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Hamburger Diaries: DQ

Monday, 6 June, 2011

You should know going in, I have an ancestral obligation to hate DQ with every fiber of my being. In this, I have failed.

The McCulloughs, father and son, were in the mix-plant business. That is, packaging combinations of spices and baking ingredients for retail outlets. They had been experimenting with dairy products for some time when employee and mechanic Ronald Baker, inspired by the mixing equipment in the plant, devised a machine that would blend and freeze a softer variety of ice cream or other processed dairy products at the point of sale.

Dairy Queen was the name attached to the original machines which dispense soft-serve dairy products. Depending upon region this product is either ice cream, frozen custard which has more egg product federally, or ice milk. It is all pretty much the same thing. They also hold the trademark [sic] on serving this product without benefit of a mold at the dispensing point and the natural curl on top. This is why all other outlets, at least in North America, use a star mold at the dispensing point. 

The first such machine was installed at an established ice-cream parlor in 1938. The relative ease of machine operation, and the ability to offer something not unlike twenty-five cent “hand dipped” ice cream for a dime caused a sensation around Kankakee, IL. Such was demand, parlor operator Mr. Noble [sic] simply could not keep the machine stocked and operating through the first business day.

The first distinct Dairy Queen soft-serve ice-cream stand opened in 1940. The machines and implication to use the name spread to ten informally franchised stands, all in Illinois, by February, 1942 when the US entered World War II. The history of the company during WWII is unclear, but during 1947 the 100th Dairy Queen opened. Following the war, more formal franchise agreements, standardized menus and logos appeared. Through the 1950s and 1960s the mostly independent, single-restaurant franchisers in smaller towns throughout the Middle West and South of the US became an icon of small-town living and, through literary references has become one of the most recognized distinctly American icons. In several languages the phrase for soft-serve dairy translates directly to “american ice cream”.

During the 1950s at least one Dairy Queen operator expressed interest in establishing a menu of standard quick-service items. Exactly where is unclear, but the distinct “Brazier” branding and menu appeared in several markets during 1957. Dairy Queen entered the new world of “fast food” featuring Burgers, hot dogs and fries. Dairy Queen locations without a brazier, that is focusing upon cold confections, continue today. The Brazier branding was formally retired in 1993, and was never trademarked as it is a generic term for a device. Most Dairy Queen-Brazier restaurants in fact had a griddle and deep fryers rather than a proper brazier.

The iconic, asymetrical, red Dairy Queen logo became a national standard by 1960. Sources differ as to the nature of its introduction. Even today the blue, tilted-cone sign persists on locations established before that time. Through the years DQ has evolved, added new territories, changed up the menu (Mr. Misty is now Arctic Blast)  and is among the most consistently profitable companies in the quick-service industry.

A Dairy Queen franchiser invented the method and device to provide semi-frozen “slush” carbonated beverages. His creation, although marketed outside his Dairy Queen franchise, was called Icee.

International Dairy Queen is the holder of trademarks and licenses, and franchise agreements outside North America. Subordinate to IDQ is American Dairy Queen the distributor of materials and franchise agreements in the United States and Canada. However, I am in Texas. In an arrangement which may be unique, the Texas Dairy Queen Operators Council is a subordinate division to ADQ and Texas is operated as though it were a distinct market, not unlike another country.

In addition to the standard fare, TDQOC offers breaded processed beef patties and fingers, euphemised as “country fried steak”, the 4-to-1 Grillburger is called Hung-R-Buster, certain toppings are either added or not available, chili not mushrooms, a grilled chicken sandwich is added in Texas, hot dogs are available as chili-cheese dogs (but not the preferred “coneys”) and you may procure “T-Brand” full-dress tacos. I am unable to determine whether malt is available at the “American” DQ stores, but they don’t even know what it is in Texas.

Sunday May 29, the staff and management of the Hamburger Diaries visited a TDQOC restaurant, 2034 W. Stassney Lane, Austin, TX 78745. The original idea was to head out to the Lake Austin area and encounter a DQ in a more appropriate guise, in a smaller town, just like in all those short stories. We had a lovely drive, but of the two restaurants I had in mind, one was not only closed but something else was being built on the site and the other was now a Whataburger. Returning to Austin proper, we approach and I notice the sign includes a separate board which explicitly states “restaurant”.

DQ is darker in tone than the typical Burger joint. ‘The colors used in the interior design are less bright, suggesting wood paneling. The menu is stark and blatant with plenty of illustrations. This seems to be a compromise between the incomprehensible design of McDonalds menu and the perceived inadequacy of legibility. They must be in some kind of flux because some items are available in “combos”, while others are in “baskets”. Even if you don’t get an actual basket, I like the use of the term. Four boards: Promos and combos, other sandwiches, a la carte, then dairy desserts.

My dining companion orders a Double Hung-R-Buster combo, and I order The Dude basket. Departing from usual practice, I order something other than the standard large beef burger. In part, I knew I could mooch bites from my companion’s sandwich. I was curious about the “chicken fried steak” sandwich, especially knowing this item was distinct to the territory’s restaurants.

The counter has only two stations, while the lobby features one of those crowd-control mazes the proper name of which I can’t be bothered to look up. Upon ordering you are presented with a fifteen-inch high table tent with your number upon it. The menu explicitly states Coca-Cola Zero and Sprite Zero. Neither is actually available. They do have the disappointingly typical Coke line up, with sweet and unsweet iced tea. Of course shakes are available, but only in Neopolitan flavors. I anticipated something more. The dining area is decorated with nostalgic pictures from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. These photos are a standard set provided to all restaurants. In lieu of television, a computer monitor provides tenure-awards regarding the staff. That was a little weird. The audio provided is local KKMJ-FM, “Majic”, soulless music from the 80s and 90s. Perhaps the local-radio angle is something I would appreciate if I were in a smaller town.

We are served at the table in eight minutes. Both sandwiches are in actual plastic baskets with fries. I cannot justify why I like this so much. Everything else is very typical. If you’ve been to Burger King or Sonic you know this place. Toppings are middle-of-the-road with chopped lettuce, and a bit warm. The beef is fried with molded grill marks. The quality of the beef is in the unsatisfactory direction of Burger King or Carl’s Jr. I was quite pleased that I got The Dude. The fried, breaded, processed beef is almost totally unseasoned. Not disappointing, but not anything else either. Fries are very middle-of-the-road, typical shoestrings.

Before departing we stop at the counter and order dairy desserts. This is a critical part of the Sonic review I regret skipping. (Sonic chocolate malt? Best $3 you’ll spend this week.) I get a dipped cone. Mel orders the Peanut Butter Parfait Sundae. The ice cream, only vanilla is available, is similarly typical. As the progenitors of this product, I had high hopes that their soft-serve would be something interesting. My cone was actually better once all the “chocolate” shell was gone. I can only gauge the quality of the PBP based on my beloved’s comprehensive attention to it. If I can arrange that look on her face when we are very much alone, I will have become a better man. Her own review was typically understated, “That was pretty good.”

The constant reminder that DQ is an essential part of Texas culture creeps me out. Even the sandwich wraps are modeled on the Texas flag, The hot food is not unreasonable. I see no reason to avoid DQ, if you have no ancestral disdain. I just don’t really have anything interesting to share about it. I’ve spent so much time processing this review because I want to have something to say about DQ. I don’t. The worst part is that they don’t do anything in particular especially well. They don’t do anything poorly either. The price is competitive with first-tier fast food, two combos came in at $14.

Perhaps because they are a division of a major investment house, everything is so firmly inoffensive and, I repeat, middle of the road. Dairy Queen was so iconic, I want to either love or hate the successor. They are just there.

I don’t even have a conclusion for this review.

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3 Comments
  1. Graeme permalink
    Monday, 6 June, 2011 11:25

    Isn’t being bland, inoffensive, and trying to be everything to everyone while doing nothing well the essence of corporate America?

    I am pretty sure I ate at a DQ or two when I drove around America in 2004. I don’t really remember. Or maybe we ate there when we moved to CA? My wife gets dragged to all the different chains, you know… Actually, I could be wrong, but I think we ate there in Oregon on the drive back from Seattle. I believe the fries were bland, and the chicken fingers were raw & inedible. I’m pretty sure that was DQ. Could be wrong, though.

    We go visit my wife’s family every summer on Lake Erie, and there is a DQ there. It’s not a Brazier location, so it’s just a mess of blizzards and cakes and ice cream novelties that would seem to be some kind of daily ritual or perhaps a basic right, based on the look of most of the Americans…

    If I’m going to get ice cream with candy smashed into it, I prefer Cold Stone. It’s hard to fuck up that kind of combo, though, and I don’t mean to imply I think DQ does so.

    I am sorry the chicken fried steak didn’t stand out. That caught my eye as soon as you brought its existence to my attention, and that definitely would have been my order. If I ever get to Austin (and it is on my short list), I may have to try it. I know there is better, but what the hell?

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    • Monday, 6 June, 2011 15:32

      Just in case I am not in a position to do so in future: For proper CFS in Austin, the gold standard is Threadgill’s with their properly historic N. Lamar restaurant preferred. You will be told to go to Moonshine a “southern gourmet” place downtown. Don’t bother. It’s diner chow, cleverly arranged on the plate and easily $150 with desert. For diner chow go to Jim’s out in the ‘burbs, or for something a little “better” Kerbey Lane Cafe, with the Kerbey Lane branch not preferred. Despite many locations, they’re up to five or six, they keep the faith. Think diner with a little more veg. Try the Vegan Queso. Juan in a Million for breakfast, otherwise just grab a coffee.

      oh yes … you are quite right about the essence of corporate America, but every time I see it again I am a little more disenchanted.

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  2. Graeme permalink
    Monday, 6 June, 2011 17:27

    Not in a position? Are you moving back to Louisville, after all?

    Who knows when we’re going to get there. Not sure about any upcoming travel, other than family obligations.

    Thanks for the list, though. I have it saved for whenever we’re going to be on the way.

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