Hemp soft serve and sorrell slushies: UK ice-cream sellers innovate to beat soaring costs

Rocket lollies, Screwballs, Twisters, Feasts and, of course, Mr Whippy: the menu of a typical ice-cream van has been etched into our memories since childhood and has barely changed since.

But amid soaring inflation and record fuel prices, ice-cream sellers are quickly learning they must adapt to survive – or face the rocky road to ruin.

The cost of living crisis, along with the lingering coronavirus pandemic and repercussions of Brexit, has created a disastrous environment for traditional sellers. Rather than flake out, sellers are using their ingenuity to cater for tastes that are a far cry from traditional flavours.

The new options include sustainable allergen-free hemp-based soft serve, raspberry and sorrel slushies, artisanal granita and a beer top made from purple ube ice-cream.

Traditional ice-cream, once an affordable treat, is starting to become unaffordable for many families across the UK. To stay in the trade, retailers at the top end of the market are having to cater to more esoteric tastes.

“You have to be smart, you have to be innovative, you have to be competitive. It’s cutthroat, standing still is going backwards,” said Dirk Mischendahl, whose company Northern Bloc was selling £4 slushies with a plant-based soft serve topping from its van on Friday.

In an attempt to keep going, many sellers are branching out further, hiring out their vans for photoshoots, looking at offering other products such as coffee, and even looking at setting up ice-cream street food festivals.

Mischendahl, 54, who left the marketing agency he founded around a decade ago to start his Leeds-based firm, said the current craze was fordipping churros in soft serve.

The cost of cream had risen by 53% since the start of the year, he said, fuel had doubled, milk was up by 46% and plastic Napoli containers were up by 35%. In the past six weeks alone, sugar, dextrose and coconut milk powder have also risen while transport and distribution have also gone up.

The average cost of a traditional 99 is £2.50, according to the Ice Cream Alliance (ICA), but in some places it costs as much as £5. There were reports earlier this month of a Cadbury’s Flake shortage caused by supply chain issues.

With fewer people eating out with less money to spend, Mischendahl said ice-cream sellers have to “offer more to keep people interested” and stand out from the competition. The Instagram potential of ice-cream as a food product was an opportunity to gain an edge on rivals, he added.

“It’s a crazy time at the moment. All of those factors are affecting your business all at once,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As well as needing it to get around, an ice-cream van – which often uses diesel – needs to stay running when stationary in order to work a soft serve machine.

As such, they are not exactly environmentally friendly. While there are electric alternatives, a new one costs as much as £180,000, said the ICA president, Katy Alston, known in Bognor Regis as “Mrs Whippy”.

Nobody goes into the business for an easy life, said Alston, who runs the ice-cream van business Pinks Vintage. But recently, she said, the industry has become a case of “survival of the fittest”.

She has reduced her ice-cream rounds in her spotted van, named Terrence, from five days a week to two, and has had to put up prices just to break even. She serves Mr Whippy as well as dairy-free and traditional homemade gelato.

Maurice Murray, who sells ice-cream from his van in Fleetwood, Lancashire, painted a bleaker picture. On hot days he used to be almost guaranteed a long queue in front his family-run van outside the school gates at 3.30pm. But in the past few weeks, despite the warm weather, no such line has materialised. Instead, the 59-year-old has watched parents and children walk right past him.

“If people cut back, they’re cutting back on things like ice-cream and treats before putting food on the table, so we’re getting hit first. That’s just the way it is right across the country,” said Murray.

But Alston said customers were “more pleased to see us than they ever have been because we sell happiness”. Some had started to come for ice-cream as a family treat as a cheaper alternative to a takeaway meal.

“The real difference is there isn’t a predictability any more. Three years ago I could tell you how much I would be going to take each day of the week,” she said. “It really is survival of the fittest.”

She was certain businesses could find ways to adapt. People need ice-cream, she said. “We’ve just got to evolve on how to make it work. It’s about weathering the storm.”

Despite the flurry of new treats, Alston believes there will always be a place for the feeling of a sun-beaten Mr Whippy dripping from a cone into the crook between thumb and forefinger.

“The thing is, everyone wants a 99. People do,” she said. “Other things come and go but it’s the 99 that stays.”