In the early 1980s, Dennis Yoder 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 back home 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 Dennis’s waffle cones, and he and his wife Nancy even set up waffle cone-making operations for both the Sea World and Busch Gardens theme parks.
It was a natural evolution when in 1982, Dennis and Nancy decided to open their own ice cream shop on Siesta Key. The original Big Olaf Creamery was on Avenida Messina, where the 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.”
The next few years brought a flurry of growth for the family- owned company. They opened a second Big Olaf 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 then this past February, a young man approached Dennis about going into partnership with him and opening another 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. He hired a manager, Tracy Harris, who he implicitly trusts with the day-to-day operation of the store.
“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.”
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 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.
In addition to traditional ice cream treats like sundaes, shakes, malts and banana splits, the store also offers a nice selection of specialty lattes and espresso.
As for what Dennis has planned for the future in business, he’s not looking much past his new shop, 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.”