Every year, the staff at the Dairy Queen on West Stadium Boulevard looks forward to seeing their regulars: Medium Twist Man, Moolatte Lady (a postal worker who stops buy every weekday and buys the same frozen coffee drink each time), Hot Dad (who makes the college-age staff swoon) and the Cocoa Fudge Family.
On a bitter cold Tuesday afternoon – opening day of the season – the regulars hadn’t shown up yet, but about 30 other customers had. Owner Diane Kerr wasn’t surprised by the turnout, despite temps in the 20s. “It doesn’t matter what the temperature is,” she says, “as long as the sun is shining.”
Clearly, there’s anticipation: The Chronicle was alerted by two Stopped.Watched items about the opening of this West Stadium store, as well as the DQ on Packard. As one Stopped.Watcher said: “Spring is coming!”
It turns out, the “Spring is coming!” line is well-worn, according to Kerr, as is its variant “Spring is really here!” and “I’ve been waiting all year for this!” She’s been hearing those lines for 32 years, since the day she and her husband Kevin opened for business at the franchise they bought when Kerr was 23.
Standing in the back of the small store, Kerr recalls hating that first year in business. “We had no idea – we were clueless. Clueless!” But she was determined not to quit before they earned back their down payment. The second year was better, as was the third, until the work became easier and even fun. The Kerrs bought their second DQ franchise 10 years later, at 101 E. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti.
[At this point in the interview we're interrupted by the delivery guy from Spears Fire & Safety Services, who had earlier dropped off some CO2 canisters used to make the pop fizzy. He'd forgotten his chocolate ice cream cone, and sure enough, there it was sitting on the shelf where he left it. The ice cream hadn't melted – that's how cold it was.]
The business is a family affair, Kerr says. They employ between 15-20 people, almost all high school or college students between 14 and 22 years old who work part-time. Employee perks include free food and a 50% discount for your parents and grandparents (and siblings, as long as they come with a parent).
Three sisters and a first cousin from one family work at the store, which Kerr jokingly says is a bit of a nightmare on July 4th when they all take off to go to their family’s cabin for the holiday. “That’s 20% of my staff!” she says. (Telling that story prompts Kerr to ask Liz Lasley – now in her 11th year at the DQ and recently promoted to “supermanager” – whether the first cousin’s sister might now be old enough to join the staff.)
The other DQ staffer at work on Tuesday was Katie Uhl, who normally manages the Ypsilanti store. Uhl was covering for her sister Molly, who works at the West Stadium location. Kerr says it isn’t unusual for people to return to the DQ even after they’ve graduated and have other jobs. One woman worked there part-time while also working as a nurse at the University of Michigan hospital – she influenced younger DQ employees to pursue careers in nursing, Kerr said.
One of Kerr’s own daughters will be coming back to work there for a while later this month, helping with some marketing, among other things. Kerr’s other daughter lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as a senior aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Kerrs spent a large part of their off season this year visiting her daughter, son-in-law and grandson in D.C. – they were there in January to attend President Obama’s inauguration. They spent the rest of the time in Florida before heading to Ann Arbor for the start of the seven-month DQ season.
During the hour or so that The Chronicle hung out on opening day, a steady stream of customers passed through. We were told that the real rush would come when school let out after 3 p.m. – we didn’t stick around for that.
They’ll be open through March from noon until 8 p.m., then they’ll extend their hours as the weather gets warmer. On a normal summer day, they have about 550 customers, Kerr says. That’s a lot of Blizzards. And they never close as long as there’s a line.
The corporate types at Dairy Queen would love to see the Kerrs tear down this small building and build a modern, full-season store, Kerr says. They have no intention of doing that – they like the way things are just fine.
“It’s a good life,” Kerr says.