Despite the warm summer, red-hot inflation is putting pressure on ice cream truck profits

It’s been a sweltering summer across much of Canada, but that’s cold consolation to ice cream truck drivers like Meedo Falou, who says inflation and high fuel costs are melting his profits.

On a blistering Thursday morning, the owner of Rainbow Ice Cream in Coquitlam, BC bends over a computer spreadsheet and chats with drivers about their routes.

Some flavors are scarce and Falou is focused on efficiency for its fleet of 10 trucks.

The problem isn’t just the high gas price, Falou said.

“Maintenance went up. Truck parts went up. The mechanical parts went up,” he said in an interview.

“The ice cream went up more than 60 percent. We had to push the price up by a dollar. We couldn’t do more because of the consumers. We just want them to be able to afford ice cream.”

Steve Christensen, executive director of the North American Ice Cream Association, said suppliers face a range of challenges.

“Gas prices have gone up,” Christensen said from Missouri. “So a lot of everything β€” cones, cups, various things β€” everything that has to be delivered by truck has also gone up in price.”

Lots of challenges

Ice cream prices typically increase by three to five percent per year, Christensen said. But he said prices have risen 10 to 15 percent this year, although that may not be true for the entire menu.

Falou said he has tried to keep prices under control.

“You don’t make a profit on just one piece in this business,” he said. “You also make a profit on volumes. I want [people] to be able to buy ice cream at the ice cream truck. I don’t want to give that bad image that the ice cream truck is so expensive, you know.”

Falou hopes to “earn a little bit” without having to dive into his savings, as he did during the past two years of the pandemic.

It’s been a tough year, says Falou, who closes Rainbow Ice Cream from late September to April every year.

“We were hit by bad weather in the spring. It was the wettest weather in June. So that has a major impact on our turnover. And the profit is certainly a lot less than in previous years.”

Like everything else, the price of ice cream has risen much faster than usual this year. (Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg)

It’s not just local weather. Global climate events also impact the ice cream industry, Christensen said.

Madagascar, for example, supplies about 70 percent of the world’s vanilla, and when there is a storm or a short blooming season, it affects the global market.

“Which weather, you know, affects ice,” he said.

The curse of ‘haunted kitchens’

Christensen said old-school ice cream truck sellers also face new challenges, such as delivery apps and rivals in so-called “haunted kitchens” that don’t have a store but sell ice cream online.

“The Overhead” [for a ghost kitchen] is very cheap. They use social media to promote their ice cream, they sell it online and people come to pick it up in the kitchen or at a location.”

Falou began driving an ice cream truck in the 1990s, which he called the company’s “golden days.” He said he earned a lot more then.

To overcome the hurdles of apps, weather, gas prices and inflation, Falou said he hopes there will be a comeback in corporate events and other scheduled bookings, which were scaled back during the pandemic but are now returning.

“We suffered,” he said, shaking his head. “We rely a lot on corporate events, birthday parties, parades and weddings and stuff. So this year they’re starting to come back. Some of them, not all of them. So hopefully we’ll get them all back next year.”

But gone are the days when an ice cream truck could do business simply by driving around and playing a happy tune, Christensen said.

Trucks must hurry now

β€œIce cream truck owners should look for catering options, food truck events, go to office buildings and hospitals and say, ‘Hey, we can organize a corporate event for you,’” he said.

“They have to rush a little bit more now than they probably ever have.”

Christensen recalled his first foray into the ice cream industry when, as a child, he listened to the traditional ringing of the truck in his home country of Australia.

“And little Steve Christensen is going to get some money from Mommy’s dresser and go out and buy the cone with a flake in it,” he said with a laugh.

“I’d like to think people still love those experiences. So supporting your local ice cream truck I think is really important because it keeps those memories alive for kids today.”

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