Ballenger Dishes Up Delights

June 28, 2004
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CASCADE — Mary Ballenger is a microbiologist by profession and an entrepreneur at heart.

This scientist’s brainchild is Sundaes at the Cottage, an ice cream shop in Cascade that has become a hot spot for cold confections and something of a community-gathering place.

Most any summer night, customers are lined up at the windows a dozen deep, or lounging and socializing at the shop’s outdoor-café-style seating area and sheltered patio.

Ballenger opened the stand-alone ice cream shop on July 4, 2001, within a day of receiving the township’s building inspection approval. 

“We were still setting up, but we ended up opening because people kept coming to the windows,” she recalled. 

She hasn’t had to invest in advertising. It seems word of mouth has taken care of that.

Ballenger has worked for Alticor Inc. for 23 years. She spent 14 years as a microbiologist in the area of quality assurance. Today she works in research and development for Access Business Group, where she does consumer testing.

“My background is all technical. As a microbiologist, I’ve had to trouble shoot problems and look at sanitation and processing. So I was very familiar with sanitation and health codes and equipment cleanliness. All my experience at Alticor has helped me tremendously here.”

The inspiration for a cottage themed ice cream shop came to her while vacationing on Mackinaw Island.

“I wanted to specialize in sundaes, and I wanted a cottage theme. The vision was for a place where families could kind of feel like they were on vacation and just have a good time,” she explained.

She and her husband, Scott, designed the building. The overall effect is quaint, cozy and inviting, from the flower boxes perched under the window sills, to the small table lamps glowing from the dormer windows “upstairs,” to the white tables and lawn chairs dotting the “front yard.”  

Ballenger completed the 15-week “Minding Your Own Business” course at Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) in August 2000 and is a graduate of “Class No. 20.”  During the summer she was completing her course work, she moonlighted three nights a week at Kool Kone in Grand Rapids to get a feel for the business and see if she liked it. 

“I wanted to have something of my own so I could control my own destiny,” she said of her decision to launch the business.

“I attribute a lot of my success here to going through the GROW program. By the time you go to a bank to talk about a business loan, you’ve got all your ducks in a row. I think the success rate is probably a lot higher for people who take the GROW program, because you do all the business and marketing research beforehand. If I hadn’t, I could have made some huge mistakes by doing things on impulse rather than really researching it.”

One of the most difficult decisions, she said, was choosing the location.

“Location is everything. I really agonized over that.”

Friends suggested Rockford. She considered Belmont. But she chose Cascade because her intuition told her it was right.

Judging by the crowds, it’s obvious the Cascade community appreciates her choice of location.

“It can be raining out here and we have people lined up,” Ballinger noted. “We have very dedicated customers. A lot of them we know by name.”

Ballenger’s father had founded and built a successful furniture manufacturing company, so she had a clear sense of what it took to run a business, she said. 

“I knew how hard it was and the sacrifices that had to be made. A lot people think that business owners just ‘got there.’ They don’t have the appreciation for the sweat, sacrifice and money it takes to get to that point. There are a lot of risks. You have to put a lot of your savings on the line for something you can’t guarantee will work out.” 

She said she relies a lot on her dad for advice because he’s been there.

Ballenger’s two daughters open and run Sundaes while she’s at her day job. Her son works there, too. She said all three children have a sense of ownership in the family operation, so they take their jobs seriously.

Her husband handles the books, taxes, payroll and other paper work. All told, she has 12 employees. 

“I’m very particular about who I hire. My standards and expectations are really high, and I let the kids know that. My employees really mean something to me. If I didn’t have great employees giving great customer service, we wouldn’t be where we’re at.”

Food quality is extremely important to her, as well, she said. Brownies and waffle cones, for instance, are handmade at the shop.

“It’s got to be very good quality or I won’t serve it. Our customers notice the difference in quality.”

Sundaes at the Cottage has a large, diverse menu because Ballenger wanted to offer “something for everybody,” including diabetic, lactose intolerant, calorie-conscious and carb-counting customers.

Her decision to cater to special dietary needs came from the heart. Her mother suffered from diabetes and died of kidney failure.

In honor of her mother, there are a variety of sugar-free offerings under the “Bernadine’s Favorites” section of the menu.

Sundaes’ menu includes soft-serve and hard-packed ice cream, frozen novelties, frozen yogurt and tofu, shaved ices, sherbets and sorbets, handmade ice cream cakes, and soft-serve Frace, which is both sugar and fat free and has no cholesterol. 

There’s even a frozen confection for Pooch — a cup of ice cream topped with a doggie bone treat. 

Ballenger believes that to be successful a business owner has to be constantly vigilant of consumer trends and forever attentive to customer’s special needs.

“I like the independence, and I like being my own boss,” Ballenger said. “But I could never have done it without my family.”

What’s her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?

“Stick to your heart and your vision, and don’t let anybody sway you from that.”

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