Uncle Ray’s Dairyland hasn't just been serving ice cream in Fenton for more than 30 years, they've been putting smiles on peoples' faces.
Uncle Ray Durant was teaching Industrial Arts at Lake Fenton High School when a local real estate agent asked him what he was going to do the other 180 days of the year. He loved ice cream so the answer was simple for him, he started the family business of Uncle Ray’s Dairyland in 1978. It was a way for him to have fun and spend time with family. Today, Uncle Ray's Dairyland is a family fun center serving up handmade ice cream, that attracts people from all over the area.
But the Durants have done so much more for Fenton. According to co-owner Dave Durant, Uncle Ray’s Dairyland is always committed to each and every customer; that’s the Uncle Ray way and that’s the only way. Even if that means serving a ice cream to the elderly in a parade of wheelchairs, hosting a World Record breastfeeding attempt, or making a 175-foot banana split for the community.
Uncle Ray used to say that if Disneyworld is the happiest place on earth, then Uncle Ray’s Dairyland is the second happiest place on earth.
“Fenton has high expectations. You can’t just give great service one time. You can build a reputation over 30 years and it could take 5 minutes to ruin it," Durant said.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream
Uncle Ray's has a "the answer is always yes" mentaility, which has lead to some interesting situations.
One day Uncle Ray’s received a phone call from Fenton's Crestmont Nursing Care Center official, who asked if they could bring some residents down for ice cream and of course, the answer was yes.
The nursing care staff headed out with approximately 50 wheelchairs down the street, whiched turned into a parade of wheelchairs. The parade even included one resident restricted to a bed on wheels. Before too long, the police arrived on the scene and had to help direct traffic.
“At one point, the back wheels fell off the bed. Two gentlemen got out of their car and started pushing the bed wheelbarrow-style down the road,” said Durant.
The Uncle Ray family offered the Crestmont residents ice cream on the house that day. Now, the Crestmont parade has doubled and become a yearly tradition for the residents, their families and the community. According to Durant, this summer has been too hot for the parade, so it may happen once it cools down.
Another "yes" by Uncle Ray’s resulted in a 175-foot banana split for Fenton’s 175th anniversary in 2009. The split consisted of 875 scoops of ice cream, a lot of bananas and a team of 51 people. Durant said it took many days of preparation but only 10 minutes to assemble.
“Getting the bananas was a monumental task but we are looking forward to Fenton’s 200th anniversary,” he said.
Uncle Ray’s has participated in everything in Fenton from Relay for Life to hosting a World Record breastfeeding attempt.
The business is also in the process of building a scholarship fund for their employees. They now put a portion from fundraisers into this fund because they believe in and want to support continued education.
Beating the odds
According to co-owner Dave Durant, Uncle Ray’s had the ugliest building in 1978 but the best product and the best customer service.
“Competitors came to town and built beautiful buildings but just didn’t have the product or service of Uncle Ray’s," he said.
Uncle Ray’s teamed up with Terry Thomas and created the Dairyland and Halo Burger combination in 1988.
“Uncle Ray beat out places like Dairy Queen with the hot and cold combination; he was ahead of his time,” said Durant.
There is an Uncle Ray way to do everything, which is why the business is so successful and has stamina, he added. Employees are asked to make a two-year work agreement to learn the business.
“We have award winning products and service and we take care of our customers, employees and delivery people,” said Durant.
Sadly, Uncle Ray passed away in July of 2008. However, Durant, his brother Todd and a family friend to uphold the reputation of Uncle Ray’s.
Erica Gale, 19, of Fenton goes to Uncle Ray’s because she loves hanging out, she can get extra Reeses’s and it’s super friendly.
“My mom used to go when she was a kid and then she started taking me and my brother and we’d play putt put,” she said. “Now I go with my friends but someday I will take my family.”
Fenton resident Colleen Conover has worked at Uncle Ray’s for more than seven years. She said the employees learn how to put aside their differences and treat one another with respect.
“I could be having the worst day and not want to go to work but when I get here, it changes my entire day for the better,” said Conover. “Everything I have learned working here are skills that I will be able to use the rest of my life.”
Uncle Ray’s was voted Best of the Midwest in 2010 by Midwest Living magazine. They are also number one in all three categories of ice cream: soft serve, hand made scooped ice cream and no fat frozen yogurt.
Durant stated that the business is like a micro-creamery; the product is made fresh on the premises and is never mass-produced. They also make exclusive ice cream flavors for local business such as The Laundry and Crust.
Uncle Ray’s also went green. Go Green Apple is the official ice cream of the Varsity Alumni “S” Club for Michigan State University. According to Durant, “We invented the flavor for Michigan State and it’s green apple ice cream with caramel and nuts.” He added, “We would like to add schools and create unique flavors for each. We refer to it as 'tailgate ice cream.'”
On August 31, people across the United States will be able to order Uncle Ray’s through mail order. Customers can order flavors such as peppermint, eggnog and pumpkin pie for the holidays. There is also a 19th hole coming to the business' putt-putt course.
“People come to us for all kinds of reasons and we never know what kind of day people are having," Durant said. "What we do know is we want this to be the best part of their day.”
You can read about more Hometown Heroes on Fenton Patch.