By Debbie Flessner
As Dennis Yoder handed a loaded ice cream cone over the counter to a customer, and the customer let out an involuntary sigh of satisfaction from the heavenly taste of the homemade frozen treat, a broad smile spread across Dennis’s face. It was, no doubt, something he had witnessed many times before, and was perhaps also one of the aspects of his business that he genuinely enjoys.
Dennis and his wife Nancy are the owners of the Siesta Creamery, which opened up last month on South Siesta Key, but if their names sound somewhat familiar to an ice cream aficionado, it’s because the two were the founders and original owners of Big Olaf Creamery.
Back in the early 1980s, Dennis was selling life insurance in Sarasota, but was playing in a golf tournament in Michigan, where he is originally from. After the tournament was over, he was speaking with a friend, who suggested a new venture.
“He said, ‘There’s a business you should go into in Florida,’” Dennis said. “So we flew out to San Diego to the beach and watched them making the Danish waffle cones. I came back and talked to my wife about it, and we ended up buying the rights for the state of Florida for the waffle cone.”
Back then, people would come from hours away just to get the Yoders’ waffle cones, and the couple even set up waffle cone-making operations for both the Sea World and Busch Gardens theme parks.
In a natural evolution in 1982, Dennis and Nancy decided to open their own ice cream shop on Siesta Key. It was on Avenida Messina, where Another Broken Egg now resides. They started out selling Borden ice cream, but before long, Dennis realized the need to make a change.
“In 1983, we started making our own ice cream,” he said. “We made it the old-fashioned way, with rock salt and ice, in a big commercial maker. Later on, we went to a big batch version. That was the beginning.”
It was still a relatively small operation at that time. Dennis was making the product in the back of the house and Nancy was instrumental in the store operation and training their staff. By 1984, the Siesta Key Village Big Olaf had moved to its current location on Ocean Blvd.
The next few years brought a flurry of growth for the family-owned company. They had opened a second store on St. Armands Circle in 1983, and in 1985 and 1986, three more stores were added on the mainland.
By his own admission, Dennis realized within a few years that the only stores that were really profitable at that time were the Siesta Village and St. Armands ones. So in 1990, he and Nancy sold off all the Big Olaf Creamery stores, plus the distribution facility, to individual buyers—with no strings attached.
Not a person known to sit around doing nothing, Dennis began selling real estate in Lakewood Ranch, and created a successful career of it. But in 2009, the management team at Main Street of Lakewood Ranch approached him about opening up a new ice cream store there, to fill the space that was left when another ice cream store had abruptly closed.
“So I opened a Big Olaf there,” Dennis said. “As long as the new Big Olaf owners kept sending ice cream to us, we were able to keep using the name.”
By 2011, he had sold that place as well, and continued concentrating on real estate. But then this past February, a young man approached Dennis about going into partnership with him and opening an ice cream shop on South Siesta Key. Though at the time, Dennis was not really thinking about getting back into the business, he was intrigued by the thought of being able to offer his expertise on ice cream making and having someone else run the store.
Unfortunately, before the store even opened, the potential partner got “cold feet.” After talking it over with Nancy, Dennis decided that if he could find some really good management to take care of the day-to-day operations, he would still go through with opening the store. This time, though, there is no connection whatsoever to Big Olaf.
“I’m still making the same high quality ice cream, using my original recipes from 1982,” he said. “It can’t be any fresher, because it’s coming from the back room to the front room—that’s it.”
His management hire was Tracy Harris, who he implicitly trusts with the day-to-day operation of the store.
In addition to more traditional favorites like fresh fruits, chocolates and butter pecan, those who have been fans of Dennis’s ice creams in the past will love some of his takes on newer recipes. Both his Kahlua Crunch and Rum Raisin are chock full of the real thing, not extracts, as is his brand new Pina Colada, which includes pineapple, coconut and rum.
The Siesta Creamery also gets daily deliveries of donuts and various pastries from Der Dutchman, an Amish restaurant on Bahia Vista Street. Dennis has created another new ice cream flavor he calls Donuts and Cream, using those baked goods.
Ashley Bullen, who works at the store, said they will also use the donuts in some other ice cream-based treats.
“We plan on adding donut sundaes and banana splits, and we also have various shakes and malts,” she said. “Nancy used to be a soda jerk when she was 12 years old, so we have those coolers, where we have ice cream and pour sodas on top.”
And if you’re craving a hot or iced coffee drink, they offer a nice selection of specialty lattes and espresso.
The shop is having its Grand Opening in the first part of December. Though the actual date hasn’t yet been set, you can follow the Siesta Creamery Facebook page, and when the date is announced you’ll be the first to know.
As for what Dennis has planned for the future in business, he’s not looking much past his new store, in which he is heavily involved. He says that he’s thankful that his life partner Nancy is all in, as well.
“She was so very instrumental at the start-up all those years ago, and she’s been supportive and is still a vital part of it all,” he said. “I’m still here making the ice cream and keeping my thumb on the operations.”
The Siesta Creamery is located at 6575 Midnight Pass Road, on Siesta Key. It’s open Monday through Thursday, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday, from 1 to 9 p.m. For more information, visit the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/siestacreamery/ or call 941-554-4632.
Special Offer for Siesta Sand Readers
If you bring a copy of this article to the Siesta Creamery, Dennis Yoder will give you a free donut or pastry, with the purchase of an ice cream or coffee.