A road trip with Rainham’s Steve Hawkins could be an unpredictable excursion.
The former greengrocer turned London cabbie took a chance during lockdown to make an unlikely career move, retraining as an ice cream man, and already has plans up his sleeve to diversify.
Steve Hawkins explains how he became an ice cream man
Is climbing in the new van alongside him a good idea? Who knows, by mid afternoon we could end up herding wild boar or building a marmalade factory…
But no, Steve, aka Bossie, is committed to the ice cream game for now, having invested £95,000 in a new van from world-leading manufacturers Whitby Morrison, and reckons he’ll need to sell more than 150,000 99s to make his money back on it.
So it’s off to Medway City Estate, to make a start. But first, a quick taxi ride over to the new van, during which Steve explains how the pandemic changed his outlook and career path.
“Covid 19 came and absolutely destroyed the industry,” he says. “It was as if somebody had turned the tap off and there was nobody in London, it was like a ghost town.
“One day my wife got a phone call from her friend saying her mum was stuck indoors home-alone and couldn’t go out.
“I helped her out and took her mum to Tesco. Then I did a Facebook post with a little video showing everyone the vehicle and offering pensioners in the area a free taxi service to take them to the shops.
“The Facebook post went crazy.”
Steve also helped out NHS workers with taxi rides and although the money was drying up he admits to that he “loved lockdown” – as he was contributing to the community and spending time with his family.
“Until you do that you don’t realise how much quality time you’re missing,” he added. “I know lots of people that have left taxi driving to do something else. We were all doing nothing indoors.
“Then one day an ice cream van turned up. It’s like an old thing from when you’re a kid, hearing that chime in the distance. I thought ‘is that an ice cream van?’ and then all of a sudden it’s getting louder and louder and then he turned up at our road, and if he hadn’t have come to our road that day I wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
“We got talking to the ice cream man, and it turned out his dad used to be my wife’s ice cream man when she was a little girl. He recognised me from the Facebook post and commended me for it. He said if the taxi trade doesn’t come back I’ll help you. He said come out and I’ll teach you and train you up.”
Steve leapt at the chance, and found out he was a natural – which probably wasn’t that much of a surprise considering he’d worked for years selling fruit and veg on stalls, including one in Chatham High Street.
“You’re serving people and everyone that comes to that window is happy to see you,” he adds. “When you get in a taxi it’s just ‘can you take me here’, and maybe they want to chat or not, but when they come to the ice cream van, everyone is happy.
“Kids are laughing and jumping up and down.
“To know that you’re part of making someone happy is great. It just reminds me of being a kid when the ice cream van came around the estate.”
It’s not just kids, the good folk from Signs and Imaging on Medway City Estate seem pretty buoyant when Steve turns up too – and it’s not just because they’re laughing at his shorts.
The ice creams go down a treat, while my effort at making a 99 seems to spread even more joy – with Steve laughing his head off when I present an unshapely mound on a cone.
Oh well, at least that means I get to eat it. Steve says his ice cream mix comes from a top Italian family-run manufacturers, and to be fair it tastes like it.
On the way back, he reminisces about his start in life on a council estate in Essex with his four sisters, where he first got the nickname Bossie.
“When I used to play out on the estate I was always with older boys but I used to boss them about, saying let’s do this, let’s do that,” he remembers. “Even my junior school teachers called me Bossie.”
But he says the family were not well off, and from a young age he was searching to find ways to make money.
“I had to go and get it,” he adds. “That’s where I got my hunger to serve and work, so at the age of 13 me and a friend both had Saturday jobs on this fruit stall. We stayed there, he’s still a greengrocer and I’m going to get back into the fruit game as well with him. We’re going to start doing these fresh fruit and veg boxes.”
It’s all part of a progressive vision, with Steve planning to operate his ice cream van and taxi service alongside a fruit and veg distribution centre, based on a former Hop Farm off Lower Bloors Lane.
The vision is also firmly centred in Medway, and Steve says it was information from Rainham Eco Hub about air quality in the area that partly inspired him to get cleanest diesel van possible, conforming to ‘Euro 6’ standards.
Could one man’s story reflect a wider shift in society? Before lockdown Steve spent his time in the capital, and his move to investing his time and money into his own community should surely be a good thing for Rainham and the surrounding area.
Drawing back people with skills, ideas and energy back into the area could maybe be one positive to come from the pandemic.
But he notes there are still hurdles to overcome.
“I actually applied to have another fruit stall in Chatham High Street but the council and the town centre management won’t allow it. Can you believe that? They banned street trading years ago – they had trouble with dodgy burger stalls so had a blanket ban on street trading.
“It doesn’t make sense. Chatham in general is a low-earning population. They’re saying we’ve got an obesity crisis with young children, and fresh fruit and vegetable are expensive to buy in supermarkets. That comes down to overheads, but if you rent a stall from a council it’s lower rent.
“If you’re overheads are less you don’t have to put a bigger mark-up on your produce so that allows lower-income families to buy fresh fruit, so it’s sort of a knock-on effect.”
Exactly how Steve’s fruit and veg vision pans out is yet to be seen, so until then we’ll have to keep ourselves going on ice cream.
“Yours wasn’t too bad actually,” he says as I’m leaving, recalling my flaky effort at a 99. But he’s being kind – it was a 44.5 at best.