Last July, Filippo Mancini, a fourth-generation ice-cream maker, ran the Belly Banger competition from his shop on the esplanade at Prestwick beach in Ayrshire.
Punters paid £7.50 for 12 scoops – “whatever flavours you wanted, a wee biscuit in the top and some cream”. They had 15 minutes to eat them. If they managed it they got a certificate and their money back. Mancini, who says about a dozen people succeeded, plans to run the competition again this September.
With the ice-cream industry suffering a difficult time since the start of the pandemic – according to the Ice Cream Alliance, parlours and vans made a loss of £289m in 2020 – creative ideas have been helping to raise the fortunes of some.
Earlier this year, the alliance launched its Great British Ice-Cream Staycation campaign to support its members, providing them with marketing tools and running a social media competition to win a year’s worth of ice-cream, provided by Mancini.
Maggie Rush, co-owner of Graham’s Ices, which runs five vans in York, is “certainly sharing more photographs on Instagram and Facebook this year” because of the campaign. Katy Alston, who owns vans and Pinks Parlour in Bognor Regis, says it has engendered a community spirit within the sector that “has been a real game-changer”.
“We’re all promoting each other,” she says. “We ask people where they’re from and we tell them about the parlours and manufacturers in their area. People are doing that for us, too. We’re finding people that are visiting from Scotland and normally go to Mancini’s have learnt about us from Mancini. It’s wonderful.”
While the overall picture, according to the Ice Cream Alliance, is one of loss – 70% of its members said turnover was down considerably in 2020, compared with the year before – fortunes were mixed, with sellers in tourist destinations appearing to fare best.
When the first lockdown was announced, many were at the start of their peak season. Alston says it was “probably the first really good weekend we would expect – it was Mother’s Day”. With the weather unusually good, sellers reported the strangeness of having to sit on their hands. It was, says John Taylor, who co-owns Harrogate’s 130-year-old C&M Ices, “a total sea-change mentally”.
Many gave away freezers full of ice-cream that would otherwise have gone off. Alston and her son spent two days dropping gelato at the doors of teachers and nurses after a social media campaign where people could nominate others who deserved a treat. Anglesey’s Red Boat Ice Cream Parlour, known for its unusual flavours, including jelly baby and seafood, spent six weeks delivering free ice-cream to hospitals, hospices and care homes throughout north Wales.
Maggie Rush’s business has benefited from tourists in York. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
Innovation proved effective for some. Many van owners report starting a home delivery service once the uncertainty surrounding whether that was allowed was cleared up, with rules differing between local authorities.
In Harrogate, Taylor was allowed to deliver by the middle of May, although without the tune “because that was deemed to be enticing a crowd”. He adapted: “We had to use social media and get people to order ice-cream like pizza.” Whole streets of neighbours put in joint orders. Some sellers have continued delivery services – Red Boat is carrying on despite its parlours being open again.
Sellers describe another mixed picture this summer. “Depending on your location, your story will vary,” says Rush, who has benefited from the busy tourist trade in York. She’s also had an increase in bookings from schools – with many school trips off the cards, she’s been invited in for seaside-themed days where children enjoy 99 flakes.
Taylor is hopeful for the future: “As long as I can still drive around the streets and park at my pitch … as long as we can operate in some fashion, we will get by.” The rest, he says, is down to the weather.
The pandemic has had a few positive effects. In her Bognor parlour, Alston has noticed people enjoying traditional sundaes or floats more than ever. She thinks it’s because “we’re reassessing our lives and looking at what really matters”.
The industry, says Alston, is realising it doesn’t have to stay seasonal. Her parlour is going to run workshops teaching people how to make gelato and she is looking at hosting groups to make more autumnal or Christmassy flavours.
An ice-cream has been a welcome treat when others were off the menu. “It’s a perfect cheer-me-up thing; when are you ever unhappy when you eat ice-cream?” asks Mancini, who is a self-confessed “pig for ice cream”.
“Even just sitting looking at these people outside my shop now having an ice-cream … the sun is hitting them – lovely, you can’t beat it.”