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History makers Julie and Bob Dobski put people at the center of their businesses — and watched them flourish

Two older individuals, a man and a woman, sit together in a recording studio. They are smiling and posing for the photo in front of a microphone labeled "WGLT.org 89.1 FM." The man wears a grey vest and tie, and the woman is in a patterned blouse.
Lauren Warnecke
Dining with friends and family at Rob Dob's is as close to retirement as Bob and Julie Dobski plan to get.

Entrepreneurship and community service go hand in hand for Bob and Julie Dobski, whose contributions to Bloomington-Normal will be celebrated June 18 at the McLean County History Makers Gala.

The Dobskis share the History Makers honor with John Penn, Jan Lancaster and Barb and Bob Hathway.

The couple both grew up in the northwest Chicago neighborhood of Logan Square, meeting for the first time at Edmund’s Foods. Bob Dobski’s father owned the small chain of grocery stores where Julie Dobski’s aunt was a cashier —she took a job at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and assisted with childcare of her cousins and younger siblings [as the second oldest of her parents' eight children].

It was a quick courtship, “and the rest is history,” Julie Dobski said. The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in February.

Bob Dobski and his two brothers sold Edmund’s after their father died, noticing the decline of small grocery stores who couldn’t keep up with big box supermarkets. Each brother used his share to purchase a McDonald’s franchise — which for Bob and Julie Dobski meant moving from a metropolis to Farmington, Missouri, a town of 8,000 people.

“It was a complete culture shock,” Julie Dobski said. “But it was one of the best times of our lives. We met the best people. We grew our business and we just loved living there.”

Community engagement was just part of the job. McDonald’s required franchisees to get involved in their communities, a responsibility the Dobskis took seriously.

“Coming out of the grocery business, you just did your 12-hour days and went home,” Bob Dobski said. “That’s not the case with McDonald’s. At that time, you had to be involved.”

A home in Bloomington-Normal

In 1989, the Dobskis moved again, trading their two McDonald’s restaurants in Farmington for six locations in Bloomington-Normal — closer to family and friends in Chicago. They would expand the franchise to 11 stores in McLean and Ford County before selling the restaurants in 2017. By then, the Dobskis unequivocally considered the Twin Cities their home.

“Absolutely no regrets,” Bob Dobski said of their choice to settle in Bloomington-Normal. “I don’t think either one of us would ever consider going back to Chicago.”

The Dobskis again dove into their community. Both chaired the McLean County Chamber of Commerce and volunteered with countless charitable organizations, including United Way, Salvation Army and Rotary, and sponsor the Holiday Spectacular’s Dobski Dancers. But Julie Dobski first made connections in her kids’ bowling league.

“I got to meet all kinds of people,” she said. “Our friendships are still together today, 40 years later.”

What it’s really about

Through McDonald’s, the Dobskis learned that community engagement and a positive workplace culture also were good for business — but the bottom line has never been their sole motivator.

In 2004, Julie Dobski opened Little Jewels Learning Center, a childcare facility that has grown to serve nearly 500 children. And the couple’s latest endeavor was opening their fine dining restaurant, Rob Dob’s, in 2019 — four months before the pandemic. Both businesses survived, with several original employees still working for the couple.

“It says a lot when you empower your people,” Julie Dobski said. “They stay with you and that’s the benefit. They’re family to us.”

The couple’s decision to sell their McDonald’s franchise stemmed from that commitment to workers and cultivating a positive workplace — and the sense that they’d lost some of the decision-making power they'd previously enjoyed as owner-operators.

“McDonald’s was obviously some of the best years we had and how we started out,” said Julie Dobski. “Yesterday, I went through one of the McDonald’s and one of the fellows who was there when we bought them, Steve Petty, comes up and gives me a big hug. That’s what it’s really about.”

The History Makers Gala takes place from 5:30-9 p.m. June 18 in the Bone Student Center at Illinois State University. Tickets are $74-$100 at 309-827-0428 and mchistory.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.