Dairy Queen

Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on November 4, 2010

Other Voices

Dairy Queen

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It’s a sweltering summer evening, and I’m standing in line at a Dairy Queen takeout window waiting to order a plain vanilla cone, the one with the curl on top. Ahead of me in line are a family with young kids, an older couple, and some teens. Other teens are draped over their cars in the parking lot. There are little kids playing in the outdoor seating area. Pasted next to the takeout window is a clipping from the local paper showing the proprietor at a neighborhood event.

It could be 1970 or 1950 or even 1940, when the first Dairy Queen opened in Joliet, Illinois. Except for the fact that now there are more choices. In 1940 there was only vanilla—in cones, pints, quarts, or sundaes.

Dairy Queen founder J. F. “Grandpa” McCullough started out making ice cream. But he thought it tasted best fresh out of the machine, when it was soft and scoopable. If you’ve ever made your own ice cream and tasted it the minute it finished churning, you know he was right. Fresh ice cream is cold, but not frigid. Your taste buds can appreciate it, which they cannot when it’s hard frozen.

The trouble was, he didn’t know how to keep it in a semi-frozen state. So he became a man with a mission. He searched and tinkered and finally found a machine that produced a soft product. He figured out that it worked best if his ice-cream mixture was 5 to 6 percent butterfat rather than the 10 percent he had been making. In other words, if it was ice milk. But he was happy with the product. In fact, he said it was a “queen among dairy products, the epitome of freshness and wholesomeness.” So when he needed a name to replace the Homemade Ice Cream Company, he came up with Dairy Queen.

The business took off after World War II ended. American families were taking to the road in their new cars in record numbers, and they liked to stop and treat themselves and their kids to Dairy Queens. This was the era of Mid-Century Modern food—McDonald’s (1948), Minute Rice (1949), TV dinners (1954), Tang (1957), instant mashed potatoes (1962)—fast and processed, aligned with the pace and growing industrialization of modern America.

The shops were mostly mom-and-pop operations; the “cone with the curl on top” theme was one of the few constants. It was 1961 before Dairy Queen instituted a consistent design strategy: shops with gabled red roofs and the Dairy Queen logo in a red ellipse. In many locations today, Dairy Queen still feels like a mom-and-pop operation, even with the jaunty new DQ logo. However, it’s big business. Dairy Queen is a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway with nearly 6,000 shops worldwide. Clearly, it has succeeded beyond Grandpa McCullough’s dreams.

What about the product? Does it taste like his freshly churned ice cream? Not really. It’s not ice cream, for one thing. It’s ice milk. The vanilla has little vanilla flavor. The cone itself tastes the way I would guess Styrofoam does.

The ice-cream market has changed since Grandpa McCullough’s day. The slow-food and locavore movements have created a taste for locally produced, small-batch, artisanal ice creams. Hopeful entrepreneurs compete to offer ever more exotic flavors; shops display selections of cones: waffle, sugar, cake, pretzel—with or without chocolate.

But my plain swirl of ice milk is refreshing, and it’s hot out. Right now, I don’t need the intensity of super-premium 16 percent butterfat ice cream. I don’t want cutting-edge flavors I have to appreciate. I don’t want hints of hibiscus or nuances of basil in my ice cream.

On a sweltering summer evening, all I want is something light, cool, and refreshing. All I want is the cone with the curl on top.

Photo courtesy American Dairy Queen Corporation.

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