x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A man with a van

As the founder of Desert Chill Ice Cream, Dan Furlong brings cool treats to Dubai's sweltering neighbourhoods. We ride along with him.

Melanie Sabunchi and her children buy ice cream from Dan Furlong, the founder of Desert Chill.
Melanie Sabunchi and her children buy ice cream from Dan Furlong, the founder of Desert Chill.

It's 43 degrees in the shade on a sleepy Saturday afternoon. A determined breeze blows hot air into my face like a huge invisible hair dryer, and a shimmering haze dances above the dusty road. I'm sweating from pores I didn't know existed. There's nobody around except for Dan Furlong. And on days like these, he's the kind of guy you want to have around.

I'm walking (a little breathlessly, it has to be said) towards his Desert Chill Ice Cream van, which is parked by The Meadows 2, a gated community near the Montgomerie Golf Club in Dubai. Furlong, cheerily resplendent in his company-branded sky blue and pink polo shirt, greets me with a smile that's almost as warm as the weather. We take a ride in the van that's been putting the chill into children (and adults) for the last seven months.

At 27 years old, Furlong is one of those savvy young entrepreneurs who's been able to spot a gap in the market, fill it with flair and imagination, and leave everybody else saying "I wish I'd thought of that". Along with his 25-year-old brother, Nathen, he has masterminded a small business that seems like such an obvious idea that it's difficult to imagine why someone else hadn't already done it. "I came over to visit my parents, who were already based here in Dubai," he explains. "I was studying events management at university and I decided I was going to stay here. I went to a number of different events and I saw that there were no ice cream vans. So I did some research and found out there wasn't a single ice cream van company in Dubai. The place is hot all year round, and the two things that are here are people with disposable incomes and children. Lots of children."

As we cruise the empty streets, the Desert Chill van's distinctive melodic chimes belt out Greensleeves. Furlong pulls up outside the leafy abode of some regular customers, the Al Janahi family. After some coaxing to go out into the blistering heat, eight-year-old Tammy scampers over to the van. "Hello Dan," she calls excitedly, and the two enter negotiations over which flavoured ice will hit the spot on this very hot day.

Not far behind Tammy is her big sister, Sara, who tells me that, these days at least, she takes a more disciplined approach to ice cream. "Now I've stopped eating it, but I used to love the flake ones," she says. "I used to eat way too many of those. But every week Dan comes around and we always buy ice creams. I have two other sisters and my parents all enjoy ice cream so we buy as much as we can."

Ice cream vans may be a common summertime sight throughout Europe, North America and Australia, but Furlong's enterprise is the first and only one of its kind in the UAE. I wonder if an Emirati family such as the Al Janahis were surprised by the sight of a multicoloured Mercedes 308 CDI patrolling their serene neighbourhood and blaring out an Elizabethan English folk song. "We go on holiday to England in the summer, so I'm used to seeing it there. But it's nice to have it here," Tammy says. "And last week Dan came around playing Happy Birthday, because it was my birthday. It's really good. All our neighbours seem to enjoy it as well."

The van's melodies are more versatile than it would first appear. "There's a hundred tunes on the tune bank, but I always remember Greensleeves from when I was a child," Furlong says. "But the other ones that we sometimes use are Teddy Bears Picnic and Oranges and Lemons, stuff like that. With the Happy Birthday music, it's quite a nice touch to turn up at somebody's house as a surprise. They come out with the rest of their party and it's all centralised around them - we provide them with an ice cream birthday cake or serve the regular ice creams."

With melting ice lolly juice threatening to run down Tammy's arm, I ask about her favourite cold treat on a baking summer's day. "Erm..." she thinks for a second. "Mark Up!" she says, recalling a colourful raspberry, pineapple and mango flavoured ice lolly by Igloo. "It's too hot today," she says. "I like cold weather." And with that, she gives Furlong a hug, a kiss on the cheek and a parting "Love you, Dan" before escaping the heat. Unlike one of Desert Chill's ice creams, it's enough to make you feel all warm inside.

It's clear that the rewards in this job are more than financial. But it's taken a lot of hard work and planning for Furlong to get where he is today. "I compiled a business plan, completed my research to make sure nobody else was doing this, and then it was meeting after meeting with Dubai Municipality to get everything approved," he says. "Basically it was a learning process, step by step, just getting it set up. At the moment, technically, you can't just pull up anywhere on the street. You need permission. I had lots of meetings with companies like Emaar, Nakheel and Union Properties to get the permits, and they were all fantastic and supportive. We're continually building relationships with the Dubai economic department and the food control section, and the relationship is a good one."

Then there are the vans themselves. Desert Chill has a fleet of three, all decked out in distinctive pink and blue with a logo of a cartoon camel enjoying an ice cream. "I didn't want to bring over an old-fashioned ice cream van," says Furlong. "I wanted to create something new, something modern. The Brits might be familiar with the old concept, but to everybody else it would just look cheap and nasty. We wanted to go high-end with something that's modern and revolutionised, really."

But when I ask Furlong how he converted these ordinary workaday Mercedes vehicles into fully functioning, state-of-the-art ice cream vans, he's reluctant to explain, lest any would-be competitors steal his idea. "We've got a good company that does our vans. I don't want to say too much about the vans," he says. I take a look around the van and spot a couple of freezer units and some cool boxes. One thing that appears to be missing is an ice cream machine. "The soft serve is one of the things that I agreed with the municipality that I wouldn't do," Furlong says. "There's a lot of health and safety implications around a soft-serve ice cream machine. Especially with kids taking the fresh dairy products into the sun. The municipality didn't like it, and I personally didn't want to take the risk of having that on board. We've still got all the popular ice cream, though."

So what can people expect to buy from a Desert Chill ice cream van? "We have a mixture of international brands that would be familiar in Europe and the US, such as Walls," he says. "So we've got Calippos, Magnums, Twisters and those kinds of ice creams that everybody will remember. We've got the Cadbury's stock as well, the 99 Flake and Cadbury's Dairy Milk ones are popular. Then there's Nestle, the old school ones such as Fab and Hubbly Bubbly. We also deal with Baskin Robbins and London Dairy."

I'm mildly disappointed to discover that there are no Screwballs on offer, but apparently the classic ice cream and bubblegum combo is unknown in the Middle East. "Screwballs are one of the things I remember from my childhood," Furlong says. "But I'm struggling to find a supplier for them. We do usually sell cold drinks, but we're looking at other options. Frozen drinks will be the next step, and we're looking to start home delivery, tubs of ice cream and ice cream cakes. Anything that fits the mould - I don't just want to become like a regular shop. If it's something that's going to cool the customer down then it's going to fit in with the brand."

When Furlong first hit the road with his big idea, he was pleased by the response. "It was fantastic," he says, beaming. "Obviously, the British expats were very familiar with it. The most common comment was that it was a home away from home. They liked that we'd brought an old tradition from back home to Dubai. Others were fascinated by it. For many, it was a new concept but once they understood the principles of it they loved it. It's very popular with the Indian and Pakistani community. They have a lot of fun with it."

As we cruise around The Meadows, all kinds of people join in the fun. Akram Pipi and his wife, Tahany, stop the van for some light refreshments. "We got the fruit and nut ice cream, the strawberry and some Popsicles," says Akram as the sun beats down. "I hadn't seen anything like this before. When I first heard the music, I got excited. I thought it was nice. It's a cute concept. It's great for the kids, and we get to enjoy it as well. But I think what you guys need is a shade on the side of the van."

Next up is Melanie Sabunchi and her three young children, Naif, Yasmine and Mazen. "The kids have all gone for an Incredible Hulk," she says. "It's one of their favourites, but they ran out of the mango Popsicles. Sometimes we'll buy them twice a week. I'm from Canada, and they have the bicycles with the little freeze box on the back, but I'd never seen anything like this in a public place. I think it's a brilliant idea. I wish I'd thought of it myself."

With more satisfied customers taken care of, Furlong has the optimistic air of a businessman who's on the verge of something big. "It's gone a lot, lot better than I could ever have hoped for, really," he says. "It's proven to be really successful, so I'm hoping that we'll be in Abu Dhabi soon and then who knows. Maybe next year we'll start to look at further expansion and start to look at franchising out. I've already had a series of meetings with the Abu Dhabi Government and they've been just the same as Dubai, really fantastic and supportive. I deliberately branded the company Desert Chill Ice Cream so I could take the business anywhere there's a desert. So the long-term vision would include places like Bahrain, Qatar - anywhere where there's an expat community and a desert.

"The really great thing about it is that it brings all these different communities together," he says. "I remember one day I had an Indian family and an Emirati family coming to the van while I was serving an English family. There were three different nationalities there. They all lived in the same street but hadn't spoken to each other before. So they actually met for the first time at the van. They all got chatting and shared an ice cream, so that was a pretty cool thing."

Indeed, when it's 43 degrees in the shade, a pretty cool thing is exactly what you need. jbrennan@thenational.ae For memories about growing up with ice cream, see page 11.