Dairy Queen: A Small-Town Texas Icon
When I was a young boy growing up in North Texas in the early 50s, Interstate highways didn't exist. In fact, I'm not sure if the two-lane roads of the time could even be considered a highway, at least not by today's standards. So when my parents, sister and I made the three and a half hour trip to my birthplace in southeastern Oklahoma, we drove through a number of small Texas towns—Melissa (pop 405), Anna (pop 520), Howe (pop 680), to name a few. I was always amazed that each and every one of those towns, no matter how small, had at least one Dairy Queen.
Always located close to the town's edge, the local Dairy Queen, also referred to as "DQ" by many, seemed not only to be a popular eatery (in some cases the only eatery) but the community's social center as well. You may not have been able to find a public library, or even a city hall in many of these towns, but everyone knew how to find the local Dairy Queen.
Dairy Queen got its start in 1938 in an ice cream store in Kankakee, Illinois owned by Sherb Noble. It seems his good friend John "Grandpa" McCullough and McCullough's son Alex convinced Sherb to begin offering his customers the soft-serve ice cream they had formulated. After selling more than 1,600 servings in just two hours the trio knew they were on to something big, so two years later, on June 22, 1940, the three friends opened the first Dairy Queen on 501 North Chicago Street in Joliet, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. And although that Dairy Queen closed for business in the 1950s, the building still stands as a city designated historic landmark.
The name Dairy Queen was derived from the phrase "the queen among dairy products" used by Grandpa McCullough in describing his ice cream. While the McCullough's may or may not have invented soft-serve ice cream (some say that honor belongs to Tom Carvel), their proprietary recipe for it has always been a highly guarded trade secret known only by a trusted few.
While there are more than 4,500 DQ stores in the continental U.S., Texas is home to more Dairy Queens than any other state. All 593 stores in the Lone Star State are owned and operated by franchisees, a group of independent operators so large and with so much leverage they have their own Operator's Council (TDQOC), host a separate marketing website from the national organization, and even maintain their own menu.
Yes, Texas Dairy Queens' menu has food offerings not found in other U.S. locations. Branded as Texas Country Foods, some of the unique items you'll find only at Texas DQ's include "Hungr-Buster" burgers, the "Dude" chicken-fried steak sandwich and steak finger baskets, T-Brand tacos, and the "BeltBuster" half-pound double meat hamburger.
The first Dairy Queen in Texas opened its doors May 31, 1950 on U.S. Highway 259 in Henderson, a small East Texas city (pop 6,800) in the midst of an oil boom. Today this DQ holds the title of the oldest continuously operated Dairy Queen in Texas with almost seven decades of providing patrons courteous, efficient service and soft-serve ice cream, shakes, burgers and fries.
Although the Dairy Queen system has had many changes throughout the years, one constant has remained. DQ's have always been and will continue to be the place where local sports teams celebrate their victories, business people go on their lunch breaks and families enjoy great food and soft-serve treats. In fact, Dairy Queen is the largest seller of soft frozen desserts in the world.
It's been more than 50 years since those childhood trips to Oklahoma. Many of the small towns we used to drive through have all but died since being bypassed by the new super highways. As for myself, I prefer the nostalgia of driving the back roads. I enjoy the slower pace, the old turn-of-the-century buildings, and the friendly people. Most of all I enjoy stopping for a burger with extra onions, fries, and a soft-serve chocolate shake at the local Dairy Queen.