Dairy Queen Daze

by Larry Danielson

It wasn’t a likely job for me.  As a kid, I didn’t even like ice cream.

But when I first immigrated to Ontario, Canada in 1969, it was the only job I could get.  Unemployment in that region was high and I’d already been turned down in 29-30 interviews.  Most of them said I was “overqualified and probably wouldn’t be content with long hours and minimum wages for the next ten years.”  Boy, were they right!

We’ve probably all had jobs that didn’t quite suit our abilities.  And, if you’re “plucky, not just lucky,” you’ve probably aimed to make the best of it and to learn what you can.  That’s how I got my start at the Dairy Queen.

The Dairy Queen, as you may well know, offers “Hot Eats” and “Cool Treats.”  Or, as they say in Texas—“Grill and Chill.” 

The DQ was located in a small mall and during my first week I was initiated into the “scrumpdillyishous” world of fast food:  Brazier burgers and a host of dairy products—milk-shakes, banana splits, parfaits, sundaes,  Buster Bars, and Dilly Bars.  I also learned that any “slack time” needed to be used cleaning tables, tidying the restrooms, wiping down the glass doors, and mopping the store floors.

Our clientele included a number of university students.  I was struggling with my own sense that four years of university study in the intricacies of literature qualified me only for this menial job.  It didn’t help when the students shouted to me: “Hey, where’d you get your degree—Hamburger University?” Suddenly I recalled news clips I’d seen of Cuban exiles in southern Florida, sweeping restaurant floors. Before Castro’s communist revolution in 1959, the TV announcer said, they’d been bankers and executives.

Mopping the floors was the easy part.  Life behind the counter was harder. Making ice-cream cones is not as simple as it looks, especially if you’re tall like me.  I had trouble getting the ice-cream to stand up straight.  Many of my first cones angled like the “Leaning Tower of Pisa.” And I had trouble making the trademark curly-cue at the top.

Making banana splits should have been easier, but they had complications too.

First, there was the speed and timing.  You had to turn each one out in about thirty seconds, while minding the burgers on the grill and the fries in the deep fryer. 

Then there was the quality problem. My employer always bought the cheapest, most overripe bananas. As you split the banana into the tray, it took time to cut out the ugly black spots.

My employer was a man named Vincent.  He had trained as an insurance adjuster and his father-in-law Robin had taken him into the family business.  Robin and his daughter Valorie were wonderful people, but Vincent and his mother-in-law made up for them.  They argued constantly, and shortly after I started at the DQ, Robin sold out at a rock-bottom price and moved west to start over. Life’s too short for all this bickering,” he told me.  Vincent celebrated his good fortune by going on a trip to Europe.  

We called Vincent “the Viceroy” and it was not a term of endearment. All of the DQ ads were produced in the U.S. and pictured a six-ounce ice-cream cone.  Vincent told us his operation could only afford four-ounce cones, but had to look like the ads.  So when we built a cone, we had to begin it on the rim.

I remember the afternoon that 16-year old Wanda waited on an elderly customer. The woman said, ever so sweetly, that she had not had an ice-cream cone for 25 years.  Wanda made the woman’s wait worth her while, packing the maximum product into the 50-cent cone.  It was filled well down into the stem, in violation of Vincent’s policy.  

Unbeknownst to us, Vincent was in the parking lot, watching us with binoculars.  He rushed up the woman who had purchased Wanda’s cone and demanded that she sell it to him… price was no object.  She protested, but when the bid reached $5.00 she gave it up, assuming she was being accosted by a crazy man.  Vincent came into the store with the cone and slammed it on the scale.  It weighed just over seven ounces and Wanda was charged the five dollars.

From Vincent, I learned much about management—What not to do!  But I also learned from our customers.  Once I’d learned the product line and had gotten used to the routines, I started to enjoy my interactions with customers.  I discovered that how I said things could make a big difference. 

If you came to the counter and asked for a cone or a shake, I could ask, “Will that be small, medium or large?”  Most of the time, your choice would be small or medium. However, if I said, “Will that be large, medium, or small?” you’d likely buy large or medium.  It was a good lesson in sales psychology. 

There were other lessons.  A man and his three children came into the store one afternoon.  They had their dog with them.  The man bought our smallest cone for each of his kids and a banana split for dog.  “Talk about warped priorities,” I thought. It hurt me to see the kids’ sad faces. 

I later told that story a number of times, thinking about what a cheap skate that man had been. Finally, one friend who heard the story said, Larry, you don’t much about pets.  That family was going to have the dog put down.” 

Wow. The same facts, but what a different point of view! And I knew it was right. 

Another lesson came from a regular customer who was one of our favourites.  He came in one day to say, Boy, you sure got me in big trouble yesterday.  Let me explain. Officially—and that means the official U.S. history—Dairy Queen didn’t introduce the “Blizzard” until 1985. Yet we were selling them 15 years earlier.  It must have been some sort of Canadian-based pilot program.

By now, I’m certain you’re familiar with this DQ “Blizzard” product—a milk shake that’s three times thicker than usual.  To make the point, we were required to hold the container upside down. It’s a great concept, except that we were starting with soft ice cream.  On a busy day, our freezer couldn’t keep up and the ice-cream got softer and softer. If you moved a cone too fast, the ice-cream fell off in a blob on the counter. And the blizzard demonstration was hard on our hearts—eventually all of us had our handiwork spill all over the counter. 

After one or two mishaps, I learned to bluff my way through the process.  I would pretend to be very bored and flick the container over for just a second, counting on my quick wrist action to keep the liquid in.

That was the state of the Blizzard when our regular customer bought two—one for himself and one for his wife, who was waiting patiently in their car across the parking lot. The man walked slowly back to his car, through the sweltering summer heat, and reached inside his wife’s open window.  “Hey, honey,” he said, as he turned the Blizzard upside down above her lap. “You’ll never believe this!” 

Talking about “unbelievables,” I must relate a series of incidents that had to do with soft ice cream and our unreliable mixers.  Our Dairy Queen store had two ice-cream mixers.  One was conveniently located and got used the majority of the time.  At busy times, we also used the other. 

The only problem was that the temperature gauge on other second did not work right and most of the time, it was frozen up.  You had to shut it off and let it stand for hours to thaw it out.  Vincent was still in Europe and his orders were that we were not authorized to call any repairman.

The main machine also had a problem—too much pressure in the system.  The ice -cream batter was stored in a tall box in the backroom freezer and a motor pumped it into the back of the freezer machine.

One night, as I was out mopping the floor, a young boy went to the counter and asked Holly for ice cream.  At that moment, I heard an explosion.  If you’ve ever had someone fire a shotgun too close to your ears, you’ll know the kind of retort that came.  The batter hose had popped off of the back of the machine and sprayed a geyser over the freezer.

I looked and saw the boy covered from head-to-foot in ice cream.  Without another word, the little Abominable Snowman turned and left.  We didn’t even complain about the white handprints he left on the front door.

Sooner or later, we figured, we’d have to deal with an irate mother.  Holly cleaned up the messy counter and floor while I got a screwdriver to put the hose clamp back on.  To our amazement, closing time came that day and still no mother had appeared.

A week later, the kid again appeared, this time with a young friend in tow.  Holly was again at the counter.  I heard the boy tell his friend: “Last week that machine blew up…all over me.”  The friend looked at him, as if to say, Yeah…Sure.”   All at once, I heard another bang.  The hose again had slipped its place and this time the geyser found two targets.  

Not wishing to treat more little boys to free ice-cream, I went to a nearby hardware store and bought half a dozen radiator-hose clamps.  I fastened them on every square inch where the batter hose connected with the machine. 

The hose did not come off again, but our problems weren’t over.  Two days later, after a hectic shift, I was in the backroom, sitting down to my lunch break—about three hours late.  I heard a strange trickle coming from the front of the store, then Holly’s voice shouting “Larry!”  I went forward to see what was the matter.

The front seal on the mixer had burst, spilling gallons of ice-cream batter behind the counter.  Both Holly and Wanda had fallen, and in the slippery surface, couldn’t stand up.  To make matters worse, the front of their uniforms had become transparent.  Dozens of customers stood at the counter, laughing wildly.

I grabbed a broom and dragged each girl towards the back of the store.  Then I hollered to the spectators: “Okay, folks. Go home. The show’s over.”  That was the public end of the story. But the girls were still locked in the bathroom, with their wet uniforms feeling uncomfortably sticky.  I knocked on the door to ask if they were all right. “Please call my dad,” Holly asked, giving me her home number. “Tell him I need a clean dress, panties and a bra.” Feeling awkward, I made the call and when her father answered, I repeated the message. There was a long pause and then he shouted, “Just what the hell is going on down there?” Years later I wonder what fears must have passed through his mind.

I should have thought about the fears passing through another employee’s mind the night I decided to pull a prank. In our post-closing routine, it was Brenda who prepared the night deposit, taking all of the cash from the tills and depositing them in the bank slot at the end of the mall. Quietly I slipped out of the restaurant ahead of her and I hid myself behind a nearby pillar. As she reached the corner of the building where the metal chute was located and reached her hand to open it, I called out: “Drop the bag!” 

Brenda did not turn around. For a moment she did not do anything. And then I saw she was wobbling. Oh, my goodness, she’s going to faint

I raced forward to catch her, saying, “It’s okay, Brenda. It’s only me.” The short-term consequence was that each night after that, I was the one who made the deposit. Brenda wasn’t going anywhere near the bank in the dark. I had long since forgotten the incident, but six or seven years later, I had gone to visit my friend Henry.  We had worked together at a subsequent job. Now he was completing his master’s degree at the University. I had a book to return to him and, as I stepped into his apartment, I discovered he had company—many of his fellow Master’s students. One woman, now nearly a Master in Psychology, was relating to her classmates the most frightening moment in her life. Her voice sounded familiar. I peaked around the corner and spotted Brenda.  She recognized me immediately. Everyone in the room looked my way when, with perfect timing, she pointed and said: “And he’s the one!” I was properly shamed.

By end of my summer at the Dairy Queen, it was time for me to move on. I had no intention of doing a ten-year stint at minimum wage with the Viceroy.  Good thing, too, because within a couple of years I heard that his store had gone into bankruptcy.  In my Dairy Queen daze, I learned much about management and working with people. I formed friendships with other employees that continue to this day. I learned to grill burgers, make parfaits, banana splits, and blizzards. 

Most importantly, I learned to love ice-cream.