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A scoop of kindness

At Heyn’s Ice Cream shop in North Liberty, owner Peggy Cullivan reflects on what Heyn’s means to her
Heyn’s Premium Ice Cream owner Peggy Cullivan scoops blueberry cheesecake ice cream at her North Liberty shop. (photo by Nora Heaton)

NORTH LIBERTY– The history of the business is as follows: The Iowa City location of Heyn’s Ice Cream started in 1981, originally as a second location of Dane’s Dairy run by Paul Heyn. Soon after, Dane’s Dairy decided to give ownership of the store to Heyn, who renamed it Heyn’s Ice Cream. Peggy Cullivan began working at the shop when she was 14 years old, became manager at age 19, and inherited the store from Heyn in 2007. Earlier this summer, she opened a new location at 25 E. Cherry St. in North Liberty.
Those are the facts. But there is more to the story:
At age 12, young Peggy Cullivan began sneaking quarters out of her father’s change jar to walk to Heyn’s Ice Cream and buy a scoop of blueberry cheesecake ice cream. When she was 14, Heyn offered Cullivan a job behind the counter to fund her blueberry cheesecake habit. Less than five years later, she was managing the store. Soon becoming close friends, Cullivan and Heyn passed the time together with backgammon and other card games in the store on a regular basis.
“If anything happens to me—I want you to run the store,” Heyn told Cullivan during backgammon one day. He was 41 years old, and he was gone only a few months later.
Mourning one of her closest friends, Cullivan was left behind to run the business where she’d worked for half her lifetime. In the first few months after Heyn’s death, Cullivan said, walking through the door of the store was almost unbearable.
But she did bear it—and in the store where she grew up, she found her identity as a business owner. She’s been a patient and kind first boss to countless local teenagers– first in Iowa City and now in North Liberty. She believes her 22 years here have made her a better person. By honoring Heyn’s legacy, Cullivan has started her own legacy, too. By the way, she said—blueberry cheesecake is still her favorite flavor.
Cullivan paused in her story, her attention temporarily diverted, and laughed. “Are you dancing?” she called out.
In an unusual lull at the North Liberty shop, her two teenage employees were dancing energetically behind the counter, in silence. Caught in the act, they burst into laughter. Sixteen-year-old Jenna Weih attends Clear Creek Amana High School and works at Heyn’s part-time. She said she loves her job there.
“We’re all pretty much like family,” Weih said. “It’s a fun environment. As you can see, we have impromptu dance parties.”
A few minutes later, Weih served a scoop of Monster Mash to two-year-old Keller Wood, who is visiting Heyn’s Ice Cream shop with his family.
“I drive past here every day,” said Keller’s mother, Heidi Wood. Her husband, Levi Wood, added that it was the first time they actually stopped in. But they remember Heyn’s ice cream has been served at this location for a long time. Before Heyn’s took over the lease on the space, JJ’s Cupcakes and Creamery was one of Heyn’s Ice Cream’s 12 wholesale vendors. Before that, the owners of Isaac’s Creamery and Naomi’s Kitchen sold Heyn’s ice cream in the space, too.
Having a base of North Liberty customers already familiar with the Heyn’s product made opening the second location an easy decision, Cullivan said, and response to the North Liberty shop has been excellent so far. With its booth and bar seating, the historic building has elements of an old-school ice cream parlor.
Currently, the ice cream is handmade by Cullivan and staff at the Iowa City store, with an impressive 14 percent buttermilk fat content. In the summer months, production alone is a 20- to 25-hour per week job. Cullivan said she’d also love to expand production of the shop’s 40-plus flavors to the North Liberty location as well. By this winter, she hopes to have an area set up in the middle of the store where customers can watch and interact.
She’s always looking for ways to expand and improve. It keeps her extremely busy, and it’s an unpredictable job sometimes. She might start the day with two to four hours of deposits and inventory work planned, and end up putting in a 12-hour day behind the counter, making ice cream or helping staff where needed. She takes employee calls and texts and other business calls from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. some days.
“I must really thrive on that kind of thing, whatever it is,” she said, despite the heavy workload. Though she works every day, and averages about 60 hours per week, she spends most of her day with a smile on her face.
“Most people who come in are in a good mood– or if they come in a bad mood, they leave in a good mood,” she said. “Smiling becomes a part of you. It becomes second nature to treat people well.”
Cullivan did take a day off this year, she said…her wedding day. And even then, when she turned her phone back on at the end of the day, she had a collection of new voicemails and texts to tend to. She insists on taking her honeymoon later this year, but she’ll make sure it’s in the dead of winter when the store is quiet.
Part of the reason she gets so many phone calls is that the Heyn’s staff is almost entirely high school students working their first or second job, still learning how to troubleshoot and problem-solve store issues on their own. Cullivan herself was once the 14-year-old who started out behind the ice cream counter. She tries to give teenagers a chance, the way she was given a chance when Heyn was the owner. She said she learned from Heyn’s ownership and has tried to honor it while cultivating her own identity here.
“One of the things that I’ve learned over the last few years is to really just be myself,” she said. “It took me a few years and a lot of guidance to realize that the only way I was going to be happy doing this was to do it the way that felt right to me.”
Part of that process is working hard to show appreciation for her young employees. She’s a patient and nurturing person and she likes teaching. If she wasn’t in this business, she might have been a counselor, she said. And in many ways, she still is. When interacting with her employees, she can be counselor or mother one day, sister or friend the next.
“I like being able to contribute in whatever ways I can,” she said. “That makes me feel good.”
She stopped, choked with emotion, and took a breath.
“And sometimes I think that’s exactly why I’m here,” she continued. “It’s not necessarily just to sell ice cream. It’s to be me, and enjoy being there for other people.”
That is how Peggy Cullivan spends her days: Teaching teens to navigate their first job. Serving kids their first scoop of ice cream. Watching children light up at their first taste. Watching adults light up like kids. Encouraging them to sample as many of the 40 flavors as they’d like.
She recommends the blueberry cheesecake.