When one thinks of the classic hit “My Way,” legendary crooner Frank Sinatra comes to mind as singer-songwriter Paul Anka, although terrified, penned the signature song for his friend/hero. Released in 1969 with a big-band orchestra, the song represented American bravado and “Ol’ Blue Eye’s” ability to live a full life without regrets. Just like the lyrics to the celebrated song, Moline, Ill.-based Whitey’s Ice Cream, which celebrates its 90th anniversary in May, has been able to “plan each careful step along the byway” by doing it “their way.”
Under the leadership of owners and brothers Jon and Jeff Tunberg, Whitey’s Ice Cream produces 90 flavors of handcrafted premium ice cream and yogurt in such fan favorites as Graham Central Station (which was awarded the top spot at the 2012 World Dairy Expo with a nearly perfect score of 99 out of 100 points), Moose Tracks™, Blue Moon, White Tiger Paws, Black Raspberry Chip, Mango Raspberry, Banana Graham, Butter Pecan and many more. Additionally, around 235 shop employees in eight locations (four in Illinois and four in Iowa) mix up extra thick shakes and malts (including its famous upside-down varietals) in thousands of flavor combinations — on a high-powered malt machine Whitey’s invented in 1971. There’s also candy bar shakes with crushed Butterfingers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, M&Ms, Kit Kat, Heath, Snickers, and Oreos, with Whitey’s going through a million Oreos and producing 500,000 gallons of ice cream annually.
With an eight-page recipe list that store employees must memorize and master, Whitey’s portfolio also includes sherbet, sodas, freezes, smoothies, and frozen novelties like Chocolate Covered Bananas, mini malts, mini Vanilla cups and ice cream cookie sandwiches, aka “Chippers.”
To keep with ice cream trends for dairy-free, vegan offerings, since the summer of 2020, Whitey’s serves up Dairy-Free Chocolate Mint and Dairy-Free Fruit Delight, which is made using coconut cream which the company suggests “tastes as good as the dairy version.”
To foster excitement and to spark repeat customers, Whitey’s offers a “Treat of the Month,” which can be anything from Lemon Bar Shakes, Blueberry Muffin Shakes, or Red Velvet Cake Ice Cream. April’s variety was Fruit Wafer Shake and during the May anniversary month, the company fittingly will offer a Birthday Cake Shake. Not even the family dog is left out as Whitey’s serves up its popular Pup Cup, a mini-dip of Vanilla Ice Cream with a dog bone on top.
Each year, more than 125,000 Chippers, some 250,000 homemade cookies, are carefully crafted along with chewy brownies, strawberry and pumpkin toppings not to mention its ice creams are manufactured in a small but mighty 25,000-square-foot plant located across the street from the flagship store at 2525 41st St. in Moline.
All told, Whitey’s Ice Cream produces nearly 100,000 3-gallon tubs in 55 flavors (hundreds of flavors over time served in eight gleaming white shops) and 400,000 1.5-quart containers. Depending on the carton size, the most popular flavors include Vanilla, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Moose Tracks, Strawberry, Mint Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Strawberry Cheesecake, and Cotton Candy.
Whitey’s went from one small store on 16th Street in Moline, Ill., that opened in 1933, and added a second store and larger manufacturing facility at the aforementioned 41st Street location in 1977.
With customers clamoring for more of Whitey’s, the company “moo-ved” into the wholesale market — 35 years and counting — and was able to be purchased for the first time in grocery stores within a 60-mile radius of the Quad Cities in Hy-Vee, Jewel, and Fareway.
The third-generation, family-run ice cream processor, a staple in the Quad Cities (Rock Island and Moline in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, population 382,268), prides itself on “offering a quality product in a clean environment served by a friendly, knowledgeable clerk,” Co-CEO Jon Tunberg, 70, tells Dairy Foods during a recent visit and plant tour. “To the Quad Cities, Whitey’s has become the go-to place to meet, greet and socialize.”
It's also a familiar, happy place where loyal customers stop in, rolling cooler in hand, as Dairy Foods witnessed, to purchase ice cream and dry ice so that “a taste of home” can be delivered to family in another state, the customer relays.
And when this Whitey’s regular advises how much she “loves Whitey’s,” it seems that she is not alone. In 1988, Midwest Living magazine named Whitey’s the “Best in the Midwest,” and the title has become a slogan for the company.
Whitey’s Ice Cream also was voted one of the “Best Ice Cream Shops in the World” by Conde Nast Travel readers and has been name “Best Ice Cream” and “Best Dessert” in the Quad City Times Reader’s Choice Awards time and time again.
And Whitey’s famous, award-winning Chipper sandwiches, featuring an indulgent scoop of Whitey’s Chocolate Chip or Mint Chocolate Chip, sandwiched between two homemade cookies, scored 99.9 points out of 100 at the 2018 World Dairy Expo.
About these honors, Co-CEO Jeff Tunberg, 73, simply says: “We make ice cream the way we’d like to eat it. There are choices you make in the manufacturing process. We can make sweet and cheap quality ice cream, or we can create super-premium ice cream — it all depends on the choices.
“Quality is a choice, and we choose to make it good enough that you want two dips, yet not so rich that you can only eat one. There are some that have so much butterfat that you need a nap,” he says, laughing.
When making ice cream, the care and quality undertaken in Whitey’s early days have been crucial to its future success, which now includes four stores each in Iowa and Illinois — the aforementioned flagship store in Moline, a rebuilt store at 1601 Avenue of the Cities in Moline (home of the original Whitey’s), and stores in East Moline and Rock Island. In 1984, Whitey’s finally crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa with the opening of a store at 3515 Middle Road in Bettendorf. There’s also two shops in Davenport and a store in Eldridge. (See sidebar).
Founded in 1933 by Chester “Whitey” Lindgren, who received the nickname due to his white-blond hair, Whitey’s grew from humble beginnings from its first small shop on 16th Street and 23rd Avenue in Moline. As the brothers explain, ice cream was made by hand in the back of the store in just a few flavors and then staffers would pull double duty by selling the ice cream they made to customers. A pivotal moment for the ice cream chain occurred in 1935, when Whitey hired a then-15-year-old Bob Tunberg — Jon and Jeff’s father. Over the years, Whitey and Bob became close friends, eventually leading Bob and his wife, Norma, to purchase Whitey’s Ice Cream in 1953.
Contributing to the family business, Jeff and Jon started off picking up trash in the parking lot before they went to school. They eventually worked behind the counter, in the back room, and learned all facets of the ice cream business “the old-fashioned way.”
“Our parents taught us the importance of customer service and instilled a strong work ethic that continues to this day,” Jon Tunberg explains. “What’s really old-fashioned about us is our quality and our service — it hasn’t changed in 90 years. We won’t cheapen it. Our employees still count back change.”
Jeff Tunberg chimes in: “When we started, an ice cream cone was 10 cents for a single dip and 12 cents for a sugar cone. The price is a little different now, but the quality remains.”
In honor of their late father, who died in 1991 of lymphoma at the age of 71, the brothers don’t use “president” in their job title as a way of paying tribute to their dad — “The Quad-Cities Favorite Ice Cream Man.”
“Our father said in one of his last interviews that he was grateful that we were carrying on the business the way he wanted it carried on — with integrity, honesty, and good faith,” Jeff Tunberg says. “He’d be so proud of our growth and that both of our daughters are involved as well.”
With a strong commitment to quality, the hardest thing for our dad was going from one store to two “because he couldn’t see every cone going out the door,” Jon Tunberg adds. “He was there all the time. I think I was in 8th grade before we took a summer vacation because summertime was work time.”
“We Are Family”
Recorded and released by Sister Sledge in 1979, “We Are Family,” opines about the importance of family, blood or otherwise. That special connection of “family” is something that the Tunberg’s relish. Third-generation staffers Jennifer Lindbloom, Jeff’s daughter, who moved from California in 2019 to manage the Davenport store on 53rd St., and Annika Tunberg, Jon’s daughter, who’s been with the company since 2016 as vice president, are excited to work alongside their dads in the business they hope to eventually run.
“There really is a sense of comradery that you can’t fake,” Annika Tunberg states. “Many of our employees have been with us 40, 50 years and are pivotal to our growth and success. Even our customers are family to us and my grandfather knew many by name and had seen legions of customers share their love of a Whitey’s treat over the years..”
The Whitey’s family includes 270 employees: 232 retail employees, 25 plant/manufacturing workers, two wholesale drivers and 11 office employees. Many have been with the company for decades, including co-plant managers and identical twins Mike and Mark Cutkomp, who’ve been with the company 25 years (see the “Inside the Plant” feature); former plant manager Gary Neer, who worked for Whitey’s for nearly 44 years before his death in December 2020; his cousin Scott Larson, who started with Whitey’s in high school, has been with the company 42 years, and now functions as general manager.
The Tunberg’s credit Neer for some of Whitey’s ice cream innovations.
“Gary made the best ice cream in the world and viewed his job as a way to make people happy and he did that wonderfully,” the brothers state.
For example, the company says it fashioned the very first Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream after an employee, who didn’t like the pecans in Butter Pecan, suggested that if chocolate chips and walnuts were added instead, it would taste like cookie dough.
Among the 27 frozen novelty items Whitey’s serves up are smoothies, freezes, Bostons (a milkshake with a sundae on top) two handmade ice cream pies (the Turtle pie is a personal favorite), mini shakes/malts, and its Original and Mint Chippers, with cookies lovingly made by Bakery Manager Adam Copp, who arrives at 4 a.m. to churn out 250,000 perfectly round and handmade cookies a year in three varieties: Chocolate Chip, Molasses and Chocolate.
“Years ago my wife noted that there weren’t any novelty items made with Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream, and 18 attempts later on a chocolate cookie recipe, we had the combination we wanted,” Jon Tunberg explains. “That’s what’s great about being small, we can try things like that and afford to mess up.
While we sell the most classic Chippers each year, customers get very excited for the return of our Harvest Chipper, featuring a heaping scoop of our seasonal Pumpkin ice cream which we created using our mom’s pumpkin pie recipe heaped between two homemade Molasses cookies. It’s phenomenal.”
The inside scoop
To run a successful ice cream business for 90 years, there’s plenty of hard work that occurs behind the scenes before Whitey’s custom-made treats can be savored, notes Amanda Hoover, commissary manager. With Whitey’s for 10 years, Hoover is responsible for getting everything ready to go into — or on top — of the ice cream, including toppings, brownies, revels and more.
“We make and mix up Whitey’s special fudge that is used in our Mississippi Mud Revel,” she says. “We also make the slush mix for the stores and the toppings and purees for the stores including strawberry and pumpkin flavors. Every Tuesday, we make more than 2,000 Chippers. I also run the lab to make sure all of our products are safe for consumption.”
Chocolate, butterscotch, peanuts, and marshmallows are among the ingredients and toppings purchased, but Whitey’s stirs in a little extra flavoring for all of the toppings. For example, over 10,000 quarts of strawberry toppings and 3,000 quarts of pumpkin topping (and an additional 2,000 pounds of pumpkin for its ice cream) are produced each year.
Approximately 55 years after its founding, Whitey’s “Best in the Midwest” reputation continued to grow. In 1988, the ice cream purveyor entered the wholesale market and the world of grocery stores.
“We have two employees who run our wholesale department and we deliver to Fareway, Jewel, and Hy-Vee locations within about a 60-mile radius of the Quad Cities,” Annika Tunberg explains. “In our agreement with Hy-Vee, their distribution company, PDI, out of Ankeny, Iowa, picks up pallets of ice cream from our manufacturing plant and transports to their warehouse to distribute to eight states across the Midwest.”
The seven flavors currently sold to Hy-Vee stores chain-wide are: Vanilla, Mint Chocolate Chip, French Vanilla, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Moose Tracks, White Tiger Paws, and Chocolate Chip.
And once Hy-Vee expanded to the Minneapolis market, opening four stores, “we get constant calls telling us that a store isn’t carrying a specific flavor, fans want their favorites” Jon Tunberg says.
On the distribution side, Whitey’s produces the most volume, around 82%, of products for its own chains, with the wholesale division selling 18% of the product, Annika states.
In 1989, the company started shipping Whitey’s across the country, with its FedEx business booming, particularly during holidays. (For details about ordering Whitey’s merchandise, e.g., T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and to order ice cream online, visit www.whiteysicecream.com).
“The Food Network did a show on us making our upside down specialty milkshakes, which are actually a lot of work and when they replay it every once in a while, there’s a spike for orders,” Jeff Tunberg relays. “We just got a picture from a lady’s 70th birthday party in Florida, and they actually had tears in their eyes holding Whitey’s milkshakes.”
90 years of fun and giving
ABOUT WHITEY’s ICE CREAM
Founded: 1933 by Chester “Whitey” Lindgren
Now a third-generation ice cream processor
90th anniversary in May. 70th anniversary for Tunberg ownership.
Headquarters: 2525 41st St., Moline, Ill.
No. of Ice Cream Shops: 8, 4 Illinois stores at: 2601 41st St., Moline; 1601 Avenue of the Cities, Moline (home of the original Whitey’s), 1335 Avenue of the Cities, East Moline; and 2520 18th Ave., Rock Island
4 Iowa stores at: 3515 Middle Road, Bettendorf; 1230 W. Locust St., Davenport, and 2419 E. 53rd St., Davenport; and 114 N. 1st St., Eldridge.
Volume produced annually: 500,000 gallons; 100,000 3-gallon varietals; 400,000 1.5 quart containers.
No. of ice cream flavors: 90, including limited-edition flavors; 27 novelty items (award-winning Chippers, Chocolate Covered Bananas, mini malts/shakes, mini Vanilla cups, popsicles, etc.)
In the record books: April 20, 2010, Augustana College 150th Anniversary & Guinness Book of World Records for creating the longest human ice cream licking chain of 2,694 people.
No. of employees: 270, including manufacturing employees, wholesale delivery drivers, office and retail employees.
Executive Leadership: Jon Tunberg, Co-owner; Jeff Tunberg, Co-owner; Annika Tunberg, Vice President; Jason Meyer, Controller; Mike Cutkomp and Mark Cutkomp, Plant Managers; Amanda Hoover, Commissary Manager; Adam Copp, Bakery Manager; Chris Graham, Plant Engineer; and Scott Larson, General Manager
For the past 90 years, Whitey’s has been a go-to place for thousands of ice cream lovers who argue which flavor is best. The company also takes great pride in giving back to its Quad Cities community.
Whitey’s supports children’s charities like Youth Hope and the Children’s Therapy Center, walkathons, the Fellowship for Christian athletes (FCA), and the YMCA. It also has been a longtime sponsor of several annual events such as the John Deere Classic, a PGA Tour Event, for the past 40 years; and the Bix7 Road Race (named for Davenport native and jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke) with runners coming from around the world to participate in the legendary race. For 49 years — almost since the race began — Whitey’s has been handing out popsicles to race participants.
The nation’s veterans also benefit from Whitey’s. In 2010, Whitey’s created a camouflage ice cream, Sgt. Camo™, in which all profits from the customized flavor are donated to military veterans groups, more than $115,000 to date. The camouflaged ice cream is made with graham cracker and marshmallow ice cream with a ribbon of fudge, giving it a S’more taste.
When the banks of the Mississippi flooded in 1993, Whitey’s created a new flavor, Mississippi Mud Revel — Kona coffee-flavored ice cream matched with fudge swirls and mixed with Oreo cookies — and raised money for the American Red Cross.
“It became so popular, that we still have it,” Jon Tunberg states. “In 2019, there was another bad flood and for 17 days we sold $47,000 worth of Mississippi Mud with 100% of proceeds donated again.”
Philanthropy aside, Whitey’s, in partnership with Augustana College, is in the Guinness Book of World Records. In celebration of the college’s 150th Anniversary (April 20, 2010), Whitey’s and its custom-made flavor — Viking Pride — helped create the longest human ice cream licking chain of 2,694 people.
Also designed to bring “a lick of joy and fun” and some cost-savings, Whitey’s 90th anniversary will feature a week-long party (May 15-21) of single-dip cones for 90 cents. Colorful cut-outs featuring the old-fashioned uniforms from years past where customers can stick their head thru and snap a photo will add to the nostalgia at all eight store locations.
“They’re all family too because we always say Quad Citizens have a Whitey’s story, and whenever they talk about the store in their neighborhood they say ‘my store,’ so they’ve taken ownership in us, too,” Jon Tunberg emphasizes. “A lot of Quad Citizens have told us, ‘Don’t ever franchise or you won’t belong to us anymore.’”
Jeff Tunberg stresses: “We’ve had many people come to us about franchising. People who have lived here and then moved away. We’ve traditionally avoided allowing anyone who isn’t part of the family to operate a store with the Whitey’s name.
“It’s not that we love control, and it may not be the most economical, but it’s worked for the company for the past 90 years,” he continues. “Maintaining quality, providing great customer service, and bringing happiness and smiles is central to our mission. We don’t plan on changing a thing.”