A glimpse into harrowing lives of ice cream men
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By Sue Taylor
The ice cream cart or tricycle is not a new idea and goes back to the 1920s and to Mr Wall and Sons of London. They owned a butcher’s shop but the pies they made were only popular in winter.
They got the idea to make ice cream to use factory capacity during the summer months so they didn’t have to lay off workers when no one wanted to eat hot pies. World War I got in the way of their aspirations, but when finally launched Wall’s ice cream, sold from carts, the product was an instant success.
At first, vendors made their way through the streets of London with horses and carts and then Walls’s developed their famous “Stop Me and Buy One” tricycles. The number of tricycles on the road increased from 10 in 1922 to 8 500 in 1939. Even today, replica Wall’s bicycles can be seen in tourist spots and beachfronts in the UK.
Europeans buy and eat, on average, about 9kg of ice cream each a year. In fact, the ice cream demand is so great in Europe that the ice cream industry produces more than 870 million gallons of ice cream every year, generating around $5 billion (about R77bn) in revenue each year. Even during the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, the public were still flocking to the beachfront to buy ice cream.
In the US, Time magazine reports that July is the time of year where the most ice cream is consumed and that there has been a huge surge of luxury and creative flavours on to the market. South Africans consume almost 60 million kilograms of ice cream a year, according to Euromonitor’s market research (about 1kg each).
Interestingly, there are some downsides to the street sales of ice cream. In 1998, the US state of New Jersey passed an ordinance that banned amplified and mechanical music from ice cream trucks as this was considered a nuisance. New York did the same in 2005. This is something we might want to consider in South Africa – or perhaps we still enjoy the jangled cry heralding the arrival of an ice cream van on a hot highveld afternoon!
After the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, that familiar sound of the ice cream man’s tinkling bell at Zoo Lake reminded me of times spent there during my childhood and how fascinated my brother and I were by the smouldering block of dry ice inside the ice cream cart .
Those ice cream men are still around, selling ice creams at Zoo Lake, Emmarentia Dam and at events like Angela’s Picnic, an annual show of vintage cars at Delta Park. They also arrive at school gates in time for the final bell and the flood of children surging out to meet parents. School kids can still buy a frozen ice lolly from these guys for less than R5.
These lone ice cream vendors are a well-known, but largely unrecognised part of the urban landscape of Joburg. Some are unhappy about the small amount of money they make for such a lot of physical work. Yet, the oneman ice cream bicycles have been around for very many decades.
Perhaps all the conflict, violence and uncertainty about pavement trade in the inner city is why some people choose to operate as individual mobile ice cream vendor.
As noted by the ice cream vendors outside the local school gates, a new vendor would occasionally seek to set up some distance down the street, hoping to attract customers. There would be shouting and after a few days, the newcomer would not be seen again. Even the humble trading turf outside a school gate, which allows for only about an hour of trade a day after the midday school bell rings and after a sporting event, is worth fighting for.
A quick scan of academic studies of informal street trading in South Africa found that ice cream vendors were never included as bona fide street vendors or micro-entrepreneurs.
There are literally no studies on their activities. Other forms of vegetables and fruit selling, cooked-food selling, as well as selling cut flowers and other goods in the city streets have been extensively studied. One recent study in the Western Cape showed that street vendors selling cooked meat, boiled eggs, cupcakes and so on can make a profit of around R1 000 per month.
Although ice cream vendors form part of Joburg’s informal street traders, they always seem to be alone.
Clearly, they need to get organised and find a way to improve their businesses and profits.
In South Africa, many of the ice cream vendors are young men, while others are much older. This trade seems too arduous for women. These vendors are incredibly hard-working and resilient. They represent the brave efforts of individuals to earn an income and not become part of the millions of people out of work in South Africa.
They are not allowed to trade in public parks, as per municipal by-laws, and over all the past decades they apparently never had trade permits but no one has noticed or complained.
The question is, how does this system work and where do the ice-cream sellers in Joburg get their bicycle carts and the products?
How far do they have to pedal those heavy bicycles to arrive at Zoo Lake or Emmarentia Dam in time for the weekend? And do they make enough money to make it all worthwhile? I made some effort to find out where these men get the ice creams and the tricycle carts and whether there was a system for this.
In the past there apparently used to be a distribution centre in Newtown that supplied the bicycles and ice cream.
I haven’t been able to find information on such a place. However, one of the vendors I spoke to recently said he gets his cart and stock in Booysens, south of the city. I checked and found Mr Tasty’s in Mentz Street, Booysens.
Mr Tasty’s was helpful, but all they could tell me was that the vendors just buy ice cream products from their shop and they already have their bicycle carts.
I started working out distances. An ice cream vendor would have to pedal the heavily-laden bike from Booysens to Zoo Lake via the back roads (not on the motorway), a distance of about 10km and the same distance back again, all to be done within a single day.
The bike has to be back at the depot each evening, my informant said.
I drove to Mr Tasty’s and found that there were some nasty, congested streets with large trucks and that riding a clumsy bicycle on these roads would be horrifying. Also, although I went on a Friday afternoon, I didn’t actually see squadrons of ice cream carts heading out in formation towards the northern suburbs and their parks. It would take two hours and 7 minutes to walk this distance of 10.5km, obviously quicker on a bicycle, although those creaking old ice cream tricycles are not built for efficient travel.
Some of the other vendors told me they bought their ice creams from Gatti’s in Fordsburg. Gatti’s said the vendors purchase the ice cream from them and have been doing so for 30 years, but that they own their own bicycles. However, the three ice cream vendors that I spoke to said they get both the ice cream and carts from the various ice cream wholesalers.
It seems like there must be middle-men involved who rent out the carts to the ice cream vendors.
Cashing in on the enduring popularity of ice cream, in 2006 Nestlé South Africa started an Ice Cream on Wheels initiative among unemployed youth, aimed at job creation and skills development.
There have been problems with this initiative, though. As already mentioned, many South African city by-laws restrict street vending and the highly visible Nestlé ice cream carts did not pass unnoticed.
Nestlé did manage to reach agreements with some coastal cities to allow vendors to trade in beachfront areas.
Nestlé SA gives participants R1 500 worth of initial stock to sell. The profits from the stock are used to buy more stock from Nestlé SA. In addition, in collaboration with government’s Umsobomvu Youth Fund, Nestlé provided vendors with motorcycles or bicycles and uniforms. Vendors also receive training on how to run their businesses.
Sue Taylor holds a PhD in Plant Biotechnology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and has worked in the agricultural sector doing crop biotechnology research. She is a Research Fellow at the Afromontane Research Unit, QwaQwa, University of Free State.
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