Ice cream has been around and enjoyed for centuries, but the soft-serve concept was not developed until 1938 by Iowa-born John Fremont McCullough and his son Alex. Together they convinced a friend, Sherb Noble, to supply the innovative product in his ice cream shop in Kankakee, Illinois, a small town south of Chicago. On the first day of sales, to everybody’s surprise, Noble dished out more than 1,600 servings of this new dessert within two hours. Knowing they were onto something big, Noble and the McCulloughs went on to start the first Dairy Queen store two years later in Joliet, Illinois, putting Mr. Noble at the helm (who better) which opened for business on June 22, perfect timing for its long, hot summer. Although this original site hasn’t 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 years, Dairy Queens were and are a fixture of social life in tiny towns of the Midwest and South and from the 70s, keeping up with the times (and the competition), many DQs added quickly food, such as hot dogs, hamburgers and fries, referring to their newest menu items as”Brazier.” Although a few stores are only open in the summer, most stay open year-round. After all, why eat frozen treats just seasonally if you don’t live in North Dakota? The biggest 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 shops in more than 25 countries (75 percent of which are in the U.S.). For decades, the old adage boasted every Texas city had a DQ. While no longer actually accurate as small-town America dwindles, the largest concentration remains in the Lone Star State.
All DQs now offer the Orange Julius drink, a brand that they acquired in 1987, and many shops can be found in food courts and shopping malls nationwide. DQ really has two official fan clubs: Blizzard and Orange Julius. Blizzard fans, over 4 million strong, take their choices seriously, with a variety of components and mix-ins available. DQ also supplies specialty ice cream cakes, along with their traditional choice of soft-serve treats, cone dippings and toppings.
Throughout the nation, many single-unit mom and pop stands notice and opened up on Memorial Day catering to the regional children, with walk-up stands, often calling themselves”frozen custard.” No one cared what the title was, it meant chocolate and vanilla creamy cones and cups, possibly a few picnic tables to linger at, and an after-dinner treat in walking distance of the home. Local kids looked forward to their short but sweet hours, which sadly closed after Labor Day. Simple names such as Al’s, Bert’s or Tastee Treat began 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 provide more than the two basic flavors, but if one was lucky, there might be a strawberry taste as well (oh, boy). (Writer’s note: her local soft-serve stand comprised green mint, which was on the top, especially with hot fudge.)
Minor competitors like Tastee-Freez and Fosters Freeze both began in California in the 1950s and have less than 50 places each but continue to thrive with a cadre of loyal customers.
So who’s up for a few soft-serve? If you do not have any shops near you, maybe a frozen yogurt, but it won’t be exactly the same. Check your local shopping mall and you just might luck out. And do not worry: mother was incorrect, it won’t spoil your dinner.