Today, we continue our summer-long series on area businesses that have survived the toll-taking pandemic. Have a story to tell? Email VP/News Jim Rossow at email@example.com
CHAMPAIGN — Comfort food provides a nostalgic or sentimental value to someone. It’s what many locals turned to during the pandemic.
When they did, one popular ice cream store was ready to deliver — both figuratively and literally.
“People gravitated toward comfort during the pandemic,” said Ashlee Rhodes, manager at Jarling’s Custard Cup. “We did everything we could to make sure we could comfort them.”
There was uncertainty when the pandemic caused a shutdown of essential businesses in March 2020.
“We didn’t know if we were an essential business or not,” Rhodes said. “Nobody knew. At the start, I don’t think anybody knew what counted as essential and what didn’t. We talked with the health department first thing, and we were very happy to find out we were an essential business.”
Rhodes said the company, founded in 1949 in Danville, was well-prepared for the pandemic.
“We are a very clean operation and even before the pandemic, we always practiced extensive hand-washing and wearing gloves because all of our food is ready to eat,” she said. “We kept up on hygiene, and with the exception of requiring everybody to wear masks, we were already doing everything the CDC (Center for Disease Control) was requiring.”
An emphasis was placed on keeping the store extra clean and employees healthy.
“We told our employees that even if you feel a slight sniffle coming on, you stay home and we will see you in two weeks,” she said. “Sometimes, you hear of places that might encourage employees to truck through it or explain it away — that it’s just an allergy — but not here. We didn’t make anyone go get tested, but we strongly encouraged it. Not only for our peace of mind, but for theirs as well.”
Custard Cup was originally opened in Danville by George and Helen Potter, who owned the business for 20 years and then decided to retire. The Potters had no children, so they sold “The Cup” to Wilmer and Dorotha Jarling in 1969. In 1983, their son and daughter-in-law, Doug and Christy Jarling, opened the Champaign location.
In 2016, a group of local private investors that included former University of Illinois coaches, athletes and alums bought the store from the Jarlings.
“We have really loyal customers,” Rhodes said. “We are very popular throughout Champaign-Urbana, throughout the state and nationwide. Not only did we learn that our customers are extra loyal, but we were encouraged that they supported us through the pandemic and made sure that we stayed in business.
“We were one of the luckier businesses that were able to keep our doors open. We operated our normal hours and served up treats for everyone that really needed them during this time.”
On Tuesday, Cheryl Boyer of Champaign enjoyed an ice cream sundae at a picnic table outside the store.
“I’ve been coming here for years,” she said. “It’s an old-school, family-oriented type of place that my parents introduced me to and now, I’m bringing my kids.”
The pandemic allowed for new ideas and old ones to be reshaped. In the past, on occasion, orders were shipped outside of the area. With fewer people traveling, the demand picked up.
“We put our heads together and decided now is the time to expand on that,” Rhodes said. “Fewer people were traveling. We lost the students and their families. We wondered what we could do to make sure everyone gets to experience one of the things they appreciate in Champaign-Urbana. So we expanded our nationwide shipping.”
Several custom freezer packs are now available via phone orders or through the store’s website for two-day shipping. The product, including ice cream, toppings and pies, is packed into foam coolers and packed with dry ice.
“That went off the charts, and was huge,” she said.
While the pandemic was unexpected and not something Rhodes wants to go through again, the store came through it in good shape, she said.
“I think, believe it or not, we gained a lot of new customers,” she said. “People were able to check us out and see what we are all about. We open everyone with open arms. I think the fact that – before the pandemic we were cautious about how we did everything prepared us for the pandemic.
“The cleanliness, the hygiene, the handwashing and the wearing of the gloves were here before and will always be here.”