The Empire Strikes Back. With Ice Cream.

I’d interviewed the Desert Chill team last August while I was interning with Time Out Dubai. I re-wrote the piece and added the British element to it as part of my module submission for my MA Magazine Journalism course.

 

An integral part of British culture is an ice cream van cruising the streets playing its tunes and selling its chilly wares. When British expats in the United Arab Emirates noticed the lack of ice cream vans in a country that’s known for hitting 50 degrees on the thermometer, they decided to take a little bit of Britain with them.

There’s not a cloud in the sky. The breezeless streets are empty. Surrounded by cream houses and royal Poinciana trees on either side of the narrow street, we want something, anything, to relieve us from this heat. Then we hear ‘Greensleeves’ in the distance. An ice cream van. We’re home.

Or not.

Contrary to what you might think, we’re not in a street in Britain over the summer months. We are in Dubai, where the temperature can cross the 50 degrees mark in the summer. And we have just spotted their first ever ice cream van.

One would imagine that a city like Dubai needs ice cream the way Britain needs wellies. But they didn’t have a single ice cream van in the whole country. Not until a year ago.

When Dan Furlong left Essex to visit his parents in Dubai last year, he noticed something: Malls? Check. Beaches? Check. Skyscrapers? Check. Ice cream vans? Not one.

As we scramble into the back of the van – which is expectedly cooler than the sauna outside – Dan says, ‘You often see ice cream vans in the UK. I asked a few friends if they’d ever seen one in Dubai and they said, funnily enough, they hadn’t.’

Indeed, the English would find it odd that a country as hot, dry and humid as U.A.E. did not have an ice cream van when their wet and chilly country did. It’s almost a ritual when growing up in England – to buy ice cream from a van.

Dan was used to having ice cream vans in the street in Essex, especially during the summer. Dan consulted Google and did some research. “I saw a niche in the market and since I’ve always wanted a family business, me and my brother, Nathen, decided to go ahead with this plan.”

Fast forward nine months of the setting up process which included getting necessary permits from authorities, finding the right van, pimping it up and selling their concept. Finally, Desert Chill was born.

The only stumbling block they faced was explaining their concept to people who had only ever seen ice cream vans in British movies and read about them in Enid Blyton books.

Now, with 8 months of experience under their (air-conditioned) belt, they have an established customer base in the areas that they serve. 

Although the very concept of ice cream vans is alien in the country, Dan informs us that their customer base is very wide. Not only do the British, perhaps longing for a touch of home, flock to the van, other expatriates and Emirati nationals have taken to Desert Chill like a camel to sand.

Speaking of camels, their official logo is an image of a camel licking an ice cream cone. Dan, who eventually wants to produce their own ice cream, explains the logo, “I wanted to create a brand that was culturally sensitive. Also, I wanted to create something I could take across the Middle East. Anywhere there are camels and deserts, the van is going to go.”

Months have passed since their launch in Dubai, yet they still encounter shocked and incredulous looks.

Dan says, “There is definitely an initial shock factor. We often get people who approach the van and ask what we’re doing. We explain Desert Chill to them and they’re fascinated by it.”

People are also curious about the tune that blares out from the van’s speakers as it cruises on the green, leafy streets of the Meadows and the Springs – the gated complexes meant to mimic the suburbs of Wisteria Lane. It is the inherently English tune ‘Greensleeves’, which so many people from England identify with.

Apart from the Furlong’s homage to tradition – or psychotic, gouty kings, as the case may be – Desert Chill also has a host of other music.

“The van is stocked with over 60 tunes. We even have a happy birthday tune, so when we go to children’s parties the van plays the happy birthday music. That’s a good surprise for the children!”

The brothers love catering for parties. “We do a lot of parties – it’s one part of the business we really enjoy. We provide ice cream cake, play music and serve all the children ice cream from our regular menu.”

One wonders if the extreme heat conditions of the desert city pose problems to their business, the very core of which is centred on being cold. Dan says, “No, it’s not a problem at all. Obviously we’ve got everything in place to deal with heat in terms of van conversion. And as you said, it’s hot; it’s the perfect treat for someone to cool down.”

What’s next for the young entrepreneurs? Desert Chill currently services all the EMAAR and Nakheel properties and are now moving into the streets of the capital – Abu Dhabi. 

“We’ve got quite a big footprint,” Dan says. With three vans, the brothers still drive a few times a week and plan to keep doing so when they expand their business. “My brother and I have always taken an active role in the business and it’s also very good to keep in touch with our customers.”

Desert Chill is also launching a home delivery service. Customers can order packs of ice cream, ice cream cakes, normal cakes and desserts to be sent to them at their convenience. “Instead of them melting when you buy ice cream at a supermarket, we send it in a freezer truck right to your door,” says Dan.

It’s time for us to descend from the cold heaven to the bath-tub of sweat outside. Perhaps seeing the sheen of sweat already forming on our brow, Dan takes pity on us. As the van drives off with its welcome treats, we stand there watching it go with music blaring from its speakers, clutching our Magnum Classic.

SIDEBAR:

Britishers Reminisce

Amy McNichol, 23, from Wakefield, says that she was about 3 years old when she first bought ice cream from an ice cream van. “There used to be an orange one on my street called ‘Johnny’s ice cream’ and was run by an Italian woman,” says Amy, with a touch of nostalgia. Amy, who is currently based in Sheffield, said it would be odd for her to go somewhere in the UK that didn’t have ice cream vans. “I wouldn’t like to go, for example to the seaside, and not see an ice cream van. It would be a bit weird.” 

Khadijah Rawat, 21, from Preston, says her father used to take her to the local park every weekend, at the end of which he would buy her and her sister ice cream from a van passing by. She says that every single day in the summer months, the same ice cream van with the same driver passes her house. “I still buy ice cream from him: a 99 – with nuts, chocolate sprinkles, some blue sherbet and strawberry sauce!” Khadijah admits though, that she buys less from ice cream vans as she’s grown older. “The sparkle you have as a kid – it’s just not there anymore.”

Aadil Kazi, 24, from Leicester, says, “I think I was about 6 or 7 – I remember hearing the music and running out to buy a 99. If I go to the park, I always have ice cream from a van. Now, my nephews are doing the same thing I used to do many years ago – run out to catch the ice cream van.”

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