Dairy Queen: King of Soft-Serve

Ice cream has been around and enjoyed for centuries, but the soft-serve concept wasn’t developed until 1938 by Iowa-born John Fremont McCullough and his son Alex. Together they convinced a friend, Sherb Noble, to offer the innovative product in his ice cream store in Kankakee, Illinois, a small town south of Chicago. On the first day of sales, to everyone’s surprise, Noble dished out more than 1,600 servings of the new dessert within two hours. (Sounds like it was a hit.) Knowing they were onto something big, Noble and the McCulloughs went on to open the first Dairy Queen store two years later in Joliet, Illinois, placing Mr. Noble at the helm (who better) which opened for business on June 22, perfect timing for the long, hot summer. Although this original site has not been in operation since the 1950s, the building still stands as a designated landmark, hearkening back to simpler times for Boomers who pass by.

For decades, Dairy Queens were and are a fixture of social life in small towns of the Midwest and South and by the 70s, keeping up with the times (and the competition), most DQs added fast food, including hot dogs, hamburgers and fries, referring to their newest menu items as “Brazier.” Although a few shops are only open in the summer, most stay open year-round. After all, why consume frozen treats just seasonally unless you live in North Dakota? The largest store is located in Bloomington, IL, home of a state university, Busiest honors go to Prince Edward Island, Canada (go figure). In 2014, Dairy Queen listed over 6,400 stores in more than 25 countries (75% of which are in the U.S.). For decades, the old adage boasted every Texas town had a DQ. While no longer literally true as small-town America dwindles, the largest concentration is still in the Lone Star State.

All DQs now offer the Orange Julius drink, a brand which they acquired in 1987, and many shops can be found in food courts and shopping malls nationwide. DQ actually has two official fan clubs: Blizzard and Orange Julius. Blizzard fans, over 4 million strong, take their choices seriously, with a variety of ingredients and mix-ins available. DQ also offers specialty ice cream cakes, along with their traditional selection of soft-serve treats, cone dippings and toppings.

Across the country, many single-unit mom and pop stands took notice and opened up on Memorial Day catering to the local children, with walk-up stands, often calling themselves “frozen custard.” No one cared what the name was, it meant vanilla and chocolate creamy cones and cups, perhaps a few picnic tables to linger at, and an after-dinner treat within walking distance of home. Local kids looked forward to their short but sweet hours, which sadly closed after Labor Day. Simple names like Al’s, Bert’s or Tastee Treat started to pop up on busy corners and children rode their bikes eagerly anticipating what awaited them, with a dime or a quarter stashed in their pocket. Rarely did these stands offer more than the two basic flavors, but if one was lucky, there might be a strawberry flavor as well (oh, boy). (Author’s note: her local soft-serve stand featured green mint, which was over the top, especially with hot fudge.)

Minor competitors like Tastee-Freez and Fosters Freeze both started in California in the 1950s and have less than 50 locations each but continue to thrive with a cadre of loyal customers.

So who is up for some soft-serve? Any time of year it hits the spot. If you don’t have any shops near you, maybe a frozen yogurt, but it won’t be the same. Check your local shopping mall and you just might luck out. And don’t worry: mom was wrong, it won’t spoil your dinner.

Author Dale Phillip grew up in the Chicago area and fondly remembers small seasonal stands which served up awesome “frozen custard.” The best was actually called Al’s and run by a grumpy old owner who featured large cones for 25 cents.There was a local Tastee-Freez but no DQs in her area. She currently lives in Southern California and knows where every DQ is within a 25-mile radius (her favorite is a hot fudge sundae). She invites you to view her many articles in the Food and Drink category, and her blog:

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