very little skill required to run an ice cream van. Unlike some hot food units where certain dishes require some cheffing skills, ice cream vendors just need a good grasp of food hygiene, a driving licence and sometimes a CRB check to allow you to work with children.
When the sun does come out, everyone wants an ice cream. It is a traditional summertime treat, which is obviously very popular with children, although, most people will eat an ice cream in good weather, while they may not eat so much hot food.
You can travel around looking for customers, you don't have to wait for them to come to you. If one road is a bit quiet, you can always move onto the next, as long as you have permission to be there. You can even play chimes to attract customers.
Over the last decade or so, ice cream vending has been targeted by health campaigners and Local Authorities, who have banned vans from many of the places that were most profitable e.g. near schools, parks and town centres.
Each Local Authority will have its own interpretation of the legislation and how to apply the rules, so it is essential that you talk them about where you can and can’t trade, whether you will require a licence and if, when and how you can use the chimes.
You are also likely to need to get a street trading licence from the local council and you may find that you are prohibited from working in certain areas or on certain pitches. Despite all this, there are still illegal ice cream operations, flaunting the licensing rules and many others, which has had a negative impact on those trying to do it properly.
Like many other small businesses, the ice cream trade has been affected by the dominance of supermarkets who can offer multi-packs of choc-ices and lollies at considerably less cost than ice cream vendors.
This has certainly affected the roadside trade, as their customers have a ready supply of branded ice cream in their own freezers that they have bought at a lower price. Although there are no official figures to support it, it is widely believed that the number of ice cream traders working on rounds has significantly reduced over the past 20 years.
To state the obvious, the weather in the UK has never been ideal for ice cream traders. In particularly wet years it can be a real struggle to make money. As the season is so short, one wet month can have a major impact on your cash flow and profitability.
If you are going to ‘work the streets’ and have found yourself a pitch, be sure of one thing, someone has, or is most likely working that pitch already at the moment. Mobile trading can be very competitive and competition for the best rounds is very strong. It may be difficult to break in where there are several vendors already operating, and it has been known to create threatening behavior. If you decide to go the franchise route you may find that there is a support mechanism in place to help with pitch finding, but in general this is the hardest part of setting up in the ice cream business.
It is important that you answer these questions, as the costs and profits will vary widely depending on the decisions you make. For instance, a new ice cream van can cost upwards of £60,000, a five year old one averages about £12,000, a new trailer might cost around £10,000 and a trike or cart might be as low as £3,000.
Creating a business plan will really help at this stage. It may sound very complicated, but it is in fact quite simple and should help you in the decision making process.
These are issues that you should address before parting with any of your hard earned cash.
The great majority of your customers will pay you in cash. Occasionally you may get a corporate client that will want to pay by cheque or even by credit or debit card, so you need to make your terms clear at the outset.
You will need to estimate how much income you will receive over the next 12 months, including VAT. To do this you will have to estimate how much ice cream and other products you are likely to sell, and at what price. You will also need to know at what price you can buy them and don’t forget the seasonal trends.
There are other things you can sell as well as ice creams - snacks, lollies, choc-ices, sweets and so on. You may decide to offer hot food such as hot-dogs and burgers to boost your income during the winter months. This will require additional training, cleaning and equipment. Don’t forget that there is a limit to the amount of equipment that you can fit into an ice cream van, so it's important that you only stock popular items.
The secret is don’t be afraid to try something different, but TEST, TEST,TEST to see which items sell best.
Other products you could consider:
If you are interested in getting started in the ice cream business then we strongly suggest that you buy our Profitable Mobile Catering guide. It's information is invaluable.
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Working and running a Mobile Catering business can be great, but it can also be very difficult. Don't go into it blind. Find out more about it by reading our articles looking at both sides of the coin: - 10 Reasons why Starting a Mobile Catering Business is a Great Idea > Click here - 10 Reasons why Starting a Mobile Catering Business might not be for you > Click here
What type of unit are you going to operate from? There are 4 main categories of units and each of them have their advantages and disadvantages. Find out more below:
If it hasn’t got the CE label, don’t buy it - no matter what anyone might say. You will not get a Gas Safety certificate for it, and therefore will be operating illegally.
Event Organisers will want to see your Gas Safety certificate and you won't be able to trade without it. Even if you find work at small private functions, you could have some real problems with insurance companies if you ever need to make a claim, let alone with the law if you are prosecuted.
Where you trade is obviously critical to the success of your business. There are a variety of different options that you can choose from, you might even operate from a variety of different locations. Below are some ideas as to where, and you can find more information in our Get Profitable section.
Shows & Events
From village Fetes to week long music Festivals > Read More
Street Food, Farmers Markets, Car Boot Sales > Read More
Lay-by's, Car Parks & Industrial Estates > Read More
What price are you going to charge for your food or drink? Obviously this will depend on what it is that you're selling and where it is that you are operating. Food and drink often costs a lot more at shows and events than it does on a roadside, but then you will probably have to pay more in fees at a show.
How to Operate Legally
Many people start in catering because they like to cook and maybe have hosted some larger house parties. The thought of becoming a professional caterer is very appealing, however bear in mind that when you provide food for others there are rules to follow.
As soon as you say yes, even if you're not getting paid, you are a professional caterer and you are responsible and can even go to prison if things go badly wrong. Therefore, you need to ensure that you comply with a variety of laws and standards to ensure that you are operating legally. Our Get Legal section has a lot of information to help you on this.
Have a look at our Start Up Legal Checklist to ensure that you have everything covered > Click here
Don't even think of operating without Liability Insurance. Not only is it a legal requirement, it's not expensive and will cover you against accidents and food poisoning. Have a look at our Insurance section to get more information as to what type of Insurance you need > Click here
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Research, research, research. You need to find out as much information as you can before you start, to know what to expect. What to sell, where to sell, how to sell it! This site should help you with lots of your research, but you might also want to consider buying The Complete Guide to Profitable Catering - it takes a lot of the information on this site and goes into more detail. You might also want to speak to some experts face to face. For more information > Click here
Where are you going to get answers to the many questions that you have? Where are you going to get the reassurance that you are doing the right thing or the confidence to change if things aren't going to plan? You might know someone else who has done it and therefore you can tap them up for information.
By being a member of NCASS you can call us with any questions or queries that you might have.
There's no doubting that in order to succeed in this industry you need to have a lot of determination to keep on going when the going gets tough. It's not an easy trade, especially in the depths of winter when you have to go out and trade in the cold weather but you'd rather be at home or in an office in the warm. That's the main difference between those who last 1 season and those that last 20.
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