Pedalling toward a yummy, sunny future

July 16, 2020

20200716 Leah poses with Unicorn Scoops customers at Lyon ParkLeah Nielsen found a way. 

She built a pedal-propelled, sun-powered ice cream business called Unicorn Scoops. Along the way she overcame the physical challenge of a brain injury, the financial challenge of the annual summertime furlough from her supply teaching career, and the entrepreneurial challenge of opening a business. Now she’s bringing smiles to children’s faces - in more ways than one.

Six years ago, Leah suffered a brain injury. Her job as a supply teacher already meant that she was unemployed each summer, and the injury left her unable to work for more than half a day at a time. But instead of getting the better of her, it brought out the best in her. 

Leah loves to bike. She cycles to work whenever she can. She also loves mountain biking. Cycling is just part of her life. Having a job that included cycling would be the perfect, shall we say, fit. Leah is also concerned about the environment, so no matter what opportunity presented itself to put her summers to productive use, it would have to be earth friendly. She also loves kids.

What job could combine her love of biking, her green-mindedness, and her heart for children?

She and hubby Chris started discussing it, and gradually hit upon a modern twist on a time-honoured business venture - selling ice cream. They thought about opening a bricks-and-mortar shop, but that would require floor space that much of the time would be empty of customers, serving only to keep their product cool. That didn’t seem like a good use of resources. It would also mean a raft of headaches and expenses for electricity, taxes, fees, inspections, and permits.

Instead of brick and mortar, why not opt for rubber, steel, and glass by joining the food truck craze? Guelph is working hard to curb the pollution that fouls the air and warms the planet, but Leah and Chris noted that food trucks typically have a petroleum-fuelled generator running most of the time. Failing that, truck operators have to keep the engine running. That prospect didn’t appeal to their environmental sensibilities. A food truck also meant City inspections, Ministry of Transportation inspections, and more headaches.

Leah and Chris hit on the idea of a bicycle ice cream cart. That checked most of the boxes for them - Leah is a pedal-powered person, and she loved the idea of bringing joy to kids with sweet, cool treats. But they took it to the next level. 

Chris got interested in solar energy while kitting out a family cottage (cabin, really) with photovoltaic panels. He worked out the techie details for the ice cream bike cart: a 100-watt solar panel attached to the cart’s awning, connected with 14-gauge wiring to a “Maximum Power Point Tracker” or charge controller, and from there to a 12-volt deep-cycle battery supported by the same frame as the freezer. Unlike a solar array on the roof of a home, this one doesn’t need to use an inverter to turn DC (direct current) into AC (alternating current) for compatibility with household and grid electricity. Chris designed the system to be DC throughout, including both the specially manufactured, 90-watt freezer as well as a pump that circulates the water they use for the dip well (which keeps the scoop clean and the scooping easy), not to mention hand  washing to meet Public Health standards. 

Rather than opening a shop, Leah’s business is mobile. Rather than joining the petroleum-fuelled food truck craze, Leah’s business is Leah-propelled. And rather than hoping for shade and cool days (both of which help keep the ice cream from melting, but neither of which boost sales), Leak keeps her product cool by making the most of summer’s most enjoyable commodity - sunshine.

Sometimes cobbling together different electronic components purchased from overseas is a recipe for disappointment, but Chris notes that the technology package he put together is working like a charm. On a sunny day the battery hardly gets used; even if Leah parks in the shade, it’s unusual to draw more than 13% of the battery’s capacity. The freezer never goes above 0°C.

Leah’s customers love it. Naturally, she uses social media - mostly Instagram and Facebook - to give her customers advance warning of the route she plans to take, so they can be at the curb waiting as she pedals up. She also accepts bookings for birthday parties (and what self-respecting elementary school-age little girl isn’t crazy for both ice cream and unicorns?). Sometimes her appearance is kept as a surprise. Of course, that just makes the ice cream taste even better.

Leah tells the story of a little boy - an old soul, as she puts it - eating his ice cream while stoically surveying the cart.

Boy: “What’s that on the top of the cart?”

Leah: “It’s a solar panel.”

Boy (nods sagely; lick, lick): “That’s for the freezer?”

Leah: “Yup. It makes electricity to keep the freezer running, so the ice cream stays frozen.”

Boy (after a few more solemn licks): “Cool.”

Chris notes that it wasn’t that long ago that kids wouldn’t even know what a solar panel was. But food service businesses, and indeed businesses in general, had best take note. Today, a focus on sustainability gives a business a certain cachet, and attracts an environmentally-conscious clientele (particularly millennials). But it won’t be long before this differentiator evolves into table stakes; being planet aware will be necessary to remain a going concern.

20200716 Unicorn Scoops end-of-driveway visitThe duo also point out that their environmentally-conscious solution was driven by hard-nosed business sense and avoiding unnecessary costs. When it comes right down to it, unsustainable business practices are just waste in disguise. Avoid the waste, avoid the cost, and reap the benefits - better profits, and happier (and more loyal) customers.

Leah’s business embodies two of the ways that Guelph will achieve the goal of becoming a net zero carbon community by 2050. First, we will be putting solar power generation wherever possible - on roofs, over “brownfield” (polluted) lands, and in other creative places you’ll hear about soon. Second, we aim to increase the so-called “mode share” of cycling (meaning the number of trips - or person-kilometres travelled, to be precise - that are on two pedal-powered wheels rather than four gasoline-powered ones). More bikes means less need to add road lanes, and let’s face it: We don’t have the space for more asphalt. It also means we can welcome new citizens as the Province has decreed, without making traffic congestion worse.

So kudos to Leah and Chris for serving up tasty treats, while challenging the rest of us to think differently - in a way that will help leave a liveable world for the kids that line up wherever Unicorn Scoops pulls up.

Alex Chapman is the Executive Director of Our Energy Guelph. You can check out the entire list of actions that will make Guelph net zero carbon by 2050 here.