The Greek-American Immigrant who Created the Legendary Dove Bar Ice Cream

Article by Tasos Kokkinidis for Greek reporter

Leo Stefanos inspects chocolate making standing above his wife in the early days of Dove Bar. Credit: Greek Reporter / handout by Alexis Stefanos Marneris

The legendary Dove Bar ice cream was created by Greek immigrant Leo Stefanos in Chicago, Illinois in 1956, bringing a little sweetness to the Windy City’s South Side — and eventually the entire country.

One day, Stefanos saw his son Mike chasing an ice cream van down a busy street and swore right there that he would create a delicious new ice cream that can be enjoyed in the safety of his own store.

The Dove Bar was born “in response to my brother and I taking off whenever we heard the ice cream truck bells,” Mike Stefanos told the Chicago Tribune years later. “My father was frustrated. Here he was, making fresh candy and ice cream every day, and we’d chase ice cream trucks.”

After months of painstakingly slicing blocks of ice cream and dipping them in chocolate, the sensational Dove Bar was created.

In a small ceremony that Mike Stefanos remembers well, his father gathered the family together to hand-dip those first thick slabs of fresh ice cream on a stick. “They were only for family consumption at first, but he put them in the store after a week or so, and they sold.”

The Dove Bar, a butterfat-rich, generous 5.5-ounce ice cream confection, hand-dipped in Dutch bittersweet chocolate, was originally sold for 15 cents.

The delectable chocolate-covered bars were sold only in the Chicago area until 1977, however, when Leo Stefanos passed away and Mike took over his father’s business.

Mike Stefanos took over Dove Bar after his dad’s death. Credit: dovechocolate.com

During the four years before his father’s death in 1977, he spent every day with him, side by side, making candy and ice cream in the family’s Southwest Side store.

DoveBar expands coast to coast

“I had a lot of good times with my father then,” Mike told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. “We really got to know each other well.”

By the late ’70s over one million Dove Bars were sold in a single year by street vendors to eager children, and adults, from coast to coast in the US.

Mike Stefanos, a certified public accountant who dropped out of the University of Chicago‘s masters program in business administration to keep the family’s business going after his father’s death, was more concerned with maintaining quality than increasing production.

The number of Dove Bars made in the candy store’s rear kitchen reached only 300 a day after they began to be sold outside the neighborhood for the first time in 1983 to select country clubs and Treasure Island Food Stores.

In 1984 things really got going when Mike took the Dove Bar to the Fancy Foods Show in Washington, D.C., and orders started flooding in. Within three months, Dove Bars were being shipped to 3,500 supermarkets around the country.

As the bar’s fame spread throughout the city, ”a lot of people approached me” to go into business and mass-produce the ice cream, Stefanos says. ”I always knew the product had the potential if we could maintain the quality, but none of the offers felt right,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

The right offer finally came from Richard Zacharras, a 73-year-old local financier who, at the urging of his chocolate-loving wife, tasted his first Dove Bar at his country club.

After two years of talking about a possible co-business venture, Stefanos overcame his hesitation when he received the deciding vote on all issues concerned with the product’s quality and its image.

The company was formed in March, 1985, at a start-up cost of about $2 million. Now, production is up to a staggering 92,000 hand-dipped bars a day in the 13,000-square-foot Burr Ridge plant. There are 117 people working three shifts every day in an effort to meet the demand of grocery stores, specialty stores and street vendors throughout the country for the irresistible treat.

Dove Bar was bought out by Mars Incorporated in 1986. It was expanded into different ice cream flavors, and chocolate bars and the nationwide sensation was born. But it all started, as so many successful businesses do, with one Greek immigrant to America.

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