Written by Kerrie Alexander
A vehicle can take you many places but for Robby Staff, his vintage Mr Whippy vans have driven the course of his life.
The 55-year-old Hervey Bay resident is a second-generation owner of the iconic business that sees numerous pink, cream and blue vintage vans cruising the streets of Hervey Bay mostly in the evenings, seven days a week.
There are very few songs more symbolic of Mr Whippy than the sweet symphony of Greensleeves signalling the van is close by.
As eagerly anticipated as Santa arriving on his sleigh, the musical melody turns suburban streets into sprinting tracks as children and adults alike dash to secure their spot in the line at the window for fresh vanilla soft serve ice cream sprinkled with a myriad of different flavoured toppings.
“So many people have the memory of hearing that tune coming down the street and that’s how they knew there was ice cream,” Robby said.
“The stories I get from people on a day-to-day basis are all about the memories; they want their children and grandchildren to have that magical experience.
“To have Mr Whippy come down the street back in the 60s with freshly made ice cream was a phenomenon.
“There was no McDonalds or KFC because it was one of the first big things to come to Australia. The guys driving the vans were like rock stars. It was very cool.”
This tradition is everything to Robby and especially his 81-year-old father Bob Staff, who started the family tradition back in the 1965 as an employee of Mr Whippy.
As the world celebrated 60 years of the English-born icon last year, Bob celebrated his own special achievement of being behind the wheel of a van for 58 years.
He brought the franchise to Hervey Bay in 1980 which is the same time that Robby started his own Mr Whippy journey as a teenager, learning the ropes of the business.
The family tradition started when Bob was working as a wharfie on the docks in Melbourne and was tasked with unloading the first Mr Whippy vans that had come to Australia.
“He always tells me he looked at the van and thought it was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen,” Robby said.
“Dad’s best mate started work with the company and encouraged dad to come along and give it a go and he took to it very naturally.”
Robby said so many childhood memories were made with many adventures had in those vans.
“My earliest memories were accompanying my parents as a young child for work. There wasn’t daycare back then.
“I went through high school and studied journalism and music but came back to work for the family business.
“The van itself has its own nostalgia. When my mum was pregnant, she was in those vans. Maybe that explains my connection to it.”
Over 200 Commer Karrier vans were imported to Australia in the 1960s and precious few of these much-loved original vehicles have survived today.
That is why it is so incredibly special that Robby was able to track down and purchase one of the very vans that his dad unloaded on those docks all those years ago and drove for the company.
It is one of three timber framed vintage vans that he is currently restoring back to its original glory days.
“It was one of a batch of 10 that dad unloaded of the ships. It’s super special to me.
“I’m a bit nuts because I actually have 10 of these vans now because there’s only a handful operating around the world.
“How sad would it be if they all disappeared!”
There is now a small but dedicated team who prepare for the night’s work at the Mr Whippy Headquarters in Hervey Bay.
Each day the vans and the Italian-made Carpigiani vintage ice cream machines are sanitised inside and out, and the iconic vanilla soft serve and the famous caramilk and chocolate topping is made fresh by the team every single day.
Robby said this is where the difference lies between store bought ice cream and the unmistakable taste of Mr Whippy.
“You can’t get this anywhere else in Australia. We always say if you’re going to do it, do it right.
“We are all about fresh ice cream. When we first make it we always test it and oh my God, it’s always so good.
“I make it from scratch daily, and that’s the freshness. You can’t beat it.
“I am very determined to represent the industry in a positive light and keep the tradition going. That is a big part of it for me.”
The vans have taken Robby on his own adventures over the years including being featured on billboards around Australia, taking centre stage in New Idea magazine and being the star of the show at the French fashion house Hermes’ annual beach-themed party, where the van stole the show.
The vans have also been used locally for weddings and formals and can be found at just about every city event.
“I drove the vintage van all the way from Hervey Bay to Sydney for the party where they had recreated Bondi Beach inside a function centre.
“The van was a prop, but I also served ice cream to the celebrities.
“It was a very cool and interesting project that ended up in Vogue Magazine. It was just a great experience.
“The people were very grateful but was a big job driving the vintage van down,” he said with a laugh.
The popularity of the business has only continued to grow in Hervey Bay too, and Robby has no plans of slowing down.
He said the tradition will be in safe hands with his daughter Jasmin now coming on board as the third generation of Mr Whippy in Hervey Bay.
The family just love the customers and the long-standing relationships that come to life simply by a lick of an ice cream. One family is close to Robby’s heart.
“The customers are really cool. I have served generations of families over the years.
“It’s a mixture of both tourists and locals who are all regulars and for many of them it’s all about tradition too.
“There is one family from Oakey whose grandfather always carried this little toddler out to get his ice cream. Then that toddler grew over the years, and it would always be him and his grandfather.
“The grandfather passed away a few years ago but that little kid now has his own kids, and when they come here for holidays, it’s a big deal that we catch up.
“It’s very special. It really does become more than just someone buying ice cream and that’s what we’re about.”
Robby is currently developing a live app so that all Mr Whippy lovers can easily track down the van’s locations via the Mr Whippy Facebook page.
Start your own tradition by making the locally owned and operated Mr Whippy your number one ice cream favourite!
Robby’s top five picks:
Vanilla ice cream dipped in melted chocolate
Vanilla ice cream dipped in caramilk
A traditional sundae with vanilla ice cream top with melted chocolate and fresh crushed nuts
Vanilla ice cream rolled in Sherbert (an adult favourite)
The new Pina Colada