An Interview with Roland Antonelli

A look at how the ice cream industry has developed and how ice cream cones and flavours have changed …

Many of you will have met or will know of Roland Antonelli, father of Mark & David who currently direct the Antonelli ice cream business in Manchester.  Roland, at 85 years old, is still the chairman of the ice cream cone company and can often be seen at the office or in the factory (when he is not otherwise occupied on the golf course!).

It was Roland who took his experience working in the family biscuit and wafer business and decided to set up a separate bakery specifically to make ice cream cones and wafer cones.  We thought it would be interesting to look back on how the industry has changed since 1961 when the Eccles bakery was first established, so we asked Roland a few questions…

What was your first memory of ice cream?

I remember going with my father on a last minute delivery to help out a customer in Blackpool.  It must have been just after the war as we had petrol for the car, but there was still heavy rationing which restricted the production of ice cream.  However the customer in Blackpool had a daughter who married an American Service Man so they were given some extra supplies from the Americans.  When we arrived the queue for the shop was half a mile down the street, as they were the only ice cream makers for miles around due to the rationing. There was only vanilla ice cream then, of course, and it was selling so fast there was no time to put it on display it was just coming straight out of the kitchen and into wafers or cones

In fact it is interesting to note that in those days adults had wafer sandwiches and only children had cones (obviously all wafer cones).

Roland expands on this memory adding that before the war in 1939 the industry was virtually bankrupt due to price wars in a growing market, with everyone selling at a cut price. So how did the business survive then you might wonder?  “Antonelli had two advantages, firstly as manufacturers of biscuits and cones we were able to bulk buy our flour and secondly the International Biscuit Company (IBC), as it was then called, had the contract to supply iron rations biscuits to the military.  In addition to that Antonelli always positioned themselves at the top end of the market, much like we do today and hence the development of the strapline ‘Cones for the Connoisseur’.” 

The industry was basically in crisis before the war and with rationing after the war how did it develop?

With rationing continuing until the early to mid 1950s, flour allocations were tight resulting in a lot of trade being done on the black market.  Sugar was also still on ration until Autumn 1953.  Obviously all this affected the ice cream industry as the UK as a whole was back to basics with few luxury foods available, including restrictions on hotels and restaurants on the pricing of meals and the number of courses allowed to be served.  It is hard for those of us born since this period, who take our luxuries for granted, to appreciate how this impacted on daily life.  

Back to the Antonelli business though, it was in the 1950s that Roland and his two brothers Ernest and Victor joined the family business (IBC).  By the end of rationing the late 1950s saw business booming for ice cream makers, biscuit and cones manufacturers across the UK.  After gaining experience and knowledge of biscuit and wafer making and selling, in 1961 Roland and his brothers decided to set up a dedicated ice cream cone and wafer factory in Eccles and so the company Antonelli Bros was born.  Starting from scratch with just 3 hand machines, volume was limited.  Roland was very hands on - he would wait until the van was full then go out and sell those cones.  On his return he would take a stint in the bakery helping with production.  As Roland established the Antonelli name in the local market the business expanded with larger, faster machines being introduced in 1963 and 1972.

What was so special about the Antonelli ice cream cone?

Our policy was, and indeed still is, to make ‘Cones for the Connoisseur’, Roland tells us (with a glint in his eye). I spoke to customers using other suppliers’ cones who couldn’t understand that when selling cones near the seaside that their display cones went soft by the end of the day”.  Antonelli’s ‘Cones for the Connoisseur’ are baked for longer to ensure all the moisture is removed so if they are then exposed to a damp atmosphere they don’t go floppy quickly.  We obviously recommend that you keep our cones fresh by keeping them in the boxes but you always need some on show and available for serving. 

So lets examine how and when the expansion in the vast choice of cones occurred…

 When did different types of ice cream cones become more widely available and what was the market reaction?

Wafer sandwiches were largely driven out by vendors being incapable of meeting increasingly stringent health and safety/food hygiene requirements.  It simply became quicker to serve ice cream in a cone than between two wafers.” Roland explains.  This meant that as the demand for wafers diminished, the cones market grew.  Antonelli was the first UK manufacturer to introduce sugar cones, which was even before the move to Eccles. However,  Roland recalls that it wasn’t really until the mid 1990s that waffle cones emerged into the UK market.  He explains that until the introduction of the Antonelli Smoothy® waffle cone many ice cream manufacturers actually made their own waffle cones on site, by hand. “Our new Smoothy® waffle cone was a ground breaking development in UK cone manufacturing”  In fact to this day our Smoothy® cones are the only smooth waffle cones made in the UK, indeed Antonelli are the only UK manufacturers of waffle cones, so you know if your waffle cones are not Antonelli cones then they were probably made in Europe somewhere.

How different is the market today than it was in 1961 when you first opened the bakery in Eccles? 

The market has changed dramatically during that period,” Roland relates, “in the 60s and 70s the market was predominantly served by mobilers or ice cream vans as the public would call them.  Local Authority legislation around licensing for selling ice cream on streets and the introduction of employment tax had a detrimental impact on the mobiling sector with a vast reduction in the number of vans on the road.  Those left belong mainly to single van operators or much smaller fleets.  On the upside there has been an increase in ice cream parlours or ‘Gelaterias’ as they are now often called who have filled the gap left by the disappearing mobilers.” 

Roland also highlights the changes in manufacturing; “Another significant change in the dynamics of the industry is that the number of cones manufacturers has also dropped dramatically with ice cream makers no longer making their own cones on site. This is due to the introduction of automated  machines producing quality cones to meet increasingly high demand. These smaller number of cones suppliers have, as a result, grown and also taken on the supply of  ice cream ingredients from specialist manufacturers.  Mark and David did well to secure the UK sole distributor contract for the world’s leading flavour house - MEC3, which has helped the business grow phenomenally over the last decade. So during the life of the bakery at Eccles our products have increased from 7 to somewhere around 1007!

Interestingly, because of these changes the market is now more of a national market rather than the local, regional markets of the 1960s, 70s, 80s and even 90s. In fact there are some areas of  the South West and Scotland who are still learning about the Antonelli name as our market was traditionally based around Manchester and the North West, but with Sales Managers in these areas we hope to soon spread the word to the far reaches of the UK.

Finally the other major difference in the market today compared with the early 1960s is the reduced seasonality of the industry.  “Whilst sales of ice cream or gelato and cones are obviously higher when the sun shines in the summer months, sales are now made virtually all year round with a few businesses closing for a short time at the beginning of the calendar year, particularly in tourist areas.  Historically vans would only be on the road for 9 months of the year and all ice cream shops closed for the winter.”  With the introduction of ice cream kiosks and parlours into shopping centres, where the weather does not affect sales so much, as consumers are protected inside, demand for ice cream cones looks set to increase.

I am proud of our family heritage and the fact that the Antonelli name and brand goes from strength to strength.  Mark and David are taking the business to a whole new level and it is great to see the expansion of the business that started relatively small in 1961, with new premises and new faces joining our extended family.” Roland likes to keep up to date with the latest developments in the business and is a familiar face in the office and the bakery.

So what is the secret of your success?

We will leave Roland to have the last word;

As I said earlier quality is the foundation to the success of our products. So if your waffle and Smoothy® cones arrive in an Antonelli box, only then can you be assured that they are from the UK’s specialist, as we don’t make for anyone else.  As for the business - building relationships both with customers and looking after our people are key and I believe that is what we do well”.