The Dairy Phil
One of Melanie Muir’s first jobs was scooping ice cream for the Dairy Queen in her hometown. She would carve out large scoops of ice cream and weigh them on a small vintage ice cream scale. So when entrepreneurial couple Melanie and her husband, Trevor, spotted the vintage ice cream scale in the kitchen of the Dairy Phil in Clare, Michigan, they knew the business was for them. They purchased the business and have brought the ice cream parlor back to life.
The idea of revamping the Dairy Phil began in February 2005, when Melanie and Trevor decided to take a look at buying the ice cream parlor from the former owners. The Dairy Phil was built back in 1953 by the original owner who named it after his wife…Phyllis. While this landmark Clare business never left, the previous owner had operated the parlor for several years under the name “The Ice Cream Parlor.” The business had always received moderate success from summer highway traffic headed north on US-127 but the Muirs saw the potential to grow the business.
They bought the business and immediately changed the name back to the “The Dairy Phil”. They also decided to incorporate a classic ’50s theme in the entire restaurant…from the checkered floors and red and white stripe awning to uniforms of poodle skirts. “We saw an immediate effect on the business. Just with cleaning up the place, adding a coat of fresh paint and training a new staff, sales increased 52% within the first year and we began to look for other ways to grow the business,” recalled Melanie. The Dairy Phil had always been known for their Coney dogs, but they had a very limited food menu. Knowing the local community would always come to the Dairy Phil for ice cream, diversifying the food selection seemed like a great way to help the business grow. “We did a lot of research on expanding our menu. We looked at many different local demographic food combinations and that is how we came up with our one-of-a-kind barbeque menu.”
At this time, Melanie had a full-time job as a sales coordinator with Mid-Michigan Industries and Trevor was still operating a Chris Cakes franchise they opened in 2002. As part of her position with Mid-Michigan Industries, Melanie came to MI-SBTDC Region 4 looking for some marketing research. She discovered the many resources the MI-SBTDC offered to the small business owners like herself and Trevor. They decided to enroll in a class taught by MI-SBTDC consultant Jeri Hopper on writing a business plan. After the class, Jeri began helping Melanie and Trevor with the development of their business plan and assisting them to obtain financing to help their business grow. Jeri also guided them through a needs assessment in order to determine where the business could grow. “The MI-SBTDC was really great in helping us tie it all together. Jeri was helpful by directing us to all the resources that were available to small businesses.”
Jeri showed them a revolving loan fund available through the USDA. After their application was approved, Dairy Phil was able to obtain $27,600 to help their business. The Muirs have been able to use the money to help repair equipment and increase the advertising for the business. “We are big on promotions and advertising. It allows us to capture more of the travelers heading north during the summer and has really helped the business grow.”
Because it is a walk-up facility with outdoor picnic tables, the Dairy Phil is only open 174 days a year during the summer. This limited time span means the Muirs have had to get creative with their marketing. “We offered a promotion for our 55th anniversary celebration where anyone with the name Phil or Phyllis got a free Banana Split. We also had a bounce house for the kids, a rock-paper-scissors tournament and promotion for our Ice Cream Cakes in which we offered a slice to everyone,” said Melanie. With the proliferation of discount menus, the Dairy Phil lowered the price of their Pulled Pork sandwich to only $1.95, and they sold over 6,500 sandwiches. Two strategically located billboards help to bring in traffic from the highway during the summer. In the future, Melanie and Trevor are hoping to continue the Dairy Phil’s amazing growth. They want to expand their business by combining their Dairy Phil BBQ menu with the Chris Cakes mobile catering license into catering. However, they insist they will continue to serve great ice cream in a clean, fun, family-oriented environment with exceptional customer service.
Having successfully guided two businesses to success, Melanie offers some great advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. “Make sure you research your business and utilize all the resources that are available,” says Melanie. “You should be focused on your business but always keep it fun.” With regards to the MI-SBTDC, she could not be happier, “Jeri and the SBTDC just made things easier and opened doors that most small businesses do not know exists. Their helpfulness and resourcefulness in directing us to all the right places helped us turn the corner and positioned the business to grow for years to come.”