Did the famous 99 ever cost 99p? One of many burning questions in the heatwave. Image: distillated/Flickr
You might assume that the UK’s hottest day on record would see sales of ice creams boom. Brits seeking cold treats in an effort to cool down, lured outside by the familiar tune of an ice cream van.
Sales of the traditional 99 and ice lollies are “dismal” right now, according to one man who knows.
“If you had children, you probably wouldn’t bring them to roast in the sun, would you? This weather is not beneficial for us at all,” says Eddie, from inside his Disney themed Mister Softee van parked under a tree in Victoria Park, east London.
Temperatures topped 40C in London on Tuesday and Eddie had to turn off the slushie machine. He coped with it on Monday but hot air expelled by the blue (raspberry) and red (strawberry) ice churner heats up the inside of the van by three to four degrees. Now he’s not having it.
“I took it for seven hours yesterday. Doing a public service I was. And what tips did I get? None,” he says.
Even the card machine is flashing a yellow warning sign, a plea that it’s getting too hot.
There are usually four or five ice cream vans in what’s known as The People’s Park but many have stayed at home either for their own health or because the lack of customers means there’s little incentive to the less industrious ice cream seller.
Eddie’s father, patriarch of the Softee Bros, emigrated from Cyprus in the early 1960s to set up an ice cream push cart in Trafalgar Square, so the story goes on their website.
His five sons went on to form the Softee Bros, who run an ice cream empire selling soft serve, lollies and slushies at events, parks and outside schools across London.
At 45, Eddie is the youngest, with the eldest having been in the business for 40 years. At 60 years old, he’s taken a rare day off – it’s just too hot and “money isn’t everything”.
But prices have gone up. Eddie sells a small Mr Whippy with a flake for £2, though everyone else is selling them for £2.50 he says.
He last put his prices up in April because “everything has gone up”. The cost of living crisis is apparent in the price of sprinkles. A 5kg tub would set Eddie back £12.50 last year but now he’s forking out £30 and charging 50p a serving to make it worth it.
In 2009, when he first bought the van, a small soft-serve ice-cream cost £1 or £1.20 with a flake.
Back then, minimum wage for people aged 22+ was £5.80. Now it’s £9.50 for people 23 and over. While the cost of a small ice cream has gone up by 100 per cent, wages for low pay workers have gone up by 64 per cent.
But while many assume that the classic “99” — soft-serve ice cream in a cone with a flake — was so named because it cost 99 pence, at least before inflation made a mockery of the price, this, says Eddie, is false.
“Some people say it’s because the flake is 99 millimetres long, some people say the guy that came up with the idea lives at number 99, the door number,” he explains. Others yet, claim it’s because there were 99 Italian guards protecting the monarchy back when the ice cream with cone and stick of chocolate was invented, so the number 99 was associated with the most superior quality treats.
Business is usually booming for the average ice cream van in London he says; “there’s not enough vans” to meet demand in usual summer temperatures. But on the hottest day of the year, sales are down 65 per cent.
“The best weather for selling ice cream is about 23C to 25C, that’s perfect,” he says. “Anything more than that and people get in lazy mode.”
“Of course,” he says, though he argues vehicles used by blue-collar workers like him shouldn’t be punished by costly low emission zones that are hardly felt by those driving Porsches or flying in private jets.
The answer, according to Eddie, is to offer grants or zero-interest loans to vehicle based businesses like his so that they can invest in electric.
For now though, upgrading to a new electric vehicle is unfeasible, with a new van looking to set him back around £150,000.
So, as the heat rises, spare a thought for your local ice cream seller, standing in their van, weighing up the cost-versus-sweat benefit of turning on the slushie machine. And if you’re ever in Victoria Park, try to find Eddie’s Mister Softee van, he’ll sell you a 99 for 50p less than the next guy.
Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Winter. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Winter.