An ice cream van creates a feeling of nostalgia for us all. For most, they evoke fond childhood memories of water fights, warmer nights and playing with friends. Becoming an ice cream vendor is a fun way to relive these memories day after day.

Whilst this sounds amazing, there is a lot more to the humble ice cream van than just reliving your glory days. From the start-up costs to the equipment and their history, there is plenty to know. We’ve created this helpful guide to run you through some general FAQs and get you more familiar with the industry.

When did ice cream vans start?

Throughout history, we have seen the ice cream van evolve into what we know now. Starting as a cart with two wheels, moving onto horse-drawn carts and even motorcycles, it wasn’t until 1956 that we saw the real deal.

It was James and William Conway, two Irish brothers, that started the first ice cream van in West Philadelphia offering soft-serve ice cream on St Patrick’s Day. Their initial idea invoked a global movement for soft-serve ice cream and played an influential role in the creation of our very own Mr. Whippy.

To find out more about their past, read our article on the history of the ice cream van

How many ice cream vans are there in the UK?

In the late 1950s, there were an estimated 20,000 ice cream vans on British roads, but this has dropped to just 5,000. Why? We’re not too sure. It could have something to do with the fact income isn’t guaranteed all year round, the change in people's diets, the variety of ice creams you can now buy in the supermarket or the way the industry was affected by COVID. This summer that number could be even less so it really may rely on you buying ‘Just one Cornetto’!

How much does it cost to start up an ice cream truck business?

As with any start-up business, you need to work out the initial start-up costs and what it will cost to run. When looking at ice cream vans or trucks, this includes the buying of the vehicle and stock, staffing and maintenance.

I can’t give you an exact figure because this will depend on a variety of factors that will differ for many, but I can give you a few things to consider. For example, are you thinking of buying a second-hand vehicle or creating your own from scratch? What type of ice cream are you planning to serve? Will you run it yourself or will you need to hire someone? All of these decisions will influence the price and therefore how much it costs to start an ice cream truck business.

We’ve created a handy little guide that outlines the majority of what you need to expect cost-wise when starting a food truck business.

How much does an ice cream van make?

This is dependent on a variety of factors, most importantly the weather and the pitch. If the sun is out and you’re pitched at the seaside or by a park, you can expect that day’s income to be high. What child sees an ice cream van and doesn’t automatically ask their mum for one? And what mum doesn’t want one herself?

However, it’s not going to be all sunshine and families all the time. You can’t always rely on the weather – especially not the British weather, that’s for sure! Therefore, you may need to pre-plan before setting off on your route. Check the weather forecast, know when the school holidays are and don’t go overboard when buying stock, you don’t want to overspend and leave yourself out of pocket.

Even with all that considered though, compared to most catering businesses, ice cream vans have the best profit margin.

Do you need a licence for an ice cream van in the UK?

To sell ice cream from a kiosk or moveable stall, you will need a street trader’s licence. However, you won’t need this licence if you are selling private land and are seven metres away from the public highway – you will need the landowner’s permission though!

To secure a street trader’s licence, contact the local council for the chosen area. You will need to tell them where and when you want to trade. Simply visit gov.uk and pop in your postcode to find out the next step for your area.

Alongside this, you are also going to need a Food Hygiene Certificate. As with any business that serves food to the public, this is a legal requirement which deems if the food and area it is served and prepped in is safe and meets health regulations. You can find more information on this through the Food Standards Agency website.

How do ice cream vans make ice cream?

This is all down to the ice cream machine. If you’ve had a Mr. Whippy from a van, you will have seen one of these. It’s what ensures the ice cream keeps its light consistency and is piped perfectly into your cone.

The ice cream will come in pre-made liquid or powder base form which is added to the machine. It’s left to churn and work its magic and leaves you with deliciously light ice cream!

I’m told there is actually an act to creating the perfect Mr. Whippy. A few ice cream van owners have let us into their secrets and say the trick is rotating the cone in a circle and pulling it away from the machine. This is said to create the perfect point.

How do ice cream trucks keep ice cream cold?

This depends on the type of ice cream you plan to sell. If you are sticking to your packaged lollies and more luxurious options like Magnums, then you are only going to need a chest freezer as these types of treats are easy to store and keep well. Make sure you work out your available floor space before buying though!

Alternatively, if you choose soft-serve ice cream you are going to need a little more equipment to not only keep it cold but also at the perfect consistency. That includes an ice cream machine. This not only helps to make the dessert but also dispenses, keeps it fresh and, most importantly, cold so you can have large quantities on demand. It’s kept cold because the machine has a built-in freezer.

There are plenty of options out there all varying in size and the amount of ice cream that can be stored but it was a Carpigiani that the original Mr. Whippy used.

What tunes do ice cream vans play?

The most common tunes we hear from ice creams are nursery rhymes because they are catchy and familiar to their target audience: children. There will be many other tunes or chimes but here in the UK the most common are ‘Turkey in the Straw’, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, ‘Teddy’s Bear Picnic’ and ‘Greensleeves’.

Why do ice cream vans play Greensleeves?

As just discussed, ‘Greensleeves’ is a popular music choice for many ice cream vans and that’s because it was the original song played by the Mr. Whippy vans. Vans still use it now because this old English folk song is so distinctive.

What time are ice cream vans allowed to play music until?

Speaking of their magical music, ice cream vans must follow a particular set of guidelines concerning this. These guidelines rule that to minimise annoyance and disturbance from those loudspeakers attached to their roofs, ice cream vans can only play their tunes between 12 and 7pm and they cannot be played more than once every two hours in any one street. As well as this, the volume must not exceed 80 decibels.

You can find more information on the ice cream van’s code of practice through the gov.uk website.

What do ice cream vans do in winter?

Come wind, rain or shine, I’ve seen plenty of ice cream vans still operating throughout the winter months. You’d be surprised at the number of people who still fancy a 99p Flake in December, January or even February – especially if you spend a winter’s day at the coast.

However, it is the summer months when ice cream van owners make the bulk of their income, and you can’t rely on winter day trips to provide the same level. If you can afford to, it might be worth only running your van seasonally and keeping it in hibernation for the winter months. Alternatively, you could look to branch into other areas of the market and be available to hire for certain social events such as birthday parties, weddings, food festivals, or pop-up events.

Who regulates ice cream vans?

This will depend on the area. It’s best to enquire with the local council to find out more information. 

Where do ice cream vans stop?

This is a tricky one because it will again depend on your area. If you live in a more urban and built-up area you are more likely to have a visit from the ice cream man. I grew up in a rural village and we never saw an ice cream van in the area (sad, I know – you can blame my mum and dad for depriving me!).

Vendors will need to ensure they have the correct licence (as discussed above) and adhere to guidelines from the area’s local council as many ban ice cream vans from pitching up near schools, churches and even playgrounds.

However, there are plenty of Facebook groups and apps that actually track Mr. Whippy vans in real-time, so you’ll have to explore what’s on offer in your area.

What type of insurance do I need for my ice cream van?

Solving this one is easy, visit Lexham Insurance. Their specialist Ice Cream Van Insurance is designed to cover everything you’d need, with the benefits and extras, such as fixtures and fittings, included as standard.

The last stop

There is a lot to know about ice cream vans and I hope that this article has helped clear things up. If there are any questions I’ve missed or you are in the process of setting up your own ice cream van business, let me know in the comments below!