“The last day we traded was mother’s day and it wasn’t a very nice day to work,” say the 51-year-old, who runs Mr Whippy Leeds. “You could feel the tension.”
Ian’s fleet of seven vehicles – four new Mercedes vans and three vintage ice cream vans - spent more than two months unused in business premises before his family firm was back trading on June 1.
“It was the first time I have ever been away from the ice cream business since being a child,” he says. “We have never in all the years had a day off at Easter or any weekend through the summer.
“It felt very strange to be sat in our garden in such lovely weather when something inside me was itching to take a van out. It’s really hard to explain - it’s like I was going against everything I was programmed to do. It felt so exciting when we [returned] on June 1. It was like starting a new job, scary as we didn’t know what to expect. All our regular customers were so pleased to see us return.”
It was certainly good to be back - not least because of the financial hit of ten weeks out of action. April and May are typically the busiest months for Ian, whose vans have contracts with Leeds City Council to trade at sites at Roundhay Park and Temple Newsam.
He expects turnover will be down about 40 per cent on usual this year. “We’ve missed the prime time. If we’d have been locked down another month or two, it would have been suicidal because it’s a seasonal job.
“When we get to the back end of September, things die off a bit until February and so we needed to get back to work. We have had a good few months since, we’re lucky.”
“We are busy,” he continues. “We will never catch up on the money we’ve lost though. April and May are usually the busiest two months of the year - Easter time is busy and then the May bank holidays.
"Usually it gets to August and it can tail off and be a quiet month because people go away and there’s events on everywhere so people are off doing their own thing. But the people are here this year because of what’s happened.”
Last month, trade association the Ice Cream Alliance, which organised the ‘Mobiler of the Year’ competition for which Ian was voted winner in February, warned that vans and parlours had struggled during lockdown and many were concerned about survival.
CEO Zelica Carr told i news that vans had lost event work at weddings and festivals and had missed out on some of the year’s sunniest weather. “Mobile operators are the fabric of many of our childhoods and many of our children’s childhoods,” she said. “We are quite unique in the UK to have mobile vans on streets or at events. I would hate for that to be lost.”
As well as the contract sites for three of Ian’s vans, Mr Whippy Leeds also takes vehicles to university open days, food festivals, galas and carnivals, weddings and office and corporate affairs. With the coronavirus restrictions, trade from events has almost entirely dried up - and the other four of Ian’s vans look set to remain indoors for the rest of the year.
“Because people are working from home, we aren’t getting any of that office work either,” he says. “The phone has stopped ringing. Normally my phone never ever stops, as soon as the weather gets warm, it rings all day long with people asking ‘where are you, can you come, we’ve got 100 staff here’ and the company wants to treat them.”
“We’ve got to try and concentrate on surviving this year,” he adds. “We are quite lucky that we can still go to work and we’re doing okay.”
Ian, who lives in Cross Gates, Leeds, was born into the ice cream trade and the business is a true family affair for the Smiths. His father - Ian Smith Snr - started working on ice cream vans as a teenager and ran a Mister Softee franchise in the city when Ian was growing up. Now 72 and living in Norfolk, he still sells ice cream, having been in the trade for nearly 60 years.
For Ian, there was never any doubt he would follow in his father’s footsteps, first working on his own in one of his dad's vans at just eight-years-old, serving ice creams at Bramham Horse Trials
“I knew exactly what I’d be doing. I knew that would be a lifelong job for me,” he says. “All the time growing up, I would work on the van, loading stock up and stuff like that. [My dad] used to run about 12 vans from a local depot in Burley when I was a kid.
“So I’ve been around ice cream vans all my life, helping out and working on them. It was fun, I loved it. We used to go all over the place - we’d do quite a lot of shows, air shows, Great Yorkshire Show, we would attend all the big events. You used to get a buzz out of it, getting up early on a morning and setting off with half a dozen ice cream vans in convoy going to shows. I had a very happy childhood doing it.”
At 18, after passing his driving test, he started out on his own, initially renting a vehicle. A year-and-a-half later, he had saved up enough money to buy his first van – a Bedford CF Cummins - and later purchased another for his wife Tracy.
Like their two daughters Stephanie, 29, and Leanne, 27, she works in the family business and Ian says even his granddaughters - Rosie, seven, and Violet, two, are taking an interest in the trade.
“Rosie really loves the ice cream van. Even now she wants to come in and help out. She’d do it at the drop of a hat. It’s one of the things with this job, when you’re in the industry, you really do get involved with it, you have a real passion for it with it being such a family business.
“You have to be really committed and you all have to be involved or it just won’t work. It’s not an easy job to do, it’s very physical and there’s a lot in the background that people don’t see - cleaning the vans, maintaining them, stocking up. Before we go to work selling ice creams, there’s a lot to be done and we all have to get stuck in to make sure it works.”
Ian, who often devours three traditional ‘99 flake’ ice creams a day, has even been known to be out with a van in the snow, working weekends and school holidays throughout the winter.
“Being inside the ice cream van is like a second home really, you spend that many hours there,” he says. “We have hot drinks on the van as well so we can still pick a bit of trade through the winter.
"I wouldn’t like to park the vans up and not work, we just try to keep going if we can...Over Christmas period, we work every day except Christmas day, weather permitting. Boxing Day and New Year’s Day are really busy for us.”
The period since lockdown has thankfully been a busy one for Mr Whippy Leeds and the Smith family have been working longer hours to maximise the evening trade from people staying local. The ‘99 flake’ ice cream, with an array of toppings, remains the biggest seller - “it always has been and always will be” - whilst the ice lolly trade is tailing off.
“Since coming back out after lockdown, we’ve sold virtually no ice lollies - it’s just ice cream. Maybe people have been at home during lockdown getting lollies from the freezer from the supermarket and I think they’re now sick to death of them,” Ian says.
“People had been walking around the parks anyway during lockdown to get out and about and they were so happy to see us come back. We’ve been extremely busy even when the weather has been poor and raining, people have still been coming and queuing in the rain for ice cream. It’s like they’ve really missed it. It’s a feelgood factor is ice cream, it puts smiles on people’s faces.”
It is that joy - “everybody’s happy when they’re walking away with an ice cream” - that Ian enjoys most about job, as well as the “banter” with his regular customers, some of whom have been coming to see him at Roundhay Park for over 20 years.
“I’ll never do anything else and to be honest I don’t think my daughters will either," he says. "They’ve got it in them like I have me. It’s a family tradition where you come into it and grow up with it.
“Once you’ve done it, once it’s in your blood, you can’t get it out of you. It’s one of those things. You’re eager to get out to work. It’s not about how much money you take, it’s the buzz you get from going out and selling ice cream and serving customers. It just gets hold of you.”
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