VOICES OF DAVIDSON
HOMETOWN HERO: Karen Toney
Karen Toney is the Manager of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Davidson. She graduated with a Veterinary Technician degree from Fairmont State College, and moved to Columbia, South Carolina where she worked as a veterinary technician at a small animal clinic and River Banks Zoo. In 1992, Karen decided it was time for a change of scenery (and weather) and moved to Mooresville, where she worked at a busy, four doctor Mooresville Animal Hospital. Being new to the area, she decided to get a part time job at a new ice cream shop opening in Davidson, called Ben & Jerry’s, and has been there ever since. Karen has spent 27 years in Davidson, selling super premium ice cream while being fully engaged in the community. Karen loves the opportunity to engage her staff and town in life-giving ways. She was the past president of the Davidson Merchants Association and Town of Davidson Marketing group and participates on the Christmas in Davidson and Concert on the Green Committees. She won Small Business Person of the Year from the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce in 2000. Karen was the first ever recipient of the Manager of the Year award from Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 and again in 2018, while receiving a Special Recognition award in 2015. She is active in her faith community and currently resides in Davidson with her dog, Chunky Monkey (her favorite flavor). Karen can be contacted at [email protected] or most days scooping the dream in her shop on Main Street in Davidson.
Tell me about your day job.
Sometimes it’s hard to call it a day job since we don’t open until noon! I manage Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in Davidson. I started as a part time scooper when I was 23 in 1993. I had moved to Mooresville to work at a Veterinary Clinic, which was my college degree. I was new to the area and thought getting an extra job in a college town would allow me to meet people around my same age and make a little extra money. Little did I know I would go on to become the manager in 1997 and still be here 27 years later!
Needless to say, Davidson College students are no longer around my age, but I love working and living in a college town. My hope for Ben & Jerry’s in Davidson is to provide great ice cream, sweet treats and cakes, be a profit-making business as a vehicle to enrich the community of Davidson, “raise up” local youth by providing them a safe and fun first time job, while teaching life skills and business acumen, and be a conscientious, involved downtown business amongst other great Davidson businesses.
How did you uncover this passion?
I fell into it. My own summer job was a lifeguard, never food service. My passion was always animals. As a youth, I volunteered at an animal hospital with hopes to work with animals as a career. When I moved to Mooresville to work at Mooresville Animal Hospital, a friend told me about a “new ice cream place” opening with evening and weekend hours in Davidson.
Through that, I discovered this new passion. I loved interacting with the customers and bringing smiles to faces. Even when I did not need the extra money any longer, I continued to work one day a week because I loved being at Ben & Jerry’s so much. I still remember a group of couples that would come in EVERY Friday night 7-9 pm for 12 years! We called them” The Friday Night Crew.” If they were in town, they were in Ben & Jerry’s. They are still friends today. This is what I love. In 1997, the owner, Phyllis Schultz, offered me a full-time job as manager. I’ve been full time here ever since and can’t image doing anything else.
What inspires you every day?
My staff and the people of Davidson. Watching my high school/college-aged staff get their first job, learn how to interact with each other and patrons of the shop and mature into the people they will become. I really like our ice cream and company, but I LOVE my staff and town!
My hope is to hire them early and have them through their college career and maybe beyond. It’s an age group I’m passionate about. I want to help equip them to be healthy relationally, prepare for independence, and maybe find their passion for their future careers and more importantly in life. Oh, and let us throw in some skills in conflict resolution! I want to assist them in learning how to interact with each other and the community. It is amazingly scary how many at this age really don’t know how to communicate, problem solve, navigate relationships or resolve conflicts.
What are your challenges and speed bumps along the way?
I feel like I should answer this in two parts. Pre Covid-See answers above! It’s the best and worst part of the job – staff. Teenage years are challenging for all of us, no matter how old you are. But In my opinion, cell phones changed the game. Five years ago, I started writing a book (my friends tell me I need to finish it!) called “Forever 16: The Real Scoop on 20 Years of “Raising” High School Staff.”
It has chapters like “Cell Phones: Spawn of Satan, Everyone Gets a Ribbon, No Room for Recovery, and TIPS are Optional.” It was motivated by sheer desperation and utter frustration with my staff. It was my way of external processing to keep from “murdering” the staff or crying every night.
At the time, I felt like I was in the wrong job and a failure because I couldn’t find a way to motivate the staff to care about the quality of their work and get desired results. After all, Ben & Jerry’s has to be first a profit-making business, to employ the local youth, and be a positive, philanthropic contributor to the community. It was a hard, really hard season. Since it is my passion to engage and nurture those in my employ, it was a double-edged sword. I love you; I hate you! FYI, I finally made a “cell phones must be turned off or you don’t have a job” rule. That helped tremendously.
Then Covid came…
The list is endless. The biggest challenge became the ever-changing mind game. Should we close? When should we close? Should we stay open to bring just a tiny bit of joy in a changing, uncertain time and give the staff income? We closed.
What can we do while closed to bring in enough income to cover rent and expenses? Take home “decorate your own cake kits,” check. Still having birthdays and need a way to celebrate, order a cake and schedule a pickup, check. We stayed closed a little over a month. When should we reopen, how to reopen safely, not just for the community, but for my staff? Add extra sanitizing protocols, check. Require masks, check.
How do we equip high school students to deal with adults who don’t want to wear one and keep them safe? Create a to-go window, check. I’ve had many sleepless nights. People are on the edge. My own tank is depleted. The staff are stressed about their futures and school. I feel like I have less time for staff development, which is my passion. Connection gives me energy. I miss all that. Ben & Jerry’s is still changing, evolving, and adjusting to each new practical challenge this pandemic brings. The staff have been great, and we will all get through it! I look forward to when we can get back to a new normal, where all the things I love about the job return.
Secrets to staying motivated and positive?
I have great friends that I can vent to and help me remember the big picture. They encourage me and give advice, even when it’s stuff I don’t want to hear. I have the best assistant manager ever in Whitney Uttley. It’s invaluable to have someone carry the burden with you. There’s a great network of other Ben & Jerry’s managers around the world that share ideas and problem-solve together. The Davidson business community has been AMAZING during this time. Partnering with Pickled Peach during our shut down, as they sold our pints along with their grocery deliveries. Hawthorne’s Pizza, co-owned by Michael Adams a long time Davidson resident, selling our “Decorate your own ice cream cake” kit at all his restaurant locations. Talking with Summit Coffee and Main Street Books weekly, finding out what they were doing so we could support and promote each other. Being a “Town” team, brain-storming, and encouraging each other during this time has been invaluable.
My faith is a big part of keeping me grounded and supporting me to see the larger picture. These kids are here for such a short time. I know I have a limited time to make a positive impact on their lives, so I don’t want to squander that precious time I’ve been entrusted with. There is value in what we are ALL learning during this time. It’s hard, but there is a lot of beauty in it too. Continuing to look for the beauty in the ashes. It’s all we can do.
How can Davidson residents best support you?
Davidson is such an amazing town! I love Ben & Jerry’s, but I love Davidson more. I don’t want a Ben & Jerry’s in Mooresville. I want my shop, on my corner in my town. We shut down for more than a month in March when Covid arrived. Once we reopened, so many people came up and said, “we came out to support you.” “We don’t usually get ice cream but wanted to support you in the time.” The stories go on and on.
Davidsonians are already doing a great job of supporting all of us. Our type of business thrives in the summer. We call it the 100-day war. May to August. That’s when we make the money we survive all year on. This has not been our best year. The biggest reason our sales are down is because events have been shut down during the Pandemic.
When people are at Concerts on the Green, or at the April is for Arts, listen to music at Summit Coffee, or go to summer camps at Davidson College, that is our bread and butter. With all these events canceled, our sales are suffering. Even when school goes back in session, things like 5th Grade Friday, the unofficial coming of age, right-of-passage that happens at Davidson elementary won’t happen. We depend on the rhythms of the town.
We are still open for walk through, take-out and delivery through most of the delivery apps. If you don’t want to come inside, we also have a new to-go website where you can order and pay online, pull into our reserved parking space, and we will deliver the ice cream to your car. It’s touchless and seamless.
Or you can also order ice cream cakes online at and we can also being them to your car. We continue to offer ice cream catering where we bring the Ben & Jerry’s to you! It’s a great way to reward the hard work your staff is doing, a wedding, or family get together.
Andrea Nordstrom Caughey
Andrea Nordstrom Caughey is a magazine editor and lifelong writer who hit the jackpot moving to Davidson from California.