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20 top tips on how to start your own ice cream van business

For anyone looking to launch themselves into the mobile catering world, an ice cream van business is an excellent place to start. With a fair amount of flexibility over when and where you trade, decent profit margins, low wastage, and relatively low skill barriers to entry there are plenty of advantages.

2 ice creams touching

That said, if you’re interested in starting your own ice cream van business, it’s a good idea to speak to someone in the know beforehand. Take a look at some of the 20 top tips we’ve put together to get you started in this unique and delicious business.

When it comes to insurance the team at Mobilers really know their stuff. We can arrange insurance for a whole host of ice cream businesses. From ice cream van insurance to market trader insurance, we’ve got policies perfectly suited to your business needs and budget.

1. Remember, it’s not all about ice cream vans

With new state-of-the-art ice cream vans costing around £60,000, a van can be an expensive investment when you’re just starting out. Even a second-hand van will probably cost more than £20,000. However, there are several different options open for those running a mobile ice cream business.

Apart from a van you could also choose another form of transport, such as a trailer, food truck or tricycle with an attached cart. Ice cream bikes can be found for as little as £2,000, making them a great option for the budget conscious. But be aware a van is likely to be much more profitable. Check out our recent blog to find out what vehicles may be best suited in converting to an ice cream van.

After all, with large inbuilt freezers and more space, you can store more stock and offer more variety to your customers.

Another popular option is to invest in a pop-up ice cream stall. Pop-up stalls can be set up at food markets and fairs and other events. If you’re setting one up at a market then ensure you’ve got marker trader insurance to cover you.

It may also be worth assessing the other options that are available to you, maybe starting a mobile coffee business could suit you a bit more. 

2. Children aren’t the only people who love ice cream

Contrary to popular belief, ice cream isn’t just popular with youngsters. It’s also becoming increasingly popular to hire an ice cream van or stall for corporate events, wedding receptions, adult birthday parties and other celebrations.

With the rise of food fairs and food festivals, if you have a particularly enticing USP then these events could also be a real money spinner. For example, serving vegan or gluten-free ice cream could go down a real treat at such foodie events. Check out how much money an ice cream van makes in the UK to see if this may entice you to start up an ice cream van business.

3. Offer unique flavours to keep customers coming back for more

Many ice cream businesses will stick to a hard core of iconic flavours, adding new flavours every now and again to encourage regular customers to try something a bit different. Ice cream is all about customers giving themselves a bit of a treat.

But while they’ll often go for something tried and tested, it’s also possible they’re in the mood for something a little more sophisticated.

Bear this in mind next time you’re considering what to stock.

4. Just because it’s winter, doesn’t mean you need to close

While summer is the height of the ice cream eating year, that doesn’t mean you can’t make a success of any season. Even winter can prove lucrative if you’ve got the right ideas.

For example, offering seasonal flavours such as toffee apple or Christmas pudding around Halloween and Christmas could have a big impact on your bottom line in this traditionally quiet period for ice cream sales.

Catering supply specialist Nisbets has an excellent article on how to increase ice cream sales in winter if you’re looking for further tips.

5. Stay ahead of the latest trends

There’s always going to be a place in the nation’s heart for perennial favourites like the faithful ’99. But if you want to stay one step ahead of the competition, you’ll need to find some inspiration in the latest ice cream trends. Foodservice wholesaler Bidfood has an interesting run down of some of the latest trends.

From nostalgic flavours like rhubarb and custard making a comeback to wonderful flavour mash ups there’s plenty to get the taste buds tingling. 

6. Plant-based is here to stay

With the boom in veganism and emphasis on eco-friendly products, there’s plenty of scope for mobile businesses who want to grow in this area. Target environmentally-conscious or health-savvy consumers by supplying specific ice cream products.

For example, you could choose to sell only organic or vegan ice cream and target specific events based on this. Being plant-based doesn’t mean you have to compromise on flavour or quality, there’s some incredibly innovative products now out there.

7. Work out your product range

It isn’t just a question of deciding between soft-serve and hard ice cream. You could also consider serving your ice cream in different cones and with a variety of yummy toppings.

Or perhaps on top of waffles, cookies or pancakes. Or even as part of a luxurious ice cream sandwich!

You may also choose to sell ice lollies, sweets and confectionery, drinks and other snacks. In tough markets it’s a good idea to differentiate yourself from the competition with a niche product offering. For example, offering organic ice cream from a local farm.

Or even your own home-made ice cream could go down very well with the locals looking for something a bit different.

Don’t forget there is a limit to the amount of stock and equipment you can carry, so it’s important to focus on popular items. Never be afraid to try something different, just remember to keep a constant eye on which items sell best.

8. Make sure the price is right

Depending on the products you’re selling and the market you’re operating in, the price you charge can vary considerably. To give you an idea, the average price of a soft-serve ice cream is between £1.50 and £2. Depending on the brand, hard ice cream is generally more expensive than this.

The most expensive ice creams tend to be priced anywhere from £3.50 to £6. Organic and vegan-friendly ice creams tend to command the highest prices.

9. Boost your fan base with a trip to a food festival

Food festivals can attract visitors from far and wide and can introduce your business to a whole range of new customers. Just like finding the right market trader insurance, conducting adequate market research is crucial before committing to a stall.

Always consider the cost of the pitch fees. Some events could charge you hundreds of pounds for a pitch whereas others will charge you a percentage of your sales.

10. Develop your USP

Ice cream can be a competitive business. Think carefully about how you can mark yourself out from other ice cream sellers. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it’s important to have it clear in your mind before you make the investment.

For example, you could be offering exciting flavours no one else stocks, a plant-based range, or fun promotions to attract a particular type of customer.

11. Plan for the weather

We all know the UK climate isn’t always ideal for ice cream traders. Wet days in particular can be a real struggle for ice cream vans. If you’re likely to be staying in one place for the whole day, consider supplying a seating area for customers.

A table and chairs and a gazebo or parasol for protection from the elements could really enhance the customer experience.

With the likelihood of extreme weather events increasing, the impact on your ice cream van needs to be taken into account. Make sure you’ve got sufficient ice cream van insurance to protect it whatever the weather.

12. Avoid stepping on other trader’s toes

row of ice cream trucks

Spots near to schools, parks, and music and sporting venues are obvious choices for an ice cream van route. However, be aware that you might not be allowed to set up just anywhere.

As well as restrictions imposed by the local council, you might also be impinging on a route already established by another ice cream van. This could create conflict and affect your sales.

Researching how to find a profitable and legal route in your area is time well spent. Check out our blog on the best UK cities for food trucks as part of your research. 

13. Know the rules around chimes

For some people the chimes of an ice cream van bring back joyful memories of childhood. While others find them a noisy irritation. Whatever your feeling, if you opt for an ice cream van then there are strict regulations on using your chimes in public.

Back in 2013 the government updated the rules governing the noise from ice cream van chimes. This includes regulations on how loud your chimes are (no more than 80 dB(A), how long they last for (4 seconds) and how frequently you can play them.

View the full code of practice on the government website.

14. Invest in the right equipment

If your vehicle doesn’t already include equipment such as inbuilt freezers and ice cream dispensers then you’ll need to make a substantial investment in equipment. These could include:

  • Freezer
    You will of course need decent, reliable freezers that maintain the right temperatures. If you don’t, you could lose a lot of money in a very short space of time. You can choose from either large commercial chest freezers or smaller, non-commercial freezers depending on the floor space available in your van. As you are working with frozen products, ensuring the correct temperature is maintained at all times is vital. Fit an accurate temperature checker to monitor the temperature regularly.
  • Soft-serve ice cream machine
    You can buy these outright or they can be rented. Prices can range anywhere from £1,000 to £20,000 depending on machine specifications. Nisbets has a great range available online.
  • Scoops, utensils and other accessories
    Depending on the variety of ice cream you serve, you may need to buy ice cream scoops, dippers, spades, tubs and lids, topping spoons and dispensers, sauce bottles, cone holders and many more.
  • Handwashing station
    You could choose to fit a portable sink, a free-standing sanitiser/soap dispenser or even just supply a bottle of hand sanitiser or wet wipes.
  • Disposables
    Napkins, ice cream dishes, bowls, cups, tubs and spoons.
  • Point of sale (POS) system
    An POS system helps you run your business by managing your sales, payments, records, inventory and more. And it really doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated. For example, to get started with Square Point of Sale simply download the app for free and start selling. There are many other POS systems available as you can see from this article by Startups on the best POS systems for small businesses in 2022.
  • Gazebo or canopy
    To shelter customers from the sun and rain.

The amount of equipment you need can vary wildly from business to business, and the costs can soon mount up.

When you’re in the early stages of your new ice cream van venture it’s probably best to start with just the essentials.

15. Consider taking cashless payments

Many traditional ice cream vans have long got by with just a calculator and cash box. However, if you’re considering longer-term business objectives then you might need to consider something a bit more 21st Century.

With so many people moving away from cash payments, a good way to maximise sales is to accept a variety of payment types including cash, card, or mobile phone.

16. Take part in food safety training

Any ice cream van business owner will need to comply with food safety legislation and is advised to obtain certificates to prove it. Such training is often a legal requirement of local councils and something that all customers will be pleased to see.

Online food safety training with certification can be completed for as little as £20 + VAT through providers such as CPD Online.

You should also ensure that staff are aware of the principles of HACCP – the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system for managing food safety hazards. Originally developed by NASA in the 1960s, HACCP helps businesses identify any food safety risks and implement food safety management procedures.

While you’re at it you may also want to consider reading our guide to food hygiene tips for staff, gas safety and allergy advice for mobile caterers. We’ve got lots of food hygiene related articles on our blog that are well worth reading.

17. Know the rules on food labelling

While any food could cause an allergic reaction in a susceptible person, strict regulations are in place that require food with specific ingredients to be labelled. Food containing any of these 14 allergens must be labelled correctly. These include eggs, milk, tree nuts, peanuts, soya, and cereals such as barley and oats.

The Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS) has a free allergen toolkit that contains vital information about the relevant laws and what you need to do to trade legally.

Additionally, in the UK, foods containing genetically modified ingredients, additives and flavourings must be correctly labelled so consumers can choose whether to buy or eat them.

Just like having the right ice cream van insurance to safeguard your business, responsible business owners will always make sure they’re up to date on important food safety requirements.

18. Make sure your insurance cover is up to date

As well as ice cream van insurance or market trader insurance, you’ll also want public and product liability cover to protect your business from personal injury or property damage claims. Ice cream is a high-risk, perishable food product and you’ll want to guard against customer illness and food poisoning.

Having the correct insurance can cover you for your legal defence costs and compensation payouts if you do end up being taken to court.

19. Check you have the right licence

The rules on street trading licences can vary across the country with different UK councils having different rules regarding whether you need one. While some councils will let you park up on the side of the road and sell ice creams, others only allow you to trade in specific pitches or on private land.

Contact your local council directly to find out whether you need a street trading licence, and any restrictions on where you’re allowed to do business. Be warned, if you trade without a licence, you could be fined up to £1,000.

Ice-cream sellers, just like any mobile caterer, need to stay on the right side of any regulations relating to your business. If you don’t, you could receive a hefty fine and could put your business under threat.

Given that you already need to budget for things like ice cream van insurance, a fine is the last thing you need eating into your hard-earned profits.

20. Join the NCASS

Being a member of the NCASS means you’ll have access to plenty of helpful guidance and support no matter what stage you are at in your business journey. As well as ensuring you’re trading safely, you’ll also be part of a nationwide network comprising thousands of other like-minded business owners.

Many mobile caterers also join NCASS to access all the offers tailored specifically for mobile caterers.

In a similar way, if you arrange insurance in the UK through Mobilers you’ll get access to exclusive products and schemes not available elsewhere.

Ice cream van insurance and market trader insurance from Mobilers

ice cream van driving at sunset

In all the excitement of setting up an ice cream business, don’t forget to protect yourself with either ice cream van insurance or market trader insurance.

Take out insurance through Mobilers and you could enjoy policy benefits such as:

  • Instant cover
  • Competitive premiums from select insurers
  • Full fire cover as standard

Whether you’re looking for ice cream van insurance or market trader insurance, get a quick quote from Mobilers today!

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