The Sweet Life
Rondeau’s Dairy Bar Serves Up a Family Success Story
In 1940, Alvin Rondeau borrowed $200, took a week’s vacation from his job, hired a couple of helpers for $100 each, and built an ice cream stand.
In doing so, he also built what would become a sweet legacy on Route 32 in Palmer.
“The big factor in our being successful here is that it’s homemade ice cream,” said Dick Rondeau, Alvin’s son, who now runs Rondeau’s Dairy Bar with his son, Mike.
“We have Camp Ramah right here, and the kids come up from camp,” Mike Rondeau said. “One day, I overheard the mother of one of the girls say they named their dog Rondo – they just spelled it differently. I asked where she came up with that name, and she just said, ‘your ice cream is wonderful.’”
Yes, it seems Rondeau Dairy Bar has a following, one that proves that in today’s fast-paced world, there’s still a place for the more leisurely traditions of the past – traditions the Rondeau family knows well.
Cranking It Out
Dick Rondeau said his father worked in the life insurance business, but “he had always fooled around with making ice cream – with a hand cranker,” he told BusinessWest. “He finally said, ‘I’m going to put a dairy bar on this spot,’ and he did.
“Back then, he sold a limited number of flavors, but not milkshakes – just white milk and chocolate milk,” he continued. “And, Blue Seal hot dogs.”
Rondeau still sells the brand today, but the menu has expanded considerably in the past 66 years. Patrons can now choose from almost three dozen hot and cold sandwich options, and a selection of seafood dinners. The stand boasts 34 ice cream flavors these days, plus four no-sugar-added options, as well as ice cream sodas, floats, and, yes, milkshakes.
Alvin Rondeau owned three dairy bars at one time, but the South Hadley location was overtaken by road expansion, and the West Springfield site was lost to the 1955 flood. Still, the original stand remains largely unchanged on Route 32, Dick said.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the way the Rondeaus make their ice cream. After abandoning the hand crank, Alvin Rondeau favored a process – still in use today – that employs 40-quart batch freezers to turn ingredients like milk, cream, butterfat, and sugar into fresh ice cream at the rate of 50 gallons per hour – much slower than the 300-gallon-per-hour machines used by ice cream powerhouses like Friendly’s and Breyers.
“We always say we make our ice cream with a little bit of love,” Dick said.
“Every can that leaves here is touched by our own hands,” Mike added.
Just as consistent as the production method has been the Rondeau family tradition. Michelle Rondeau, Mike’s sister, tells of working for their grandfather from age 10 – and how they learned responsibility and built a strong work ethic from the experience. But Mike is quick to note that the business isn’t for everyone; two other siblings have nothing to do with the company.
Alvina, on the other hand, is just like family, and a visible player at Rondeau’s.
How Now, Blue Cow?
Alvina is a blue-and-white cow statue that has stood watch outside the business since October, serving both as a mascot and an educational tool. Fitted with working mechanical udders that give water (a sign encourages visitors to “squeeze, don’t pull”), the cow reminds customers of where their ice cream really comes from.
“I think a cow is the greatest factory in the world,” Dick said. “What we get from a cow is unbelievable. And she’s housebroken.”
This sort of dry wit is evident to passersby, who might see Alvina decked out in holiday attire, as on the Fourth of July, or in beach gear. When it rains, sometimes Alvina gets an umbrella. She has also been immortalized with her own flavor, Alvina Tracks: white chocolate ice cream with raspberry swirls and dark chocolate raspberry cups.
The Rondeaus admit that running the dairy bar is hard work, but the element of whimsy that Alvina represents reminds them that they’re in the business of fun – especially for younger patrons, many of whom are third- or fourth-generation customers.
To mark that passage of time, the dairy bar celebrated its 65th anniversary last year with a three-day special: hot dogs, fries, sodas, and cones sold for 65 cents each. Predictably, the lines were long. The staff served up 4,000 hot dogs and 2,500 pounds of fries.
So how do the Rondeaus top that weekend?
“We always need something to celebrate, and we couldn’t see having a 66th anniversary party,” Dick said. “So we thought, let’s give a birthday party to the cow.” And so they will, this October.
“We try to make it an enjoyable experience,” he said. “We don’t want this to be just some place to get a hot dog.”
In fact, it’s not. Rondeau’s is hosting its fifth annual car show on Sept. 2, and has hosted other events in the parking lot. Meanwhile, the family recently added shaded patio tables to encourage customers to hang out a little longer.
But it’s not just patrons who keep coming back. Dick Rondeau tells of a woman who worked for his father in high school before moving on to a long career in Monson. After retiring at age 62, she asked if she could return to part-time work at the dairy bar, which she did for eight years. “She was fantastic,” Mike said.
She outworked the high-school girls.”
The Long Haul
The Rondeaus will bring their mobile ice cream wagon to the Big E this year, as they do every year, but most of the time, they concentrate on strengthening what works at that little roadside stand in Palmer. A deep reverence for the past is evident in several touches throughout the building, including a framed T-shirt produced in 1970 for the company’s 30th anniversary.
“There’s an ambience here that people like, and we don’t want to make any drastic changes,” Dick said.
Mike noted that Rondeau’s is a place where patrons slow down and take the time to watch – and feed – the sparrows. “They’re fat sparrows,” he said. “They don’t fly as much as hop.” In the same way, the Rondeau ice cream business continues to hop along, putting smiles on patrons’ faces.
“We take pride in serving good food and good ice cream,” Mike said. “Customers have told us, ‘there’s got to be a Rondeau here. You could sell it to someone else, but it wouldn’t be the same.’”
But there’s no need to worry about that, Dick said. He recalls his father working until he suffered a stroke at age 78, but still stopping by regularly in his remaining years – he died at age 83 – to see how things were going.
“It will never be Michael’s and my life as much as it was his, because he brought the business up from nothing,” Dick said. “But I enjoy this. I’m 63 years old. He was here until he was 78, and I’d like to beat him.”