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What a Cool Idea: The Definitive Guide to Starting an Ice Cream Van Business From Scratch 

Creamy, dreamy career? We’ve got you. Starting an ice cream van business offers scoop-loads of potential for those looking to go it alone and pursue the job they longed for as a child as they waited by the window for the familiar sound of the ice cream van on sunnySaturday afternoons. Until recently, it was widely thought that profitable ice cream vans were a thing of the past – along with 99 Flakes – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Now, as more people demand autonomy and flexibility in the post-pandemic era, an ice cream van business is bang-on for the modern-day entrepreneur. 

Back in the 1950s, there were over 20,000 registered ice cream van businesses, but in 2023 there are only around 5,000 remaining. Ice cream is still as popular – if not more so as its quality and variety continue to improve – so what’s changed? 

The fact is, many of the original operators from back in the day have now retired and very few of their businesses were handed down to the next generation to carry on their legacies. Plus, until recently, there was a serious lack of innovation in the ice cream industry, and many businesses just couldn’t – and wouldn’t – move with the times.

And so, they simply shut shop.

Is there a more joyous site than an ice cream van?

So, is an ice cream van still a real business opportunity?

When it comes to setting up shop with an ice cream van, there’s a huge opportunity to carve out a business and reap the rewards, but only for those willing to move on from the soft serve ice cream cone and pre-packaged ice cream mentality of the past. With a little innovation, a mobile ice cream business has the potential to keep up with the huge rise in the popularity of food trucks and street food, continuing to evolve the way ice cream is sold and consumed across the country. With an ice cream truck, you have a very real opportunity to be at the forefront of innovation. 

Those who are succeeding understand that consumers are infinitely more aware of what they are eating these days and demand better quality and more variety from their sweet treats. Traditionally, the offering from ice cream sellers has always been vanilla-flavoured soft serve and pre-packaged, whether in scoops or lollies. While you certainly don't need to go down the route of artisan dry-ice rolled ice cream, you can still level up to cream other ice cream truck business operators.

But, as with any small business, becoming an ice cream vendor requires knowledge, hard work and passion, so here’s a flavour of what you’ll need to pour into your new career.  

Go on: what are the advantages of starting an ice cream van business?

When you’re considering starting your own gelateria  van, you’ll soon discover that there are plenty of benefits to the business, you’ll just need to open your mind to the possibilities of the trade. 

"That's not a fwip"

1 Ice cream serves up generous profits 

Thanks to modern technology that can serve a range of ice cream flavours without having to fork out on expensive traditional soft serve ice cream machines, there’s potential profit in every frozen treat served to customers. 

2 There’s a competitive edge to an ice cream van

We all know that stores, parlours and kiosks have the capability to serve a larger selection of soft whipped ice cream than your average mobile ice cream van, so you need to focus on technology, variety and service instead of range or quantity. As we mentioned before, moving with the times also enables you to keep up with the increasingly discerning palates of your customers, ensuring your ice cream truck business doesn’t only compete, but does so in style. 

A single artisanal ice cream parlour and the meteoric rise of gelato stores across the entire world have made consumers think twice about what they are buying. When we look at trends from the UK of Mr Whippy – that nostalgic brand of soft serve – compared to gelato, we can see that back in 2004 they were roughly around the same. Fast-forward nearly 20 years, and gelato is almost 10 times as popular.

Clearly, times have changed, so sellers must evolve to ensure profit or your business will cease to be relevant to modern-day consumers. Gone are the days of fleets of ice cream truck drivers armed with gallons of soft serve premix bringing home large profits. It’s the new age of the mobile ice cream van.

3 You can be your own boss 

Starting any form of food truck business – ice cream sellers included – means getting your business known, which requires serious hard work. But, if you’re running your own business, you’re in charge of your own destiny, and there’s no greater feeling. While the buck stops with you, it does mean you can set your own schedule, so you’re well and truly flexible. 

So, what are the disadvantages of starting an ice cream van business?

Of course, there are going to be downsides of starting a mobile ice cream business. 

1 It’s damn competitive  

Whatever business you’re in, there’s always competition, so how do you stand out from the crowd? In short, be responsive to the market and better than your competition, whether that’s other vans, ice cream parlours or stores. Many mobile ice cream vans are still flogging the usual 99s and pre-packaged varieties. But these are dying breed: the sheer cost of operating and maintaining a traditional soft serve ice cream machine is not sustainable in this day and age. 

An ice cream van in its natural habitat.

2 There’s always red tape 

There are always rules to abide by when running a mobile ice cream business. Firstly, it depends on what kind of vehicle you have. For instance, you may go for the traditional ice cream van, a cart or bike, or even a stall in a fixed location. Whatever format you choose, you’ll always have to check with your local authority when it comes to your operating location, as an ice cream cart or bike will have to follow the same rules as a van.

While there is no specific business licence exactly, every local authority will have their own rules that will affect the way you can do business. Nearly all authorities will require you to have a street trading licence. Most councils will allow you to trade from the side of the road as the traditional ice cream van travels up and down streets. Other councils could specify that you trade from a specific location. Whatever format and location you choose, always ensure that you get the required licences, as trading without one could land you a fine of up to £1,000.

3 You’ll need to register

While it’s free of charge, it’s extremely important that you register as a food business if you’re operating any form of catering van. Luckily, you’re able to do this directly from the government website. You should ensure that you register as a food business a minimum of 28 days before you start trading, and you shouldn’t trade until you’ve been notified that you are registered. The good news? Registration can’t be refused. However, your local council will inspect you without warning and award you with the relevant rating based on the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme. Finally, it’s absolutely essential that you complete your registration and all necessary permits before trading, as trading without the correct permits can result in a prison sentence – not the sweetest start to your new venture. 

4 There are more regulations (even on ice cream van chimes)

Almost every person in the UK will recognise the nostalgic sound of ice cream van chimes. They’re used by ice cream truck drivers to alert households to their presence. Normally, the van will enter a street and sound their chimes, but did you know there are specific laws for ice cream van chimes?

In 2013, the government passed a law that governs how loud your ice cream van chimes can be, how long they can last for and how often you are allowed to play them. The official guidance can be found on the government’s website. In short, the volume of the chimes can be no louder than 80dB, they can be played once on the approach to their stopping location and only once when they are stationary at an interval of no less than two minutes. Yes, really. Also note that you can’t sound your chimes in the vicinity of another ice cream van, whether stationary or in transit.

Next: the costs involved in your new career 

Now, we'll take a look at the costs involved in opening an ice cream truck business, from getting a truck to stocking it and sorting your insurance. Additionally, we’ll share our knowledge on how to minimise expenses and maximise earnings, whether you're an old pro or new to the game. 

Purchasing an ice cream van

Buying an ice cream van can vary in price depending on what type of vehicle you want to purchase. You could purchase a new one from ice cream van producers like Whitby Morrison, but they can be expensive and kitted out in the old-school setup for soft serve ice cream. While this style of van has something of a cult following in the ice cream traders community, they are no longer the most efficient way of serving up sweet treats. 

So many delicious options...

Think about the style of business that you’re considering running. If you’re going to be mobile, picking up a vintage ice cream van isn’t your best bet, unless it’s been mechanically refurbished. If not, it could cost you a large amount of money just to keep it on the road. 

Many who have gone down the ice cream truck route have purchased their ice cream van from eBay and refitted theirs to suit their own style. Take a look at our post about when we were featured in a rebuild project on MTV's Pimp My Ride. This is a perfect example of when a vintage Ford Transit ice cream van was refurbished and modernised along with an installation of the Portobello Ice Cream Machine. While it’s extreme, it should give you flavour of what can be achieved with a little imagination. 

Equipment costs for an ice cream van

Machinery and equipment are where costs can quickly spiral out of control because of the overall inefficiencies of the ice cream industry. Until recently, soft serve ice cream machines were the biggest expense, these high output units costing you upwards of £20,000. What’s more, they need to be cleaned daily if you don’t have the ability to keep your vans' refrigeration units running overnight, which takes time and money. Read our post on the efficiency of soft serve ice cream machines for further information. 

Good news, then, we developed the Portobello soft serve machine for a fraction of the cost of a traditional ice cream machine, while serving multiple award-winning flavours of gelato, frozen yogurt and vegan sorbet. The vegan market had previously been under-represented in the mobile ice cream truck world. But our machine allows your ice cream business to attract and service a whole new audience and an extremely lucrative market. As more food for thought, if you want to expand your offerings beyond a traditional ice cream van, take a look at our dessert inspirations, which you could incorporate into your business ideas of creating your ice cream empire.

If you want to sell impulse ice creams – tubs, lollies, etc. – chest freezers can be purchased new or used, although we recommend servicing a used chest freezer before installing it in your van. Because impulse ice creams take up a large amount of space, the placement of the freezer needs to be well considered, while you’ll need the space to store your stock out of the van if you don’t have the ability to plug your van in overnight. 

Luckily, the freezer that comes with the Portobello is designed to be space-saving and efficient as it does not run as cold as a traditional freezer. The ice cream pods are small and can be transported efficiently within this cool little freezer. 

Ice cream van insurance

It’s very important that when running your mobile ice cream shop that you have all the correct insurances in place. Of course, you’ll need to ensure that you have a minimum level of ice cream van insurance in place before you start trading, but many insurers will ask you what elements of your van need to be covered. These can include fixtures and fittings, and your stock. As you operate a business, if you choose to have additional employees to help serve customers, you’ll also need to have additional insurance to cover yourself (and your business) in respect to personal injury. Finally, you’ll require public liability insurance, which again protects you and your business should a member of the public be injured and if you are found to be negligible.

Health and safety considerations for an ice cream van business 

As you’re operating a food business, health and safety needs to be taken particularly seriously, whether a food truck or permanent site. Obviously, ice cream is a dairy product, and as such there will be certain elements that need to be taken into consideration.

Food hygiene certification for your ice cream van

Food safety is very important, and local authorities take it seriously, as you’d expect. Having a certification in food safety is not just important for you, but also any members of staff that you employ. Fortunately, a range of courses are available online to help everyone understand the principles of food handling, while HACCP ('Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point') will support you in record-keeping (like temperature control, crucial for ice cream products). 

Food labelling for sweet treats 

The law dictates that food containing specific ingredients needs to be labelled correctly. This is particularly prevalent on products that contain nuts and dairy. Anything that’s genetically modified with additives or flavourings, too, also needs to be correctly labelled.

Health and safety checks 

Dairy products are considered high-risk in terms of perishable food products, so very specific food handling requirements need to be in place at all times. In fact, handling and serving ice-ream comes with the same level of governance as it would if you were producing the ice cream yourself. Because of this, you should take the health and safety aspects of your business extremely seriously.

Cleaning your ice cream van

Any business that serves food needs to keep its property spick and span to maintain the health and safety of its customers. And so, cleaning your ice cream van and soft serve ice cream machine needs to become routine. The latter is particularly labour-intensive, especially when it’s turned off when the van is parked up overnight, but it’s part and parcel of owning your own business. Check out our full cleaning guide here [insert link]. 

So, that’s how to start an ice cream van business… now, it’s over to you 

We’ve covered the basics when it comes to learning about how to start an ice cream van business, from harnessing innovative technology to keeping outgoings down, so why not consider it as a profitable, inspiring and rewarding career? Equipped with our Portobello, your ice cream van won’t just provide lipsmackingly good sweet treats for customers, but your next big career move.

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