Mister Softee’s Kosher Kin Gets Warm Welcome
Up and down the streets of London’s most Orthodox neighborhoods, Rafi Fuchs drives a van that has kids giving chase, yarmulkes flapping in the wind. Europe’s first kosher ice-cream truck sells only one flavor: vanilla. But that was good enough to sell some 3,000 cones on hot afternoons in Golders Green this summer, when the truck first took to the streets. “Rafi’s like a Pied Piper,” David Rokach, the truck’s Orthodox owner, said of his star salesman, who wears a cowboy hat and an ear-to-ear grin as he hawks his scoops.
Rokach, who owns two Kosher King Supermarkets in London, dreamed up the kosher ice-cream truck and dubbed it “Uncle Doovy,” drawing on a nickname suggested by his kids, ages 12, 13 and 16. He commissioned Tizra Peleg, an Israeli children’s book illustrator best known for “Avi and Chavi Visit the Farm,” to design the Uncle Doovy truck. She drew teddy bears eating ice cream as a central motif. While Rokach was pleased with the design, he felt the truck should stand out in some other way. After weeks of brainstorming, an idea was born. Rather than the recycled old jingles (think “Old McDonald Had a Farm”) that ordinary ice cream trucks chime, Uncle Doovy would belt out chasidic melodies. Rokach submitted a stack of sheet music to a software company that specializes in ice-cream truck jingles. Soon Uncle Doovy had its signature sound. A collection of 15 songs including “Moshiach”— and “Hava Nagila,” of course — now resonate from the truck’s speakers, drawing crowds from 10:30 in the morning until way past dark.
Most soft-serve ice cream is not kosher, because it generally contains gelatin. Rokach imports his ice-cream mix from an American company, which makes the kosher soft-serve mix served on trucks in Lakewood, N.J., and a few other Jewish neighborhoods. Fuchs tops the vanilla with sprinkles, almonds and chocolate, vanilla or strawberry sauce. “About 90% of our customers are Jewish,” Rokach said, “but a lot of non-Jews like this, too. In the end, an ice-cream truck is an ice-cream truck, whether it’s kosher or not.” And it’s not just kids who are flocking to Uncle Doovy. About 40% of the truck’s patrons are adults.
At the peak of the summer heat, demand was so high for the truck that Fuchs started carrying around a cell phone so patrons could call and beg for a visit from Uncle Doovy. Some days he would be flooded with as many as 250 calls. As the weather has cooled off this fall, so have ice-cream sales, but Fuchs and Rokach have added hot menu items and focused on marketing. They have distributed 20,000 cards advertising Uncle Doovy’s goods and expect sales to grow throughout the year, as word-of-mouth builds Doovy’s reputation. Next summer, Rokach plans to launch a sequel to last summer’s smash hit. Uncle Doovy 2 will be bigger and better than the original ice-cream truck. And it may even carry chocolate, doubling the offerings on Fuchs’s ice-cream menu.
Even with the temperature dropping, the truck has been staying on the streets until 10:30 p.m. It makes frequent stops after school at local yeshivas and neighborhood hangouts. During the winter, the truck sells veggie hot dogs, cotton candy, Israeli snacks and popcorn. But ice cream is always on sale, even when it’s freezing out.
Once in a while, on a warm day, demand overwhelms Fuchs, interrupting his normally flawless serving skills. One recent afternoon, Rokach said, Fuchs accidentally handed out a big scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with ketchup. “Rafi doesn’t usually mix up his hot dogs and his ice cream,” Rokach said. “But sometimes even Uncle Doovy slips up.”
Jeremy Caplan, who writes for Time, lives in New York City.