Meet Mr. Tee, the Welsh Muslim Ice Cream Van Man with a Cult Following
Tariq started out selling freakshake-style ice creams on council estates in Wrexham. Now, as “Mr. Tee,” he makes a living touring his hugely popular ice cream van across the UK.
Toutes les photos sont de Naomi Yates.
It's 9 PM and a crowd is gathered outside a bowling alley on an industrial estate in Shrewsbury. Two vans are parked up and it's a humid night. From a distance, you might assume that some kind of fight or disturbance is taking place. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the two vehicles at the centre of the 50-strong gathering are actually ice cream vans. A few hours earlier, Mr. Tee, the "King of Desserts," alerted his 60,000 Facebook followers that he would be bringing his ice cream van to the car park that evening, with a post that read: "HARLESCOTT GRANGE BOWLING ALLEY 6PM!" For the last three hours, people have been arriving in their cars, parking up, and queuing for Mr. Tee's ice cream trays. The flavours range from banoffee pie and strawberry chocolate Oreo to fudgy caramel and Lindt waffle, each one loaded with a variety of sprinkles, chocolate chunks, sweets, and sauce.
A long queue snakes from the van's window, with Mr. Tee leaning out to serve customers and take selfies for his more eager fans. Some in the queue have been waiting an hour just to buy one of his ice creams.
What exactly is going on? How exciting can ice cream be if people are willing to queue for an hour to eat it—especially when Tesco is a five-minute walk away?
"An hour is nothing!" laughs Mr. Tee as he serves a bubblegum-blue ice cream tray to a customer. "I can show you videos of people queuing for at least two hours!"
A group of teenage boys with strong Midlands accents and football shirts stop by the van to high-five Mr. Tee through the window. "You watch the game?" one of them asks.
Mr. Tee, who is of British Indian heritage and whose real name is Tariq (he goes by the pseudonym because "it's just easier for English people"), grew up in Wrexham, North Wales. He has worked for food in 15 years, including time in a takeaway, where he sold pizza and burgers. Two years ago, he bought an old ice cream van and had a brainwave: he would deliver ice cream to local council estates, advertising on Facebook and bringing orders to people's doors. The idea worked and he managed to build up a sizeable following in Wrexham, before branching out to deliver to supermarket car parks, rugby clubs, and charity events in other nearby towns.
"I've been around the country more than the Prime Minister!" he laughs.
Mr. Tee serves over 75 different types of ice cream topping combinations, including red velvet cake, hot fudge waffles, ice cream banoffee pie, and the "Crunchie Blast." The "Mr Tee King Of Desserts - Original and BEST" Facebook page is testament to the popularity of these creations. Each photo he posts receives likes and comments from happy customers, raving about their favourite toppings and imploring him to return to their hometowns. "Mr Tee your ice cream are heavenly please come back to Telford soon xx" is one typical comment.
"You know what Desis are like, we have that immigrant hustle," says Mr. Tee, whose customer base is almost exclusively white. "It was around Easter two years ago that I just had a brainwave with Easter eggs. I filled half of it with ice cream added some snazz to it—like sprinkles, sherbet, and what have you—and sold them for £3.50 each. Then on social media, it went mental. I thought, I'm onto something here, because I was preparing the ice cream and recipes in my own way. So they look satisfying and delicious, but taste even better. Now, in Wrexham, I'm like, a bit of a celebrity. I'm probably the best ice cream man in the country now."
"It's just a small thing but he's famous now. You don't get a lot of famous people coming to these estates, so we'll do with Mr. Tee."
Mr. Tee's Facebook uploads of bounteous ice cream trays come at a time when online "dessert porn" is at its peak. Social media feeds teem with rainbow pastries, slow-motion videos of cakes being iced, and over-the-top freakshakes. With many of these Instagram-friendly desserts being sold at pop-ups in gentrified neighbourhoods of big cities or photographed by far-off American food "influencers," Mr. Tee gives those in Britain's lower income areas and regional towns a chance to experience the novelty dessert hype for themselves.
In the queue, I speak to Chloe Morgan, who has just ordered a triple bubblegum hot fudge sundae. She lives nearby and drove to the car park after seeing Mr. Tee's Facebook post earlier.
"Once I did queue for two hours," she tells me sheepishly. "I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about because literally, my whole Facebook was taken up with people raving about it. So, I tried it and have to admit, it was amazing."
Others see the excitement surrounding Mr. Tee's ice cream van as down to more than just soft serve and sprinkles.
"Well, it's just an excuse to do something fun and get people together," says Matt, a Shrewsbury local who agrees to be interviewed if I help him jump the queue. "What else is really going on in this area? Like, it's just a small thing but he's famous now. You don't get a lot of famous people coming to these estates, so we'll do with Mr. Tee."
It could just look like a novelty but Mr. Tee's business is said to be worth some serious money. When I ask him whether the rumour that he makes in excess of £10,000 in some weeks is true, he throws me a cheeky smile and says he'll tell me off the record. All I'll say is that the figure is high.
Mr. Tee's success is doubly impressive given that the ice cream van business seems to be a dying trade. The number of vans on Britain's roads has fallen from 25,000 in their 1970s heyday to 5,000, with only around 500 mobile vans now driving from street to street. In 2013, tabloid paper The Sunday People launched "Cone and Get One," a campaign that aimed to "breathe life back into this ailing industry" by "urging you, the British public ... to support your nearest ice cream van by using it whenever you can."
The crowd around the ice cream van in Shrewsbury is thinning as the evening comes to a close. It's a few days ahead of Ramadan, which Mr. Tee and his family will be observing. He's trying to get in the last of his late night business before he begins the fasting period.
"Yeah, it gets a bit hard in the heat around ice cream all day," he admits.
Two men stop by the ice cream window to say goodbye to Mr. Tee, both of them sporting Union Jack tattoos. He notices their Manchester United football shirts and shouts across the car park: "Keep it red, bro!"
In some ways, Mr. Tee's story is symbolic of Britain in 2017: a British Indian Muslim taking a dying traditional trade and reigniting it.
"It's just your average immigrant story—a North Walian Indian Muslim ice cream van man," he says, scooping out a final serving of thick butterscotch ice cream. "I just serve ice cream, it's not political. But what I will say is that I read the papers, see this hot political climate and think, well, maybe people need cooling down."