Dairy Queen is a chain deserving of its royal title. Whether it’s a sunburnt, hot-fudge smothered memory of younger and simpler times, or an ice-cold respite from nine-to-five tedium, Dairy Queen has been there for decades to add a little sweetness to the daily rigmarole. While the Queen has never wavered from her post, the offerings of her empire have undergone quite the evolution. Since the chain’s inception nearly 80 years ago, Dilly Bars have yielded to Jurassic Park-inspired concoctions. The ever-elusive Candy Crunch, an endangered, sprinkle-specked species, has grown alarmingly scarce, as have summer nights lit by the torch-red blaze of a cherry-dipped cone. Is it we who have changed, or Dairy Queen’s menu? Well, it’s a little bit of both.
The Dairy Queen empire began with a dream, a dime, and, of course, a metric fuckton of ice cream. After tinkering with soft-serve recipes, a father-son team recruited friend and ice cream store owner Sherb Noble to run an “all you can eat for 10 cents” trial run at his Kankakee, Illinois, shop in 1938. Two hours and 1,600 servings later, the faultlines of the DQ queendom were charted. The first standalone DQ would be erected in the emerald pastures of Joliet, Illinois, two years later. By 1955, the company had scattered 2,600 stores throughout the nation. Today, Dairy Queen has become one of the most ubiquitous chains in the world—the 16th largest according to QSR magazine—tallying over 6,000 posts in the U.S., Canada, and 18 other countries.
As Dairy Queen conquered the world one cone (and state) at a time, store menus remained relatively conservative. For nine years, the franchise stuck to slinging soft-serve ice cream cones and sundaes, their curvy tiers always crowned with the trademark Q-shaped tail. In 1949, DQ treaded into uncharted territory with malts and shakes; the still-polarizing banana split would make its debut two years later.
They year 1955 ushered in one of Dairy Queen’s flagship products: the Dilly Bar, a circular coated ice cream bar. Masterminded by a gang of clever cone slingers unable to contain their excitement over the product, the first Dilly Bar demo took place on the doorstep of a Moorhead, Minnesota, franchisee. Dazzled by the presentation, the owner exclaimed, “Now, isn’t that a dilly,” inspiring the treat’s comically adorable name. Numerous (and adventurous) iterations of the Dilly followed—butterscotch, cherry, even Heath. The most controversial riff on the candy-coated confection came in 1968 with the Lime Dilly Bar. Curiously tart and encased in a radioactive green shell, the experiment was short-lived and hotly debated by DQ loyalists.
As experimentation ran rampant, the head honchos of DQ were also plotting the chain’s foray into the savory food sphere. In 1958, the Brazier (another word for a charcoal grill) concept was introduced. Shops adorned with the trapezoidal, lemon yellow “Brazier” sign served as a beacon for burgers, hot dogs, and fries. With this enhancement, Dairy Queen became a morning-noon-and-night destination for school kid caucuses, workplace lunches, and grab ‘n’ go family dinners. The concept would persevere through the early 2000s, until it was replaced with the sleeker, artisan-leaning Grill & Chill initiative.
Though the DQ fanbase is one of brand evangelists and sweets freaks (see its current tagline: “Fan Food”), the chain, like most, has never shied away from marketing gimmicks. One of its most memorable campaigns rested on the shoulders of the lovable dungaree-wearing hooligan Dennis The Menace. The cartoon scoundrel kicked off his DQ career in 1969 with the famed “Scrumpdillyicious!” TV ad plugging the Peanut Buster Bar. The crossover was an indisputable hit—soon Dennis began to nosh his way across DQ’s entire menu, gracing TV sets and Dilly Bar boxes across the country. While his favorite menu items have remained, Dennis The Menace’s career in the royal family came to a close when Dairy Queen declined to renew his contract in 2001.
In 1985, Dairy Queen kicked off its most popular innovation in years: the Blizzard. A fusion of the world’s most divine raw resources—ice cream and candy—the Blizzard can be tailor-made depending on mood, budget, and sense of whimsy. I’d like to think that there’s a unique Blizzard order for each and every one of us. The world-at-large probably concurs, as it collectively devoured 175 million Blizzards in the item’s debut year alone.
While Dairy Queen has enjoyed many triumphs, the chain has also made its fair share of missteps—flavor and otherwise. Remember the great fro-yo craze of the ’90s? DQ gave that trend a whirl with “The Breeze,” finally retiring the lackluster treat after a decade of piddling demand. In an ill-advised dabble into the coffee category, it concocted the MooLatte in 2004, offering up varietals in mocha, vanilla, and caramel. An unfortunate drink with an even more unfortunate name, it garnered its fair share of detractors but still graces the menu. Those debacles are not to overshadow some stellar ’90s menu additions, including the delightfully tacky Treatzza Pizza (kind of a giant ice cream pizza), the sumptuous and sloppy Pecan Mudslide, and the delectable deep-fried Chicken Strip Basket.
Over half a decade of menu tinkering and tampering barely broaches the enormity of Dairy Queen’s 75th birthday pandemonium. In 2015, DQ announced that ovens would be installed in all franchises to accommodate the DQ Bakes menu. Anchored by hot “artisanal” sandwiches, snack wraps, and baked brownies and cookies to be paired with soft-serve, the DQ Bakes line remains the brand’s most expensive menu expansion yet.
Even with this shift, Dairy Queen has never forgotten its essence as an American icon. Fads come and go, but what remains is the vanilla cone that perfectly complemented a river of salty post-breakup tears, a Blizzard that you housed as your checking account teetered on the cliff of overdraft, a sundae that serves as the bridge between two people for one sinful afternoon.
For me, Dairy Queen always served as the coda to my high school softball team’s away games. As we melted on the steely bus seats and the bus careened through whatever pocket of Indiana we’d just blinked away, we’d celebrate a win with a round of treats, while losses were to be drowned in large double-chocolate shakes. After one particularly remarkable victory, an upperclassman who’d never before deigned to speak to me confided her go-to off-menu concoction—a Peanut Buster Parfait with cookie dough swapped for peanuts.
“You gotta try this, it’ll change your life,” she said of the Frankensteined creation that she’d agreed to share with me, eyes already glistening like the ribbons of hot fudge she was about to devour. Basking in the glow of our new friendship, I mined through the cloying mess for the perfect bite. That moment of fleeting, saccharine beauty wasn’t something that you can often order on a menu. That to me is Dairy Queen encapsulated. Jurassic Chomp notwithstanding, what will they think of next?