Woolwich, Maine. Cave City, Kentucky. Low Show, Arizona. Roseville, California.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to small towns in the middle of nowhere else across the US just to look up and see the familiar Dairy Queen sign. There were 4,357 of them at the last count.
Of course, we had to stop. I had a vanilla cone – with the curl on top – dipped in chocolate. My wife Wanda has Frozen Cherry Misty.
Many of these DQs were – and still are – mom-and-pop franchises.
Just like the ones in Milledgeville for over 40 years, when Carl and Judy Chili were the king and queen of fast food in Baldwin County.
How do you learn to get the perfect curl on top of DQ soft ice cream cones?
“Exercise, train, train,” said Judy Chilly, who used to make hundreds of cones a day. “We had to teach everyone to do it right. It’s a great product. It’s low in fat and calories. It comes in such a nice texture.”
“We sold a lot of ice cream,” she said, whispering to emphasize “a lot.”
Carl and Judy ran Dairy Queen here from 1970 to 2013 before they were sold to a group of investors, including Scott Roberts of Milledgeville. Everything goes to corporate these days, and in fact, Dairy Queen is owned by the Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company.
Carl Cheely passed away in 2016, but Judy is steeped in DQ history after working behind the counter and working as an accountant all those years.
They had Dairy Queen rights in all of Baldwin County, which is unusual for franchisees. But the Chili family did not need another location because people came to them on the south side of the city.
Teens in their ’60s and ’70s would hang out at Dairy Queen for a while, then head north to Plow Boy on the other side of town to see which of their friends were hanging out there. After a while, they returned to the Dairy Queen. It was like a scene from the movie “American Graffiti”.
The Milledgeville Dairy Queen started as a mobile restaurant. Seating for dining in the restaurant and a drive-through trolley has been added.
“It was rewarding to see it grow and develop,” Chile said. “We had to remodel every now and then to take care of our customers. Some of them come every day – or at least once a week. You’ll see a lot of the same people.”
With thousands of employees nearby at Central State Hospital and before Highway 441 bypass was built, Dairy Queen was a near lunchtime monopoly on the south side of town.
“Back then, everyone knew you didn’t call Judy at 12,” Chile said with a laugh.
They were hit between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and came back again around 5 or 6 a.m.
It was highly criticized that in 1985 the Milledgeville location sold more hamburgers than any other Dairy Queen in the country. Carl Cheelys thought 77,000 pounds of beef that year, he told Union Recorder in 2010. The Cheelys won the annual DQ award for best franchise.
“People in Baldwin County love hamburgers,” says Judy. “Double, single, it doesn’t matter.”
Hamburgers and chicken baskets that come with dipping broth.
“We sold those chicken strips, too,” said Judy.
There used to be a burger chef close to Dairy Queen, but it was only when McDonald’s opened on the south side of town that hamburger sales began to decline.
But it was the ice cream people kept coming back to – then and now.
At the time, the Banana and Peanut Buster Parfaits divisions were the big sellers.
The blizzard came in 1985 (the same year the Cheelys set a record selling hamburgers for DQ), and America was hooked. Dairy Queen franchises nationwide sold 175 million Blizzard in that first year.
My dad and girlfriend Helen Vitro used to drive to DQ for snowstorms – a banana for him, and a snickers for her. They would eat half of them and put the other half in the freezer to eat later.
I prefer Oreo Blizzard myself. These lollipops are thick – so thick that you can turn them upside down and nothing will spill.
This summer’s Dairy Queen Blizzard menu features Girl Scout Thin Mints, Drumstick with Peanuts, Oreo Dirt Pie, and Cotton Candy.
Girl Scout Thin Mint Blizzard should hug me during next year’s Girl Scout cake season.
Judy Chilli says she used to eat DQ’s barbecue sandwich and onion rings as her treat.
Nowadays, you don’t eat junk food, although fast food options in Milledgeville have grown faster than you can tell “two beef patties on a sesame seed bun.” She never “dreamed” that there would be so many choices.
Judy says it’s the soft ice cream — the same ice cream developed in 1938 by John “Grandpa” Fremont and Bradley McCullough in Kankakee, Illinois — that she still craves.
Walk into the Dairy Queen here and see a photo of hundreds of people standing outside the DQ Building in Illinois in 1938, waiting in line for ice cream. They were there for an upgrade: all-you-can-eat ice cream for 10 cents.
Heck, I’ll show if they do that today.
Of course, there’s nothing more American than hot dogs, watermelon, and ice cream on the Fourth of July.
Dairy Queen’s soft serve ice cream is definitely part of that American story. A story that Jodi and Carl Chilli have been a part of for over 40 years.
So, Judy, I owe you a plain vanilla ice cream cone – not dipped in chocolate like I was asking.
With perfect curls on top – just like you used to make it.
Reach out to Rick Millians, retired newspaper sports editor, at [email protected] or 803-331-4290.