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InMarket: Visitor from another planet

🕐 3 min read

Dairy Queen may be the last survivor of my Texas childhood.

Like many others who grew up in the urban Mad Men-era ‘60s in Texas, vacation usually meant a trip to see distant relatives in some rural city that seemed far, far away.

Every Christmas, for instance, we would travel from Fort Worth to visit relatives in Gunter, in a trip that seemed to last a lifetime. Now Gunter is a quick Chisholm Trail Parkway, President George Bush Turnpike ride away. It’s about as rural as Hurst. But then, it seemed like we were going to northeast Oklahoma, the end of the earth. I always seemed to get a Christmas gift that consisted of a bunch of Lifesavers candy bound together like a book. I probably still have one at home.

But a hallmark of those travels into rural Texas and Oklahoma was one staple: Dairy Queen. It seemed like no matter how small the town in those days, there was a Dairy Queen.

Who went there? Everyone it seemed, because that was all there was. Restaurants closed at 7 p.m. and if there was no VFW hall or Odd Fellows Lodge, Dairy Queen was the meeting place for all. From mayors to teachers to high school students more interested in horsing around than eating, the simple Dairy Queen was the place to be – and maybe the only place that stayed open to 8 p.m.

If a town was really on the downhill slide, the Dairy Queen might close, but someone would usually re-open it as an off-brand Dairy King or some such knockoff.

Once when I was visiting relatives with my family up in Mangum, Oklahoma, I took this green Raleigh racing bike I had at the time (a friend of my mother’s had won it at the opening of Seminary State Bank). I began riding it around the town square of this town that seemed to have more churches per square mile than Abilene. I had long hair then and … well, people in Mangum didn’t. I kind of got the Easy Rider treatment (minus the shotguns) as I wheeled around town. I then stopped at, where else, Dairy Queen to grab a Coke. You would have thought an alien had landed in their midst.

As they stared at me bug-eyed beneath cowboy hats and gimmie caps, the pony-tailed girls walked up and asked me what that bike was. I felt like saying, “Earthlings, I come in peace,” but I think I just explained that it was a 10-speed to their unbelieving eyes. I think the fact that I ate a Dilly Bar relieved the tension, though I think the men thought I was there to steal their women, not an easy trick on a bike with no fenders.

I have little doubt some woman who was 6-years-old when I rode this green, sparkling, thin-wheeled vehicle around the town square of this sleepy little town, still tells the story of this strange visitor to this day. “Grandma, tell us about the long-haired alien riding a green UFO!”

Dairy Queen still survives and opening soon is the latest iteration of this Texas tradition (though the chain is headquartered out of Minnesota, Texas has the most restaurants).

The latest, in Pantego, is a 2,680-square-foot restaurant with a Grill & Chill concept, blending menu items from the chain’s iconic history with an updated look. It will feature comfortable booths, large wooden tables, warm lighting, and music; it will more resemble most quick-serve restaurant dining.

That sounds pretty uptown for Dairy Queen. Now who will show up at this new Dairy Queen and be seen as a strange visitor from another planet?

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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