Monday 19 August 2019

The Iceman cometh: whipping up a storm at Teddy's

Kim Bielenberg puts on an apron and tries to exorcise his summer job demons by selling ice creams in Dublin's Dún Laoghaire

King cone: Kim at Teddy’s. Photo: Damien Eagers
King cone: Kim at Teddy’s. Photo: Damien Eagers
Kim with colleagues for the day Yasmin Khan, Abigail Doran and Georgia Hanlon. Photo: Damien Eagers
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The seafront of Dún Laoghaire has its summer routines that have barely changed over the decades. Come rain or shine, shivering teenagers wrapped in damp towels amble back in their trunks from a swim at the Forty Foot.

On the promontory at the end of Scotsman's Bay, in the first scene from James Joyce's Ulysses, "stately plump Buck Mulligan walked to the stairwell" in the Martello Tower, just next to the Gentleman's Bathing Place.

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And just like Buck Mulligan and James Joyce himself, the Forty Foot swimmers of our own time can gaze over Dublin Bay at "the snotgreen sea, the scrotum-tightening sea".

Four-and-a-half decades ago, as a boy, I used to dive into the sea here when my mother was working in a language school nearby in Dalkey. Then, as now, wrapped in towels, the Forty Foot swimmers wandered around the bay to Teddy's for an ice cream. And they still do it - even on Christmas Day.

Kim with colleagues for the day Yasmin Khan, Abigail Doran and Georgia Hanlon. Photo: Damien Eagers
Kim with colleagues for the day Yasmin Khan, Abigail Doran and Georgia Hanlon. Photo: Damien Eagers

On a typical summer evening, there could be a queue of up to 30 snaking around the corner towards Dún Laoghaire harbour and the ferry terminal.

For many emigrants taking the ship to Holyhead, a Teddy's ice cream must have been the last taste of home, and for children coming up from the country, it was the highlight of a trip to the capital.

In those days, the ice cream was dispensed by Mr Teddy himself, Edward Jacob, an elegantly attired gentleman in a cravat, who worked with his friend Austin Doyle. In his spare time, the ice-cream man was an artist.

Teddy established one of the most successful ice-cream businesses in the country when he started selling 99s from his garden shed, which happened to be ideally placed on the seafront in an area that has occasionally harboured pretensions to be "Dublin's Riviera".

It may not be St Tropez or the Côte d'Azur. One was never going to bump into Brigitte Bardot strolling along the promenade, but the attraction of the ice-cream shop and the pier has always been that you can go there on a summer evening in August - and feel as though you are on holiday, even though you have never gone away.

On sunny evenings, pound notes and pennies flew into the till as a constant swirl of whipped ice was poured on to crunchy cones, sometimes three at once to save time. Ice cream has always been big business.

In recent days, I returned to Teddy's to see what it must be like to work there in a summer job. Eyeing its bank of chocolate flakes boxes piled up against the wall, and its jars of boiled sweets - apple drops, bon bons and bull's eyes - and the ancient weighing scales, measuring bags of sweets by the quarter pound, I had always fondly imagined that it would not be too far removed from serving time in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

I might not have mastered the art of dispensing three cones at once, but I would surely have fared better in the ice-cream trade than I did in my other summer jobs back in the 1980s.

In my first summer employment at Spick and Span Cleaning Services in Dublin, I was relieved of the job after just two days, and I have never quite got to the bottom of it.

Was it because fussy clients complained that they could no longer see through their windows after I had mopped them?

Or was it down to that incident where a lawnmower went hurtling down a hill, narrowly missing the proprietor's mother before careering on to some rocks? The sudden termination of my employment remains a mystery.

Having been cruelly excluded from employment in Dublin, I exiled myself to Paris where I lasted for two weeks in a restaurant called Quickburger. That was until they decided that my careful approach to flipping burgers was trop lent (too slow) - they feared that I would devalue the entire Quickburger brand if I did not leave toute suite.

I fared a lot better as a lounge boy in an ill-fitting white jacket in Searson's pub on Baggot Street and managed to survive an entire summer. But as a 19-year-old measuring six feet and five inches, it was disconcerting to hear the head barman shouting "Shake a leg, Tiny!" every time an order came in.

I arrived at the door of Teddy's in recent days ready to be trained up, and hoping to exorcise these summer job demons that occasionally come back to me like one of those Leaving Cert dreams.

In some ways, the scene along the seafront has not changed all that much since I was a boy. Now living nearby, I have been there many times since.

Ice-cream dynasty

The mailboat, which for over a century was a familiar sight on the Dún Laoghaire horizon, has gone, and the foghorns have been silenced. But the yachts still make a tinkling sound on their moorings, or race each other out in the bay, and trains rumble through a tunnel near the shoreline.

Mature ladies in cardigans queue patiently for their 99s, as their grandchildren almost jump with excitement as they get closer and closer to the whirring whipping machine.

Couples in the car park opposite Teddy's still engage in one of our great national pastimes - sitting in their cars and gazing blankly at the sea, and beyond to Howth Head

Teddy himself has gone to the great ice-cream parlour in the sky along with the Hughes Brothers of HB fame and the man who sang on the Cornetto ad, but Dún Laoghaire's famous brand is now thriving in the hands of an ice-cream dynasty, the Khan family.

Originally from South Africa, Brian Khan came to Ireland to train to be a doctor in the 1960s and then worked in accountancy. But then he decided that curing ailments and totting up figures were not for him - his true vocation in life was to sell ice cream.

He bought Teddy's shop in the early 1990s, and the family has been running it ever since. They have turned it into an ice-cream empire, with shops in Bray and the centre of Dublin, and a second shop in Dún Laoghaire, which even has vegan ice cream.

At the original Teddy's shop, I am welcomed by Brian's daughter Yasmin and two of my colleagues for the day, Georgia Hanlon and Abigail Doran. For Georgia and Abigail, this is their second summer season in the frontline at Teddy's and at the age of 18 they have only recently done their Leaving Cert.

Abigail, who wants to train to be a paramedic, says it is enjoyable work. "Lots of customers like to stop and talk and you feel better afterwards as a result," she says

Yasmin, who first came to Teddy's to buy sweets at the age of eight, agrees that for many customers, buying an ice cream is almost like a form of therapy.

The same customer might turn up every single day at the same time and buy the same ice cream. One man comes every day at the same time and asks for "a plain cone with just a bit of blood", referring to the raspberry syrup that goes on top.

And then there are the customers who call in every Christmas Day.

"It's a bit like being a barman," says Yasmin. "People come over when they are having a bad day, and talk about their issues. Then they get an ice cream and they are happy."

Like her father, Yasmin ended up steeped in ice cream after dabbling in other professions. She trained as a computer scientist and as a Montessori teacher, before the irresistible lure of the cone brought her into her father's business.

She runs the business with her brothers, and says jokingly: "Our dad is still bossing us around."

My two young co-workers give me instructions on how to serve ice cream. "First things first - you have to smile at the customer," they insist, as a pair of eager heads appear at the hatch.

The first customer is wearing a Sunday newspaper supplement, Chinese style, on his head, to shelter himself from the rain. The raindrops bounce off the top of the makeshift hat, as he smiles and asks for a 99 with sprinkles.

My colleague Georgia, who ultimately plans to become a social worker, tells me that hygiene is crucial in this business. There is no time for hanging around in Teddy's, because as she puts it - "If you have time to lean, you have time to clean."

I am told to wash my hands and put a rubber glove on one hand - not the hand that will be used for taking in money. And I am expected to turn over one ice cream every minute.

I hold a napkin around the cone as I place it under the dispenser and pull the handle slowly, as fresh ice cream comes swirling down.

But my timing is wrong as I forget to put the handle back up and the resulting ice cream looks more like a Wibbly Wobbly Wonder toppling sideways than the elegant cone expected by the patient customer.

To complete the 99, I am told that the half-flake must be inserted diagonally. Teddy's proudly boasts that this is the "home of the 99", but that prompts me to wonder about another of life's great mysteries. Nobody seems to know where the name '99' came from. I can be sure that it is not connected to the original price of the cones, because when I was a boy, they cost a lot less than 99 pence.

Yasmin Khan goes along with the theory that the 99 moniker was devised by Italian ice-cream sellers and has its origins in the Italian monarchy. The king used to have an elite guard consisting of 99 men.

"They wanted to do something special for the king - they used to order gelatos and in order to make it special, they put chocolate in them," she says.

Secret recipe

So what is the Teddy's recipe for ice cream? If Yasmin Khan told me, she would probably have to kill me, as the precise ingredients are a secret that is guarded like an ancient religious prophesy or the American nuclear launch code.

"The recipe came with the shop," she says. "You can't patent a recipe, so we don't tell anyone what it is. I am not even going to tell you who makes it for us."

Containers of the specially mixed cream are emptied into the back of the machines and moved around by a device known as an agitator. Yasmin regards making ice cream as an art and a science. She scoffs at the whipping machines casually placed in convenience stores, and the back of supermarkets.

"I don't know why they sell it in convenience stores," she says. "It's like a clothes shop selling coffee. If you are going to sell ice cream, you have to be a connoisseur."

Warming to her theme, Yasmin says: "Making it properly is all about the sugar, the fat and the air ratio.

"If there's too much fat, it will be too heavy and if there is too much air, it will freeze."

Geraldine, a customer queuing up for a cone, says she has come from Kildare because she felt an urge to be by the sea.

"I have been coming since I was a girl in the 1950s, and it's always a treat."

As the evening darkens, the last customers arrive, and my colleagues prepare to shut up shop soon after 9.30pm. I haven't succeeded in turning over one ice cream every minute, or even one every five minutes, but the customers have been happy to stop and talk.

As she heads off after another day dispensing cones by the hundred, Yasmin explains the longevity of Teddy's: "I think we'll continue selling ice cream, because we love what we do."

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