Subsidiary Companies

The symbol of Mister Softee known as
'Cone Head' 

Mister Softee Kiosk at Savoy Hotel
supporting the RSPCC Charity1987

Mister Softee van providing emergancy
power supply to Sussex Hospital
Maternity Unit. Frank Wilkinson 1968.

Wilson Burdis and his daughter Christine voted champion driver of the year by Yorkshire Evening Post 1973.


.......Mister Softee Limited


The story of soft ice cream in Britain started in the United States back in 1954 with two Irish brothers, William and James Conway. They had the idea to place a soft ice cream machine/freezer and an electricity generating set into a Chevrolet panel truck, and for the first time, took soft ice cream out of the shopping mall and onto the streets. This new innovation became a huge success and by 1956 it had grown into a fully formed brand – Mister Softee was born. The new ice cream brand was launched to the public in West Philadelphia on St Patrick's Day 1956, and then later that year at The National Ice Cream Convention in Atlantic City.

In 1957 the Managing Director of Smith's Delivery Vehicles (supplier of ice cream vans to Lyons) was on a sales trip to the United States and saw the new Mister Softee mobile ice cream operation. He immediately saw an opportunity to increase vehicle production at his Gateshead factory. Negotiations took place between Smith’s Delivery Vehicles and the Conway brothers with Smith’s eventually securing the rights to the Mister Softee ice cream brand in the United Kingdom. It is here that Lyons enter the story, as Smith’s Delivery Vehicles desperately needed a partner to bring the American brand to the British market. The Board at Lyons listened to Smith's proposal and decided to send an executive on a fact finding trip to the United States. This turned out to be an extended trip with Lyons' Tom Goldsmith working hands-on in every aspect of the Mister Softee organisation before reporting back to the Lyons Board.

Further meetings took place between Smith’s Delivery Vehicles and Lyons with the outcome being an agreement to move forward in the form of a joint venture between the two companies. The initial outcome was the launch of the first mobile ice cream factory* (in Mister Softee livery) at the 1958 Commercial Motor Show, Earls Court. Three prototype vans were initially built with Lyons evaluating two of them from their Bridge Park (Greenford) factory over the winter of 1958/9. It was also important that the all-new tinned sterile mix (being specially developed for Mister Softee at Cadby Hall) worked well in the American ice cream machines. By January 1959 the two firms were ready to cement their relationship by setting up two new companies, Mister Softee (UK) Ltd and Mister Softee (International) Ltd. Smith’s Delivery Vehicles held the majority shareholding (61 per cent) with Lyons' Tom Goldsmith heading up the two companies as Managing Director.

Mister Softee was, from the outset, a franchise operation with the first vans operating in the South West London/Kent borders in the Spring of 1959. With an initial cost of £3,200, a Mister Softee van cost as much as six or seven conventional Lyons Maid vans. However, the cost was progressively reduced and Lyons also began to run their own in-house operation by putting them into their own depots. The first Lyons depots to receive Mister Softee vans were Massarella Supplies Ltd of Doncaster, (a wholly owned subsidiary of Lyons purchased in 1953).

Mister Softee went from strength to strength and by 1961 had already established 34 locations in England and one in Wales. With Mister Softee taking off in a big way, Lyons knew they had a winner and therefore decided to make Smith’s Delivery Vehicles a substantial offer for their majority shareholding which was accepted (circa mid-sixties). This then brought the whole Mister Softee operation under the umbrella of Glacier Foods Ltd, a wholly owned Lyons subsidiary. Mister Softee by now had become a Lyons flagship brand with depots nationwide and franchised operations abroad. By 1968 Mister Softee vans were operating in 15 countries from Belgium to Australia. Lyons’ static sites, such as Wimpy Bars, sold soft ice cream under the Tastee-Freeze name. The ice cream mix was made at Lyons’ Bridge Park factory at Greenford and some say, it was indistinguishable from Mister Softee ice cream.

By the time Tonibell joined the Glacier Foods stable of brands in December 1968, the soft ice cream revolution had peaked. Competition in the mobile sector was intense and profitability would inevitably start a slow decline fuelled by cheap supermarket products and home freezers. The ubiquitous corner shop held a large range of frozen confectionery and congested residential streets made it harder for the 'stop-me-and-by-one' trade to operate. By the end of the 1970's the writing was on the wall for any large corporate capital investment into the mobiling sector of the ice cream industry. Today mobiling is a fraction of its former size and is now dominated by owner drivers.

During this slow decline, Mister Softee faired little better than other brands and by the 1980's it seemed that someone had let go of the corporate helm at Glacier Foods, and it showed. To many it seemed that Mister Softee was left to fend for itself. The killing-off of the smiling face of 'Cone Head' (at the altar of modernity) was seen by franchisees up and down the country as a retrograde step. The brand image continued to dilute and no longer did Mister Softee convey one strong corporate visual image. Nestlé acquired the brand from Allied-Lyons (via the short lived Clarke Foods Ltd involvement) in December 1992. It is unclear when the Mister Softee brand was officially axed by Nestlé but the name remained on new Nestlé vans along with the Lyons Maid logo until at least the mid 1990s. Nestle sold their ice cream business to Richmond Foods Ltd in September 2001.

In 1959 Lyons were in the vanguard of the new soft ice cream revolution and well ahead of Walls who had to purchase the Mr.Whippy organisation to catch up. As a flagship brand within Lyons, Mister Softee became a household name up and down the country. Today the term Mister Softee & its main rival Mr.Whippy have entered the English language as a term for a soft ice cream. Unfortunately, few of the old Lyons ice cream brand names exist but Mister Softee is alive and relatively well, and back where it all started on the eastern seaboard of America. This year (2006) the Mister Softee brand celebrates it's 50th birthday.

*Prior to 1956 ice cream was pre-made at the factory and then kept in a hold-over cabinet on the ice cream van which became known as ‘factories’. Hence the slogan ‘Freshly made just for you’ really meant what it said.

Steve Tillyer
August 2006