Brent Murray was 15 when he rode his bike to Dairyhäus after school to work in the ice cream shoppe his mom owned.
He and his sister, who was 13 at the time, spent most of their teenage years at the small business that makes its own ice cream.
“We all did it as a family,” he says. “It was a fantastic little family thing for us all to do.”
Now, 23 years later, Murray and his wife Meredith own the beloved business located in quaint downtown Rockton just miles from the Wisconsin state line, and he couldn’t be happier.
Murray’s goal during college was to become an English teacher, but his career path changed when his mom told him she wanted to step away from the business. He was getting his master’s degree at the time and decided to give it a try.
“I just fell in love with it right away—serving the community and serving a really good product,” he says.
His exuberance for all things Dairyhäus can be found in everything he does—from talking about ice cream to making the variety of flavors to scooping it for customers. He is especially enthusiastic when he talks about “his kids,” the 30 or so team members who work at the ice cream shoppe after school, on weekends and during the summer. They range in age from 14 to 23, and most stay at the job throughout high school and college.
Murray didn’t become an English teacher, but he thinks of himself as a different kind of teacher. He teaches kids to have a strong work ethic and how to be productive at a job, a trait that will serve them well beyond their high school and college years.
“At the beginning of the season, I tell them it’s great to be back and have fun and enjoy each other’s company and stuff, but the main thing is to maintain productivity while you are having fun and enjoying yourself,” Murray says. “We are pretty lucky in that our shoppe has been established as a good place for kids to work.”
When he advertises for new team members, he gets about 100 to 150 applications, allowing him to find the perfect fit. He has developed a rock-solid training process over the years and teaches his team leaders to lead from love not from a position of power.
Murray also tells his kids that working at Dairyhäus is a group project and they should speak up if they have an idea or suggestion. Just the other day, a 17-year-old team member told him about her experience at a different ice cream shoppe. Chocolate sauce was swirled on the inside of the cup to make it look more appealing, which isn’t possible now with the Dairyhäus paper cups. He liked the idea “because you eat with your eyes first” and gave her the green light to move forward. She now is interacting with outside vendors and negotiating pricing to find a clear cup that is environmentally friendly—skills that go beyond scooping ice cream and serving customers.
Dairyhäus, a Rock Energy Cooperative member, is a seasonal business that opens as soon as spring comes and closes when cooler weather approaches, usually mid-March until sometime in October. Because of this year’s harsh winter, ice cream fanatics had to wait until April 5 to get their favorite cones. When Murray opened the doors that afternoon, the crowd clapped and cheered.
During the summer, Dairyhäus makes about 150 gallons of ice cream, mostly vanilla because that’s used in shakes and sundaes. The most popular scooped flavor last year was a tie between praline pecan and salty caramel cashew, with coffee and mint ice creams coming in next. Murray’s favorites are Mounds Bar, which has coconut and chocolate chips,
and cherry almond.
The vanilla recipe is about 35 years old and goes back to when Chuck Gilbert founded Dairyhäus. He was a salesman at Taylor Freezer at the time and opened the shoppe to showcase locally made ice cream manufacturing equipment. The recipes for the 24 original flavors were passed down to the Murrays, but new flavors continue to be developed.
Undoubtedly, the most unusual is maple bacon. Murray wanted to make a maple ice cream with bacon from Main Street Meat Co., a family-owned butcher shop in the neighboring village of Roscoe. The flavor was so popular that Dairyhäus couldn’t keep up with the demand. It hasn’t been offered in about five years, but customers are still asking about it.
Murray likes using locally made products in the new flavors he develops, such as ice cream made with coffee from Rockford Roasting Co.
“What I love doing is going and finding a local company that makes something original and putting that ingredient into our ice cream,” he says.
New this year will be butter brickle, made with homemade melt-in-your-mouth toffee from Sugar Britches, an old-fashioned candy store just down the street from Dairyhäus. He has a couple other ideas up his sleeve and plans to make the new flavors available for only a short period of time.
When he’s working on new recipes, the community becomes his taste-testers. He’ll take samples across the street to the Rockton Village Hall and Talcott Library next door to get feedback. Too sweet? Not sweet enough? Too minty? Chocolatey enough? More candy? Less candy? Then he goes back to the shoppe and alters the recipe. If he’s experimenting while the shoppe is open, he’ll ask customers to taste his new creation.
Dairyhäus is a seasonal business, but Murray makes ice cream year-round to supply the half dozen retail outlets that sell the ice cream.
Meredith is involved in the business behind the scenes refining the processes.
“She’s very process-oriented,” he says. “She really pioneered how we make waffle cones now, and our consistency is just through the roof.”
Next year she’s going to help work on the way ice cream is made, developing a more step-by-step process, which will help when he trains new team members.
Murray loves working in the town he grew up in and making a product that he loves for a community he loves.
He admitted that being a small business owner is a difficult job with long hours and little time off, but the good definitely outweighs the bad.
“I look at myself and how this job fulfills me compared to my peers and my good friends,” he says. “I think in this day and age, it’s rare to get the kind of fulfillment from a job that I’m getting.”
In return, Dairyhäus fulfills the area’s love of good, creamy, homemade ice cream.
113 E. Main St., Rockton
Summer hours: noon to 10 p.m. daily
Spring and fall hours: 3 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday,
noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Quart packages available year-round at:
Main Street Meat Co., 9515 N. Second St., Roscoe
Sugar Britches, 115 W. Main St., Rockton
Van Laar’s Farm Market & Bake Shop, 1645 N. Alpine Road, Rockford
Woodman’s Markets, 3155 McFarland Road, Rockford
Woodman’s Markets, 1877 S. Madison Road, Beloit, Wis.