It's 8:30 a.m. and the Dairy Queen in Moorhead, Minnesota is already buzzing. The scent of sugar, vanilla, and toasted waffle batter hangs heavy in the air as two soft serve machines quietly hum, whipping the soft serve base into a semi-frozen state. Girls in their tie-dyed t-shirt uniforms chat quietly as they dip Dilly Bars in chocolate, butterscotch, and cherry.
The tiny neighborhood shop sits squarely on the corner of Main Avenue and 8th Street, with only the space of a narrow sidewalk between its three service windows and the busy intersection. From the outside, it looks exactly as it did in when Bob and Phyllis Litherland opened for business in 1949: The front third of the building is wrapped in glass, allowing customers to peek in as their cones are dipped and Blizzards are whipped. Large plastic red umbrellas embedded in the concrete shade the only seating area.
The Moorhead Dairy Queen has never been a year-round thing: it opens each spring on March 1. Even though the temp was -11 on opening day last year, over 1,200 customers still stopped by.
With its seasonal hours and walk-up service windows—plus a penchant for producing menu items you won't see elsewhere—the shop has more in common with the first Dairy Queen, which opened in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois, than the sleek stone-walled Grill and Chills that make up many of the franchise's over 5,000 restaurants today.
Not only does it operate the same way as it did when it opened, the Moorhead Dairy Queen is a local icon because it's where the Dilly Bar, a beloved chocolate-dipped ice cream puck-on-a-stick, was invented—but that's not something Dairy Queen's central corporate office admits.
According to Caroline H. Otis, who recounts the DQ story in Cone with the Curl on Top, Dairy Queen credits franchise owner Frank Moffett with the invention. "I don't think they would give this store any credit because Bob [Litherland, the original owner] was kind of a rebel," says Troy DeLeon, the current owner of the Moorhead DQ. "It's been written up many times that this is the place and no one's ever come back and said 'no it's not.'"
According to DeLeon, in the 1950s, Dairy Queen didn't have preferred vendors or a corporate warehouse, and salesmen often stopped by to show off new products. They took their time with each shop in an effort to create lasting relationships with store owners. One day two Kohler salesmen stopped by Litherland's Dairy Queen to see if he needed anything and got to talking about new ideas for frozen novelties. Litherland pressed a thick, round disk of ice cream onto a piece of cardboard. One of the salesman put a tongue depressor through at the base, creating a sort of ice cream lollipop. As a final touch, they dipped the whole thing in chocolate.
"They held it up and someone said, 'isn't that a dilly!'" DeLeon recounts, before shrugging his shoulders and explaining that dilly was basically 1950s slang for "eureka."
Soon operators from Dairy Queens all over the Midwest came to the store in Moorhead to learn how to make the Dilly Bar. The treat became so popular that medical supply companies were constantly sold out of tongue depressors. "Now they're specifically made for Dairy Queen," says DeLeon.
At the time, many Dairy Queen operators made their own batches of the standard menu items in house, but according to DeLeon, it was out of the ordinary to experiment further. Litherland was a bit of a maverick, though, always going off menu. In addition to making the regular Dairy Queen offerings, he was constantly creating new confections, like the Monkey Tail, a chocolate-covered frozen banana that didn't appear elsewhere and is still sold at the shop, and the flaming sundae.
"He would make a hot fudge sundae and then he would dip a sugar cube in I don't know what, and then he'd light it on fire," says DeLeon.
Litherland also made all of his own toppings from scratch; he whipped up barbecue sauce for his sloppy joe-like sandwiches and crushed pineapple for garnishing sundaes. Most other branches ordered these items wholesale from corporate, and as Dairy Queen grew and introduced new products, they centralized production of ice cream novelties. Franchises were a turnkey operation, with minimal training provided for employees. The chain discontinued the cherry, blueberry, butterscotch, pineapple, raspberry, and banana flavors used as toppings for sundaes, and stopped making Candy Crunch, a nut/sprinkle/candy topping for cones—all items DeLeon still makes and sells.
"Corporate would love for us to disappear, no question about that," he says.
When the DeLeons took over, the original 1949 contract transferred, meaning the Moorhead DQ doesn't have to adhere to many strict company rules. Had they signed a newer contract, they would have had no choice but to discontinue their barbecue sandwiches and Polish dogs and launch a full Orange Julius menu like many newer DQ franchises. Thanks to their old-school contract, the Moorhead DQ still pays the original 1949 royalties rate on Dairy Queen treats that they order from the corporate warehouse. Perhaps most importantly, DeLeon is able to source ingredients from outside providers and still make many desserts in-house.
"We pay a percentage of whatever the item costs back to corporate and the only thing we pay royalties on are the novelties we buy and our (ice cream) mix. For every gallon we use we pay 32 cents," notes DeLeon, a figure that's roughly 1 percent of cost, compared to current DQ standards of 4 to 5 percent.
As far as changes go, he's redone the floors, but DeLeon still keeps all the sundae toppings inside the vintage wood-sealed walk-in refrigerator that Litherland built by hand. Opening the heavy door and stepping in, he points out the mint-flavored simple syrup they make alongside their hot fudge and all the fruit flavors DQ has eliminated.
"We're just carrying on Bob's tradition," he says proudly. "We aren't here to tell you how it's supposed to be; we want to know how you want it."
DeLeon builds the ice cream cakes himself. "Corporate-made cakes have a six month shelf life and you don't know—how long does it sit at the manufacturer? Then it gets shipped to the warehouse, and then it gets shipped here. We rotate our stuff constantly. People say our cakes taste different, and that's because we make them all the time."
Naked Dilly Bars awaiting their chocolate, cherry, or butterscotch baths fill the freezers, alongside Mr. Malties, the chocolate malt on a stick that was popular in the '50s but has all but disappeared. Employees also make Peanut Buster Bars every day, layering soft serve, peanuts, and fudge in a plastic cup and placing a wooden stick in the center before freezing the filled cups until solid. Once frozen solid, employees remove the cups and dip the treat in chocolate. They've got Chipper Sandwiches; vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies and dipped in chocolate; and plenty of Monkey Tails, the chocolate-dipped frozen bananas on a stick that Litherland created.
Two decades after taking over, DeLeon says that people still ask him if he's the new owner—after Litherland sold the store, he stayed on for a few years, and even after retirement, he often visited to check in on the customers. There was no grand reopening announcing new ownership, as the DeLeons didn't want the community to get alarmed by the change.
Why does DeLeon follow Litherland's model, making so much from scratch when it's all available from central warehousing?
DeLeon jokes that it's to keep his workers busy: "You go to most fast food restaurants and if it's not busy, what is the staff doing? Sitting around, talking, getting into trouble, looking on their phones. We don't have that problem," he says. At the Moorhead Dairy Queen there's always something to do: decorating cakes, dipping Dilly Bars or other novelties, filling special orders. And "If there isn't something to make," he notes, "there's cleaning."
Despite this tough 'time to lean, time to clean' mentality, it's clear DeLeon has other motivations for hand crafting so many of their desserts. "There's a little pride that goes into making it, rather than just ordering it. Honestly, it takes talent. Anyone can order it," he says with a quiet smile.
Some of his employees have returned every summer for nearly a decade, always trying to come up with an invention that rivals the Dilly Bar. A few times they've come close.
DeLeon joins the friendly competition; at one point he created a taco shell mold for waffle batter. Once molded, he'd dip the end of the waffle-taco in chocolate and fill it with whatever Blizzard flavor the customer wanted.
He's working on recreating a dish he remembers from his childhood: "It's this great big bowl of all the toppings and tons of ice cream. We need to have this signature treat—I know college students would love and sit out here for an hour eating it. Something unique to just this store. But we haven't figured out a container to put it in."
"We've kept Bob's idea of being different going strong. We have the opportunity to try unique things, as opposed to a Grill and Chill you have to follow the rules. They can't come in and tell us we can't do things."
Instead DeLeon listens to his customers.
"You want a Blizzard with chocolate sauce and only four pieces of cookie dough? We'll do it, no problem. It's not like you're asking for the world to stop."