LET'S start with this: Weis, as in the ice creams, is pronounced wees as in fleece.

Weis, as in the family who are behind the ice creams, is pronounced wise.

Back when the family began advertising on television, an ad man told them: "Look, you are going to have to call it the way all your customers call it and all the customers by then and our distributors were all calling it wees whether we liked it or not because that's the Australian interpretation," recounted Les Weis this week in a rare sit-down interview with The Chronicle.

Les, 86, founded Weis in 1957. In the 60 years since then, the Weis family's sweet success has come to feel personal to Toowoomba.

But the family has remained intensely private. As Les puts it, "a hesitancy to be talked about" runs deep in the personalities of Les's wife of 61 years Val, and their children Julie, Peter and Vena.

But with the news earlier this month that the family business had been sold to Unilever (an amount has not been disclosed but The Courier Mail, citing industry sources, put the price tag as high as $50 million) the family patriarch is reflecting on two generations who have worked to build an immensely successful company.

ICE CREAM ICON: Les Weis outside the Weis factory recently purchased by Unilever. Thursday, 17th Aug, 2017.
Les Weis makes one of his final visits to the Weis factory in Toowoomba earlier this week. PHOTO: NEV MADSEN Nev Madsen

How it all began

Les carries with him the memories of 60 years of Toowoomba names, places and events.

It all started with an ice cream mix made by Les's father, Cyril Weis, in a little stall in the centre of Toowoomba, opposite where Grand Central stands today. Those flavours would eventually become the Fruito bar.

The Weis family had long been in the food business, with Cyril making confectionery before branching out into catering and Les's brother, Bob, owning a successful cafe and sandwich bar. For his part, Les owned a cafe on Neil Street opposite the Empire Theatre and would sell sweets or juice to patrons who flooded out of the cinema at intermission.

Few realise, though, that the Weis success story is tied directly to the rise of television. When people started switching on TVs at home and stopped watching movies at the Empire Theatre, the once-thriving Weis cafe on Neil Street began losing business.

Les needed a plan B because he could foresee, to his great sadness, the demise of the cafe.

Enter Bob.

"Bob was an ideas man and it was he who gave me the idea to make Fruitos. He simply said, 'If I had more space, I'd be making dad's Fruitos.'

"Every now and then, you get presented with an idea that can't be ignored."

Les would henceforth be an ice cream man, and he set about getting the right mix of pineapples, bananas, pawpaws and passionfruit.

Weis ice-cream
Children wait for 1000 free ice cream samples to be given out in August 1957. Les Weis can be seen near the car boot unloading a box. "There were this many kids and quite a few more," recounts Les Weis. Photo Contributed

"I had a clear, clear recollection of what they tasted like," Les says referring to his dad's recipe. "So I made up a little batch and showed them to mum and dad to taste them and they said they were nearly as good as theirs. I thought, well, that's a pretty fair recommendation."

It was only three years later that Les hit on a winner with the mango and ice cream bar.

"Why can't we make a product that uses mango puree instead of banana and pineapple and passion fruit?" asked Les at the time.

"And yes, people loved it."

Weis ice-cream
The Weis cafe and factory in 1957 when it was located in Neil Street, opposite the Empire Theatre. Photo Contributed

Sweet success

Not all flavours have been as wildly popular.

Some flavours, Les says, "only get a one or two season run" before they're relegated to history. Count Icey Pine and Champagne Peach in that category.

"One I thought was a lovely product called muscatel. We crushed all the grapes here... and I thought it was a great taste but it was a lead balloon as far as sales were concerned. We made one ... and it was almost pure watermelon. But nut no, they didn't like that either."

After 10 years operating from the factory behind the cafe on Neil Street, Weis moved to a purpose-built premises at the northern end of Ruthven Street.

The factory has been expanded over the years to become what it is today, but it was that initial relocation in 1967 that allowed the company to produce ice cream for national distribution.

Today you can buy single Weis bars, multi-pack bars, dairy-free sorbet tubs and frozen yoghurt and find Weis ice cream across Australia, Singapore, China, Japan and the US.

"There's nothing like the feeling of walking out (of a store) with your own product in your hand, eating it as you walk down 52nd Ave," says Les.

Weis ice-cream
Les Weis holds packets of ice creams prior to his retirement after in 1995 after 38 years. Photo Contributed

Hands-on family

The family has been hands on through it all.

Not that Les, who retired in 1995 after 38 years, felt it was hard draft.

"We did things that other people might think of as hard work, I suppose," he acknowledges.

Like the time he drove to Goondiwindi to hand deliver a box of bars packed in dry ice to meet demand: "We were working 24 hours in those days so as soon as we had enough, I hopped in the van and drove them out there. Well, the shopkeeper was quite pleased with the service. He said not many people would do that."

Today, Julie is the managing director and even after Unilever takes over Weis, Vena is likely to stay on doing focus-group work.

Why sell?

The decision to sell the business was reached several years ago.

"Julie's reached the stage now, as has Peter, there are other things they'd rather be doing," says Les.

"A number of companies around the world have fallen over when the third generation got their hands on it and so we thought, well, we'll avoid that problem, whether it was going to be a problem or not, you never know.

"But ... there was no particular highlighted person or group of people within the family that would have even wanted to (take over the family business). So the next thing to do after that was to put it on the market."

Weis Ice-cream
Toowoomba patrons about 1958. Photo Contributed

Toowoomba ties

The Weis family has slowly moved away from Garden City over the years to be based in Brisbane.

All six of Les and Val's grandchildren live within a 20-minute drive of the couple's home in the city's west.

But Toowoomba-born and Toowoomba Grammar School-educated Les remains a member of the Rotary Club of Toowoomba North and travels up the Range every Wednesday night for meetings.

In an era of ruthless business dealings, the Weis-Unilever deal feels distinctly congenial and harmonious. Respectful, even.

Unilever has given assurances that the company's 85 staff will keep their jobs and that the factory won't be relocated. One gets the sense they are keen to retain Toowoomba's ties with Weis, even as they plan to expand using their existing global distribution network.

Les hopes employees might capitalise on the opportunities that come with an expanded business run by a multi-national company.

"This to us is somewhat of a momentous occasion. It's the end of an era," Les says. "I'm absolutely thrilled that we're selling to Unilever because they just seem to be the right people for us to be handing the business over."

For 60 years, Les has marked summer with a walk through the factory to smell mangoes.

"I come down here to the factory every year, just to look at what's going on with mangoes. My year is not complete until I've walked amongst the mangoes ... while they're ripening, to take a few deep breaths of the mango aroma and I practically dance out of here after that," he says.

And for the record, Les remains a fan of the product after all these years.

"We've got in our fridge at home a carton of mango sorbet right now," he says.