Sweet licks of summer in Suzhou

Updated: 2012-04-23 10:52

By Eric Jou (China Daily)

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Sweet licks of summer in Suzhou

Turner Sparks operates ice cream truck on the streets of Suzhou, Jiangsu province. Provided to China Daily

When summer weather comes around, an unexpected sight can be seen on the streets of Suzhou, Jiangsu province: an ice cream truck driving down the streets.

Turner Sparks, a 29-year-old American and the CEO of Mister Softee China, operates the company's ice cream trucks a few times a month, and he loves to see the reactions of his customers.

"It's cool, they'll just see me and sometimes people will try to order in English," said Sparks of his Chinese customers.

"Usually the biggest reaction comes from other foreigners - when they see me on the trucks you can see on their faces that it's just not computing at all."

Originally from California, Sparks moved to China in 2005 to teach English after graduating with a journalism degree. In his mind it was a one-year deal, but a year later Sparks was hired by a Chinese friend to work for his cellphone manufacturing company.

During his extended time in China, Sparks kept in touch with his college friend Alex Conway. Conway, the grandson of the founder of Mister Softee, was looking for business opportunities in China at the time. Soon Conway's family business was on its way to China with Sparks at the helm.

After acquiring the rights to the brand in 2006, Sparks embarked on a domestic journey to find equipment suppliers and a supply chain for his ice cream. After finding trucks, ice cream-making equipment and a dairy supplier, Sparks' next big challenge was to find out if there was a market for Mister Softee in China.

"When we started, a lot of people were telling us that Chinese people don't drink milk so you'll have trouble selling ice cream," said Sparks. "It really hasn't been the case. It might be a generation thing because our consumers are kids, college students, and it really tops out at people who are 35-45 year olds who bring their kids. We have a younger demographic."

Initially Sparks gave out loads of freebies to test out his flavors and to pinpoint his market.

"We had a party in Suzhou to test and we basically advertised free ice cream in a park," said Sparks. "We set up a big tent, some games and an ice cream-eating competition."

"I was worried parents didn't want their kids to do it, but all the parents were in the front row going 'jia you jia you' [come on]. This one kid was clearly not feeling good but his parents kept pushing him on."

Convinced there was indeed a market for ice cream in Suzhou, Sparks set to build an iconic Mister Softee truck, and to set up a shop.

The store proved to be a valuable learning experience. Sparks retells opening day, where within the time frame of an hour, his store was already 400 yuan ($63) in the red.

"Our first customer came in with a 100 yuan note, and she asked for one ice cream cone which is 6 yuan, we gave her the cone and the 94 yuan change," said Sparks. "Then another person came in and another. It was like four people in a row with 100 yuan notes buying single cones and after they all left we realized all the bills were fake."

Despite that initial set back, the store soon grew vigorously, and today eight trucks equipped with industrial ice cream machines are on the roll in the Suzhou area.

"I'm pretty happy talking to people," said Sparks. "Sometimes you'll have a line of 10 people and the person will want to talk for a couple of minutes, and I have to say, I'm kind of busy I'll talk to you later."

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