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Local Column

Olson: Businesses big part of local identity

When Joe and Valerie Cranden bought Ollie’s Frozen Custard in 2000, they knew they weren’t just buying an ice cream place.

For one, it’s custard, darn it, and they make three flavors – vanilla, chocolate, and the flavor of the day – fresh multiple times daily. For another, Ollie’s is a local institution that had already been in business 15 years when they took over.

“When you buy into something like [Ollie’s], that has the reputation it already has, there’s a lot of pressure to maintain that reputation,” Joe Cranden said. “We’ve kept the same products and qualities, and try to serve customers as best as possible. We really didn’t change anything.”

The difference between custard and ice cream? Well, custard has less air whipped in, so it’s thicker, Joe Cranden said. It also has to have at least 10 percent butter fat, and has to be served within two or three hours. That’s why they only have three flavors a day – they have to make it all day long.

Ollie’s received the most votes of any business in this year’s Reader’s Choice Awards, winning the title of DeKalb County’s Finest Frozen Custard. Ollie’s is a prime example of how a community’s unique local businesses really help define what it means to live there.

I’ve lived in several towns in my lifetime, and whenever I plan to return to somewhere I once lived, there are certain stores and restaurants I know I have to visit. If I’m driving, I try to remember where to find the radio stations I used to listen to, and make a point to pick up the local papers I once read.

Ollie’s is that kind of place for people returning to the DeKalb area. Joe Cranden sees them all the time.

“People say that when they’re back in town their first stop is Ollie’s,” he said. “There’s a couple from Utah that when they get back, they stop at Ollie’s before they even go home. They come with their luggage still in the car.”

People will tell Cranden that they remember going to Ollie’s when it was still located in DeKalb, before it moved to 2290 Oakland Drive in Sycamore. Some remember the place from when they were students at Northern Illinois University and make a point to stop. Others remember eating Ollie’s frozen custard as children and now are bringing their children.

It’s the small businesses, run by people who own them, selling products and/or cooking dishes or just setting up their store in their own unique way, that we remember.

We’ve had several stories this week that bring home the importance of these unique community businesses – and how we miss them and the people who run them when they close.

Dorothy “Dot” Majcina, whose obituary appeared this week in the Daily Chronicle after her death July 25 at age 87, ran Big Ray’s Drive In with her husband, Ray, for more than 30 years, first on Sycamore Road and then on East Lincoln Highway in DeKalb. In our story about her that followed, we talked with former carhop Christel Springmire, who could still remember popular dishes on the menu.

Many of the commenters on the Daily Chronicle’s Facebook page remembered Big Ray’s, too, and talked about root beer in frosty mugs, and Green River soda (which is still made, incidentally).

A longtime Sycamore business from days-gone-by was back in the news, too. Residents on Sycamore are wondering what will fill the void left by Browns’ County Market.

Browns’ had been part of Sycamore since 1945, and when the business closed for good last year, it left a lot of people disappointed. Some longtime Sycamore residents, who used to say they would never shop anywhere else, have since adjusted by shopping at other grocers.

Our story on Friday about the building selling at auction to a mystery buyer showed how much people still remember and miss the store. For many people, Browns’ for decades was simply where you went. It was part of being from Sycamore. It is gone, but not forgotten.

On Thursday, we published our annual “DeKalb County’s Finest” section, about businesses that are neither gone nor forgotten. If you missed it, you can get a copy here at our office on Barber Greene Road.

Some winners are businesses we’ve known for decades, like Inboden’s Meat Market, Lehan Drugs, Blumen Gardens, The Country Store & Catering, and The Junction Eating Place.

Others are less than a decade old, but already building their reputation: Eggsclusive Café, Sweet Dream Desserts & Bakery, or Haru of Japan.

There were more than 123,000 votes this year in 126 different categories, ranging from best Auto Repair Facility (Bockman’s Auto Care) to best Wine Shop (Prairie State Winery.)

Employee-owned Hy-Vee won the most awards, with 10, which goes to show how far having all your employees be really nice can get you. People notice.

Politicians like to talk about the need to support small businesses, make it easier for them to survive and compete with the larger, corporate entities. The reason it’s important is because they’re the people who help make our hometowns memorable. They also create jobs for people – about half of employed Americans work for businesses with fewer than 500 employees, according to the Small Business Administration.

Congratulations to all those businesses recognized by our readers this year. Running a business is hard work, which I hope is paying off for you enough to keep you doing it.

Thanks for what you contribute to the community.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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