Dirk Mischendahl’s 1972 Bedford van was in the Trinity Leeds street food market in 2015 when a man stopped by and began insulting the quality of Northern Bloc’s ice cream. In Italian. “We’d spray painted the van grey and white to show we weren’t some posh, rolling hills ice cream, we were making it on an estate opposite a sex shop and a prison,” says Mischendahl. “We would make the ice cream at night, sell it in the day. We’d forage for sorrel, source the strawberries. But the van wouldn’t go faster than 30mph, it was always breaking down and we didn’t really know what we were doing.”
At the time of the encounter, Mischendahl was still fairly new to the ice cream business. Two years earlier, he was running the agency Logistik, which he’d founded in 1996. Mischendahl says the police in Leeds still hate him for one of his early events, the 200,000+ person Love Parade dance music event in Roundhay Park which “shut down the city” in July 2000. Over the next decade and a half, though, the agency shifted further into corporate events, training, communications and consultancy for Unilever, Asda, BMW and Marks & Spencer.
It was teleconferencing that made him snap. Logistik had taken on Lloyds Bank’s big, annual conference for 5,000 people. “We had a 98 per cent positive response from delegates,” he says, “but the person from Lloyds said they had to point out that the telephone conferencing system was a bit echoey. I thought ‘I can’t be dealing with people like this much longer, it’s unbearable’.” Mischendahl sold his 43 per cent stake in the business and started selling ice cream out of a van with Josh Lee, the nephew of a former girlfriend. They were both foodies with an interest in sustainability; Mischendahl had worked on his father’s farm 20 years earlier.
“In the UK, ice cream is still seen as a second-rate dessert and no-one was doing it the way we envisaged it, which was all about the product, the ingredients, bold flavours and how it was presented,” he says. Mischendahl compares Northern Bloc’s approach to switching from Carlsberg to craft beer. Enter Manolo Imperatori, the opinionated customer in the Trinity Leeds food court, who turned out to be a third-generation ice cream maker and World Gelato Championship winner from Civitanova, Italy. He dropped off his CV a week later and has served as Head of New Product Development since the summer of 2015.
Northern Bloc, which now sells both dairy and vegan ice creams, started out in Leeds city centre and food festivals, graduating to Lord’s Cricket Ground and theatres such as the West Yorkshire Playhouse. When Covid hit, Mischendahl recalls how millennial business owners in a nearby converted flax mill were “shell shocked”. His experience of the 2008 recession at Logistik gave him a “toolbox” of advice he could offer, mostly around resilience and agility. The upshot? Adapt to the here and now, but hold off on major, life-changing decisions until everything settles down. “We’ll get through this, we’re a strong brand,” he says, “but even though we source locally, with Brexit, we need a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C-1, Plan C-2…” Northern Bloc was able to continue manufacturing throughout 2020 as “theoretically, ice cream is essential”.
Mischendahl and Lee have had to focus much more on retail in 2020 than they had intended, with plans for sponsorship of family-oriented events on pause. Their products, which come in biodegradable sugarcane packaging, are stocked in Amazon Fresh, home delivery service Delifresh and Waitrose, which is carrying its vegan white chocolate and honeycomb “The Show Must Go On” pot with profits going to the Theatre Support Fund+. “I still want to stay small and keep innovating,” says Mischendahl. “When I did events, I wanted to be the man about town, whereas now I want to make sure the team is having a good time and create a product I’m proud of, a product that I’m having fun with.”
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