Uncle Ray’s started in 1977 by a high-energy and very enthusiastic gentleman named Ray Durant, my dad and the father of Todd and husband of MaryAlice.
Ray was a graduate of Fenton High School, Mott Community College, and Michigan State University. He was a teacher, the head of the Industrial Arts Department at Lake Fenton High School.
Growing up in Fenton, Ray was influenced by a local dairy, Kelley’s in downtown Fenton, which made their own ice cream. He often watched Lee Kelley make their rich, creamy, sweet mixtures.
And everybody knows school teachers only work 180 days. What would he do with those other 180 days? Ice cream! Everybody loves ice cream and fortunately so did Uncle Ray!
In 1977, Durant decided ice cream would provide a good summer job for a teacher, so he and his wife purchased the Queen-Bee, a small soft-serve business located on North Leroy, now the site of Tremaine Real Estate.
It was a walk-up stand with just nine parking places and was open from March through October. Yes, perfect job for a teacher, and for Todd and me, teenagers at the time.
As the business continued to grow, they began to run out of space. In 1987, Durant decided to take an early retirement and go into “ice cream” full time. That year they moved to their present facility on North Leroy Street complete with a miniature golf course, and they went a bold step further, inviting Halo Burger to install a restaurant at the rear of the building.
Except that he forgot to tell his wife MaryAlice, that she would be working March, April, May and half of June all by herself until he got home from school! Fortunately, she loved it and so did the customers!
When interviewed by the local newspaper, Uncle Ray was quoted as saying, “The only thing I knew about the ice cream business was how to lick a cone.” But he did have the old school ambition and can do attitude. Uncle Ray said he only had to work half days in the ice cream business-12 hours per day, which 12 would we like to work? And having so much FUN, how could that be like work?
Uncle Ray hired lots of teenagers for their first jobs. Most of them were 14 and 15 years old due to the fact that there was limited parking and he did not want them using the valuable spaces. When they turned 16 years old, Uncle Ray would jokingly say, “sorry, you’re fired, we need the parking!” The kids loved working at Uncle Ray’s and many worked during high school and all the way through college. It was the most fun job they could ever have and it became more than just a paycheck.
The store became extremely popular. Customers parked anywhere they could, many times using all the parking from the business next door and up and down the street. It was “THE PLACE” to go because the ice cream was so good and the workers were sooo friendly. This was Uncle Ray’s dream come true.
One of Uncle Ray’s biggest secrets was giving memorable service just like Disneyland – the happiest place on earth. Uncle Ray knew that was important and would hire only the friendliest kids in town. He would always say, “In the event that our customers can’t get to Disneyland, let them get to Uncle Ray’s Dairyland, the second happiest place on earth!” It worked! Customers would leave the store with the feeling, ” Wow! I love that place!”
From the beginning, he was always trying to improve the store, and come up with new and innovative ideas. He was not satisfied with the mass-produced quality of ice cream from suppliers, so he decided to make his own ice cream. It turned out so well, he decided to put his name on it, Uncle Ray’s Homemade Ice Cream.
In those days, everyday was like a family reunion at the Dairyland. Ray and MaryAlice, and their sons, Dave and Todd, worked closely together for long hours. They became a cross-functional team and close-knit family that made the Dairyland the huge success that it is.
Todd is the resident ice cream maker. He whips up 15 small batches every morning during the summer. That way it’s fresh, instead of buying it from a factory that stores it in freezers and ships it across the country. We’re a micro-creamery.
“In addition to vanilla, butter pecan is the best seller,” said Todd. “It’s made with a generous amount of buttered and salted roasted pecans. During the holiday season, our hand-layered Spumoni ice cream is a traditional favorite that customers wait for all year.”
Dave is the designer, visionary, and resident entrepreneur. He has created unusual sundaes including spaghetti (scoops of ice cream dipped in chocolate and nuts for meatballs, and yellow-tinted coconut flakes for Parmesan cheese), and egg-on toast (a scoop of soft-serve on top of a slice of pound cake, topped with an apricot half for the yolk.)
Mary Alice passed away in 2006. She was famous for her specialty pies and award-winning, five-layered ice cream cakes and pies and is certainly missed at the Dairyland.
Today, the Dairyland offers 100 varieties of frozen yogurt. Their Flavor Machine was designed by Uncle Ray. It allows the customer to create “design-it-yourself” treats using fresh fruits, nuts, peanut butter, flavorings, etc. to suit one’s imagination. We’re told that some customers even bring their own fruit for their special creations. Uncle Ray’s is known around the area for its five-foot long banana splits. “We once created one that was 150 feet long for a large group picnic. Not a Guinness record, but it sure was long!”
“It’s a great local gathering place for families,” said Ray. “We see so many people in here that when I see them around town, they are all familiar faces. When I was in Florida last year after Christmas, I was recognized by a kid who said, “Look, there’s Uncle Ray!”
In 2005, Uncle Ray’s completed a half million dollar renovation of the destination complex. Incorporating glass, neon, and soaring steel, the new building is a hip, art-deco, retro masterpiece of art and architectural design. The project included a heated canopy covering an outdoor patio in front, an expanded kitchen, new restrooms, a spruced-up miniGOLF course, and our unique dining area. “It was ok before, but now it’s – Wow!” Dave said. “We didn’t have to do this, but we wanted our customers to have a place to call their own.”
“There’s something unique about a family-owned business that’s actually run by that family. It’s not like a big corporation or a “me too” franchise where it’s the same old ordinary product over and over across the country.”
It’s a Wrap
The Durants have made their business a fun place to work. Students who start working with them as freshmen in high school, often stay right through their senior year of college, returning each summer. We’re always looking for enthusiastic, energetic, eager, and rarin’-to-go employees. I believe it’s mutual – students line up for interviews during spring recruitment each year looking for fun place to work.
Welcome to our history. Welcome to our story.