Confessions of an ice cream vendor

Confessions of an ice cream vendor
Mr Y. L. Chan, an ice cream vendor who operates a cart outside Ngee Ann City.

Drop your ice cream on the ground and this ice cream uncle will not give you a new one.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a bawling and inconsolable child, says Mr Y. L. Chan, an ice cream vendor who operates a cart outside Ngee Ann City.

"Once the ice cream leaves this cart, if they make a mistake, it's the customers' problem," he confesses.

"There is no warranty for ice cream."

He is not being mean on purpose, but he has to insist on this business practice because of encounters he had with exploitative customers, says Mr Chan, 69.

He says in Mandarin: "I have to be wary of people who come back claiming they dropped their ice cream and wanting one more for free.

"I have no way of proving if they are genuine or not.

"But I do give young children some leeway because, well, they are young."

He considers himself a veteran in the ice cream cart scene and these hardball tactics were developed over time.

But he says these tactics are now necessary to protect his livelihood.

There are other reasons for this.

Competition is more keen now with the tastes of the Orchard Road crowd changing drastically over the last five years.

Local ice cream is losing its popularity. There are only about 10 ice cream vendors operating out of motorcycle sidecars in the entire shopping belt. In the past, there were three times as many, estimates Mr Chan.

All of them are losing potential customers to the air-conditioned ice cream, gelato and frozen yogurt shops in the malls.

He likens potential customers to a bowl of rice.

"Last time, there were 30 people fighting over this bowl of rice, but that bowl was quite big so everyone was full. Now there are fewer eaters, but also a smaller bowl. Less to fight over."

NO MORE TURF WARS

Gone are the Orchard Road "turf wars" between ice cream vendors, when they used to compete for the prime spot along Orchard Road.

Now the carts are around 200m apart on both sides of the road to avoid direct competition with each other.

Says Mr Chan: "We are all friends now. But if I move from my spot and go closer to theirs, then they won't be friends any more."

Mr Chan's profit of about $1,000 a month have remained the same over the years, but he attributes it to the falling number of vendors rather than a steady stream of customers.

"Many stopped selling because they got too old and their children don't want to take over the cart," says Mr Chan, who sells ice cream to be financially independent.

"As soon as my children are willing and able to support me, I will stop selling ice cream here, too."

Mr Chan tells us the work is more challenging now. Because of his age, he is unable to scoop up the same ice cream that he has sold for half a decade.

But he tries to stick to his routine.

Every day, he will head to a Jurong factory at 10am to buy large blocks of ice cream and dry ice.

By 2pm, he will have set up his stall at his spot outside Ngee Ann City.

Rain or shine, he's there.

Each ice cream sells for $1.20 and comes wrapped in a slice of bread, sandwiched with biscuits or scooped into a cup.

All the sellers charge the same price, despite there being no association.

He shows The New Paper on Sunday how he skilfully serves the different combinations of ice cream under a minute.

"Most popular flavours are durian and chocolate," he says with a smile.

SECRETS OF THE TRADE

To maximise profit, do not overbuy supplies and note how long they last.

The dry ice, for example, lasts for a day but costs $20 to top up a cart.

Some customers might claim that you are trying to cheat them of their change.

Put your money box close to you and in the open where both sides can see where the money goes.

A large umbrella mounted on the motorcycle is invaluable.

Hot, sunny days might be the best times to sell ice cream, but the heat can also spoil your supplies and your mood.


This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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