The evolution of ice cream trucks in Toronto

You know the music, you know the trucks that bring ice cream to city streets. But operators say the business is becoming tougher and that is forcing them to switch strategies for selling soft serve.

More trucks mean more competition and less money on the street

Ake Alexopoulos hands out a soft-serve ice cream cone from the side of his ice-cream truck in downtown Toronto. The city has more than 130 licensed trucks. (David Donnelly/CBC)

When you're running an ice cream truck, the weather is a major factor in how your day will pan out.

"It can be your friend, it can be your enemy," says George Soilis, the owner of Heavenly Dreams Ice Cream.

Soilis says that mid-20s weather is the Goldilocks-like sweet spot when it comes to selling ice cream. It's not too hot and not too cold.

"If it's like 25 C, that's the best," he says.

Data from Environment Canada shows that Toronto saw nine days in July with a daily high temperature below 24 C, with another five or six days that barely surpassed that. And August has so far had at least two days that failed to hit that optimal range that Soilis is looking for.

Such was the case on Thursday, when the mercury in Toronto didn't even reach room temperature.

Yet Soilis was still busy sending his trucks out to special events, all of which were expecting his light-blue trucks to show up.

The Etobicoke-based Heavenly Dreams has a fleet of five trucks that do jobs as far away as Thunder Bay, Ottawa, Cornwall and Windsor. Next year, Soilis says, they could be picking up work as far away as the Maritimes.

Soilis said his business has gradually shifted its focus towards private events, rather than traditional street sales.

"There's not that much business on the street anymore," says Soilis.

Nick Damias of the nine-truck Olympic Softee has been in the business for nearly 20 years and he has watched it go through a similar change.

"It's a matter of adapting yourself to what is most cost-effective," says Damias.

That means more private and corporate events, where the business is guaranteed and the competition is absent when you arrive. Bar and bat mizvahs, corporate picnics and school play days are just some of the events that Olympic Softee works.

Indeed, on the same chilly August day that Soilis sent his team out on their assignments, Damias took a spin out to the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre, serving ice cream to residents, staff and their families on Kids Day.

During his nearly two decades on the job, Damias says the Toronto market has become "very saturated," with more trucks on the street and less money to go around. Costs of living have gone up, but he says his earnings have not.

"You used to be able to work six months and make enough to last through the winter," says Damias. Now he says many people in the business pick up part-time work or contract work between the ice-cream selling seasons.

Statistics from the City of Toronto seem to back up his observations about the city's growing number of ice cream trucks.

As of July, there were 138 ice-cream trucks licensed to do business in Toronto, according to Tammy Robbinson, a senior communications co-ordinator for the city.

That's a double-digit increase over the number of trucks licensed just five years ago (112), or 10 years ago (113).

Licensing information provided to CBC News by the city indicate that 49 ice-cream trucks are registered to single owners.

That means that nearly two in three Toronto ice cream trucks are owned by someone who has at least one other truck on the go — businesses like Heavenly Dreams or Olympic Softee.

All photos by the CBC's David Donnelly