Starting in the late 1970s with equipment borrowed from an Amish business in Arthur, Bob Bally helped his church craft homemade ice cream for the famed Mennonite Relief Sale, held in Peoria at that time.
Before long, demand outstripped supply.
“We would go morning to night making ice cream,” said Bally, noting that his two ice cream makers had but a 20-quart capacity. So, he handcrafted a couple more: “We doubled production and were able to keep up with the crowds.”
As the Relief Sale was an annual event, that left the machines idle for the rest of the year. So, in 1980, he had the “wild idea” to set up a tent at the Heart of Illinois Fair.
It was there that a helper, Thomas Studebaker, now a noted tenor who has performed nationwide, hung the “Uncle Bob” title on Bally as an inside joke. It stuck.
“That was the start of Uncle Bob’s,” said Bally, “in a tent with hand-painted signs.”
From those humble beginnings grew a mini-ice cream empire that today sells its product at multiple central Illinois grocery stores, from major chains including Hy-Vee and IGA to locally-owned operations such as Alwan & Sons Meat Company in Peoria Heights and Lindy’s Downtown Market in Washington. Uncle Bob’s is even featured at local watering holes such as Kelleher’s and W.E. Sullivan’s.
Meanwhile, you can take the big dip at Uncle Bob’s home base ice cream parlor in Eureka and, in a tip to its roots, you can find it in the heart of Amish country at a shop in Arthur.
The company also has been honored with Grand Champion status for dairy products at the Illinois State Fair.
Not bad for a career financial planner and farmer who was just looking to fill his summers with a little extra income and provide a learning experience for his three children – Ian, Emily and Ben – all from a trailer that made countless trips to fairs and festivals.
Today, at age 66, Bob Bally has stepped away from daily involvement at the business he founded, though he’s a familiar presence at the shop, tinkering with the equipment, maintaining the property.
Of the kids, only Ben is still actively involved, running day-to-day operations. He knew even before business degrees from Illinois Central College and Auburn University that ice cream was his career road, although it was rocky at times.
“My senior project (at Auburn), we had to do a business plan,” said Ben. “So, of course, I did it on this. I got my grade and had my life plan.”
Uncle Bob’s has come a long way since the elder Bally was stacking ice cream buckets in his home’s family room. Like those bucket pyramids, the components of his business were built one at a time.
In 2005, Ben Bally bought an old potato chip delivery truck, spending his freshman year in college refashioning it into a mobile ice cream parlor, which allowed Uncle Bob’s to take its show on the road more often. In 2010, a bricks-and-mortar operation opened in an old restaurant on U.S. Route 24 (Center Street) in Eureka, with that marquee truck parked out front. Two years later, the Ballys acquired a wholesaler’s license and started shipping to grocery stores and eateries within an hour’s drive of the Woodford County seat. Meanwhile, the Eureka location served as both retail ice cream emporium and production facility.
About 55 percent of Uncle Bob’s sales now come from its wholesale operations, with another 10 percent from catered events such as weddings and corporate outings, estimates Ben Bally. The remainder is generated at the Eureka shop, despite it being closed each year from Thanksgiving week until early April.
The multiple income streams help cushion the business during slower periods. While many businesses saw sales tumble during the COVID pandemic, for example, Uncle Bob’s sales “bumped up.”
“If it was just the storefront, it would have killed us but our grocery store sales went through the roof and it hasn’t gone down to normal yet,” said Ben.
He noted that all production, packaging and hand-labeling takes place at the store, with about 20 worker-hours daily needed for production.
“Eighty percent of the recipes are the ones I developed years ago,” Bob Bally said, adding that ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible. “People are demanding higher quality. And real. We use as much natural as we can.”
Other flavor ideas come from customers, employees, friends and family.
Through it all, the passion for the business and serving customers has remained.
“I was more concerned with quality, a good name and great customer service than I was with turning a profit,” said Ben. “You can’t do it for money alone. You have to love it. I do different things and I get the chance to be creative.”
While he’s the only full-time employee, Ben Bally admits he lets his approximately 20 workers handle most of the actual scooping. The business’ main ice cream-making machine is maxed out. “We couldn’t make another gallon of ice cream if we needed to,” he said.
In addition to word-of-mouth, Uncle Bob’s hosts field trips to see and even assist with ice cream production. Schools, camps, Scout and even senior citizens groups – “everyone from 80-year-olds to kindergarteners” — have visited the Eureka shop. Meanwhile, doctors at nearby Carle Eureka Hospital, in town from the Chicago area, often take the ice cream home, spreading its fame.
Admitting to a personal fondness for turtle sundae ice cream, Ben Bally says the Oreo Overload flavor is the perennial top seller.
As for the future, he simply says, “It is what it is because it is what it is. And I want to keep it that way.”