It's one thing to start your own business, but to open a high-end ice cream store in winter during the depths of an economic recession sounds like one of those TV challenge programs.

It's one thing to start your own business, but to open a high-end ice cream store in winter during the depths of an economic recession sounds like one of those TV challenge programs.

But neither Jim Maxwell nor Tim Hennessey has been voted off the island, and the two Peorians have no regrets after opening their Emack & Bolio's ice cream franchise in December in Peoria Heights.

"We've always done things the hard way," said Hennessey.

The opening returns an ice cream parlor to the Heights. Emack & Bolio's is just a few doors down from the former site of the Spotted Cow ice cream parlor, which moved to larger quarters in 2006.

While Maxwell and Hennessey have little experience in running an ice cream store, they're both excited about their enterprise. Maxwell, 53, was an Allstate Insurance salesman for 22 years, while Hennessey, 50, served as a customer service representative for Brewers Distributing and previously spent almost 20 years working for Thompson's Food Basket.

The longtime friends always wanted to go into business together, so when they learned of the Boston-based ice cream chain, it seemed like a good fit, said Maxwell.

With only about 20 stores across the country, Emack & Bolio's is no threat to ice cream giants such as Baskin-Robbins or Dairy Queen. The pair first learned of the franchise through the Emack & Bolio's outlet in Normal, a franchise owned by Barbie Fuller. "We sampled the product there and found out how the business worked," Maxwell said.

Emack & Bolio's was started in 1975 by Boston attorney Bob Rook. He said he got started in the business after treating some of his music-business clients - such as Boston-based bands Aerosmith, Boston and the Cars - to homemade ice cream.

Emack & Bolio's recalls that rock-and-roll heritage with some of its most outrageous ice cream flavors, said Rook, noting that "red hot vanilla" - vanilla ice cream with red hot candies - originated with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Rook said the chain's ice cream puts a premium on quality, using real ingredients along with some imagination.

"We try to put (ice cream) together in a really good way," he said last week from his Boston office.

Maxwell and Hennessey found that the chain operates well, not attaching a lot of strings on franchise ownership.

"Bob is real easy to work with. You buy the ice cream from him and pretty much do your own thing," said Maxwell.

They bought plenty of that ice cream to get started.

"We had 1,000 gallons delivered from Boston," said Hennessey, noting that ice cream is stored at 20 degrees below zero in the basement walk-in freezer. "It usually takes two to three days for it to be ready to scoop after we bring it upstairs," he said.

Before either man could do any scooping, they had to set up shop on Prospect Road.

"We bought the building and gutted it. It's been our life for over six months," said Hennessey, referring to a remodeling effort that included turning a walkway area adjacent to the building into a patio area.

While a cold central Illinois winter hasn't generated swarms of customers, the last few months have allowed the two men to learn the ropes while anticipating busier times when warmer weather arrives.

"We've already seen a lot of repeat customers. That's a good sign when you get people coming back," said Hennessey.

Aside from offering 24 ice cream flavors - out of a rotating pool of more than 40 that includes a number of sugar-free selections - cones are also an attraction, said Maxwell.

Customers can order a plain sugar or waffle cone or they can opt for one dipped in chocolate with extras such as Rice Krispie treats, peanuts or coconut, he said. There also are homemade ice cream cakes available.

"We did 20 cakes for Valentine's," said Maxwell.

With those kind of novelties - not to mention the frappes (milk shakes), egg creams (fountain drinks) and other East Coast-named specialties - Maxwell and Hennessey anticipate the store becoming a destination attraction, especially for the young.

"People can call to set up parties here," said Hennessey.

But the owners aren't simply relying on youth's infatuation with ice cream. The store keeps late hours - open until 8 p.m. on Sundays and Mondays, 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays - designed to serve that late-night craving for caramel moose prints.

"We plan to stay open until midnight on Saturdays this summer," Hennessey said.

While the owners run the store themselves these days, they anticipate hiring part-time help.

"We've already had a lot of people coming in to apply. We tell them to come back in a month or two," said Maxwell.

So far, the experience has been positive for both men.

"People love ice cream. They're happy when they come in. It's not like they're paying car insurance," Maxwell said.

Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 or

Ice cream facts

Here's the scoop on the Emack & Bolio's outlet that recently opened in Peoria Heights.

Chain: Emack & Bolio's has about 20 stores across the country. The franchise was founded by Boston attorney Bob Rook in 1975.

Name: The chain was named after John Bolio and Don Emack, two homeless clients of Rook's.

Quote: "People like flavors with a lot of stuff in them," said Rook.

Top-selling flavor: Vanilla.

Gimmick: Flavored cones. "We dip a waffle cone in chocolate and then roll it in candies. Everybody does it now but we were the first," said Rook.

Telephone: (309) 682-3530.