As virus chills businesses, ice cream parlor survives with help from community

Jasmin Barmore
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Ray's Ice Cream was preparing to close its doors last week for good. But within days, a fundraiser melted hearts like scoops of ice cream in the sun, helping the family-owned mainstay raise more than $78,000 to stay open.

The mom-and-pop shop in Royal Oak has been a staple in the community since 1958. It’s the go-to spot for homemade ice cream and a favorite of area residents like Anna Catallo, who says she purchases her 26-year-old daughter's birthday ice cream at the parlor every year.

Manager Mackenzie H, right, of Royal Oak, makes a small Salted Caramel Mocha Chip ice cream cone for Anna Catallo, left, and her husband, Paul Engles, center, both of Sterling Heights, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 2, 2021.

When the pandemic woes of COVID-19 made the business contemplate closing forever, these same customers and community members came to the rescue.

“Our hearts dropped when I read about it,” Paul Engles said Tuesday while sharing a salted caramel mocha chocolate ice cream cone with his wife, Catallo. “And then like the next day, they started a GoFundMe and it was like within the first hour money was being raised. So the next morning, they said the line was around the block. It was like the summertime, but even more though.”

Ray's Ice Cream owner Tom Stevens, right, of Troy, talks with customer Dave Scheutz, of Royal Oak, as he eats his Moose Tracks ice cream cone, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 2, 2021.

Ray’s Ice Cream shop created the fundraiser on Jan. 25 to ask for financial support to keep the business running, after months declining sales due to what they say were the effects of the coronavirus and state shutdowns. On Tuesday, a little more than one week later, the business said it has collected $78,688 through the fundraiser — nearly $30,000 over their initial goal and enough to keep its doors open.

Ray's Ice Cream in Royal Oak.

“The outpouring has just been ... I mean, I can't tell you how many people came dropping off $100 checks, $200 checks,” said Thomas Stevens, owner and grandson of founders Raymond and Bernice Stevens.

Stevens said sales first began to slow four years ago for the business, which produces its own ice cream and has a seating area and an old school soda fountain, after construction began on Coolidge, the main street that runs in front of the establishment. However, the big downturn came, he said, after COVID-19 prompted the restaurants and country clubs he serviced to close down and his business lost 50% of its income.

Anna Catallo takes a bite of a small Salted Caramel Mocha Chip ice cream cone before giving it to her husband, Paul Engles (not pictured), both of Sterling Heights, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 2, 2021.

The company, which is open all year round, sought assistance early on. It applied for a grant from the state and received $15,000. It also sought additional funding through the federal Paycheck Protection Program during the first round, but said they did not qualify because the loss in sales was not high enough.

“We needed to show a 25% loss per quarter, and we were only showing a 18-20% decline at the time,” Stevens said.

Olivia Deconinck, of Bloomfield Hills, leaves a tip as she gets ice cream in a container at Dairy Deluxe, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 2, 2021.

Paul Walter, owner of the nearby Birmingham ice cream parlor, Dairy Deluxe, said he too suffered a financial hit from COVID, but his seasonal business is maintaining.

“I think I am just surviving at a lower rate," Walter said. “…It’s been hard, but I just try to manage on my own without looking for help from other people.”

As for Ray's, Stevens said he's extremely grateful for the help he's received from others. He has shut down the fundraising page and is currently in the process of showing his gratitude. 

“I’m just sitting here writing out thank you cards and paying people that I owe," he said. 

Friends Olivia Deconinck, left, and Mackenzie Behnke, both of Bloomfield Hills, prepare to order ice cream at Dairy Deluxe, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 2, 2021.