UPDATED: Historic Dairy Queen closes, owner hopes to reopen as independent ice cream shop
The ice cream shop was anchored on the Carbondale strip for roughly 70 years, before its sudden closure.
If you’ve ever visited this southern Illinois college town there are few things that are instantly recognizable: Southern Illinois University’s Pulliam Clocktower; the historic Varsity Theater; and arguably one of the most notable “if you know if you know” icons — a massive neon blinking Dairy Queen sign that sits atop of a stout white building along the town’s main drag.
The Waicukauski family name has been synonymous with the walk-up locale for decades.
Mark Waicukauski, 67 grew up in Carbondale working at the old-school ice cream shop alongside his family. Mark was only 9-years-old, the second youngest of seven, when remembers going and picking up the trash outside the shop that his father began operating in the late ‘60s.
Throughout his life, Waicukauski said he’s been able to witness history from the windows of the little store on Illinois Avenue — the week of rioting surrounding the Vietnam War that led to the National Guard being deployed in ‘70, the rowdy Halloween street parties of the 2000s, and the 2017 Great American Solar Eclipse.
"That was our busiest day we ever had,” he told me over the phone from his Carbondale home. “That day of the eclipse.”
Community over the ages
Waicukauski took the day-to-day helm of the shop with the blinking neon sign from his father Joe in 1982. Joe had worked at the Prairie Farms factory down the street before taking the daily operations of the shop over in the ‘60s from franchisee Jack Kloever. After Kloever’s departure from the franchise, a trio of businessmen from the southern Illinois-based Bleyer family took it over roughly 25 years ago, Waicukauski explained.
Despite stepping away from managing, Joe would later go on to work alongside Mark for decades. While Waicukauski’s father passed away in 2016, Mark decided to carry on his legacy as a community man — truly caring about the people he served and the greater Carbondale community.
SIU alumni over the greater part of the last century can likely recall the shared experience the Waicukauski’s ice cream shop created — laughter filling the hot summer air while sitting on the Illinois Avenue, a dilly bar or sundae in tow as sweat wells up on your forehead. The red glow from the store’s neon sign painting the street, sidewalk, and visitors looking to share a sweet treat. It’s something that can be hard to describe, but has become a flashpoint in many people's fondest memories.
"I took pride in that," Waicukauski said. “I’ll stop and talk to anybody that has memories of downtown and I really enjoy it.”
Everything changed on Friday when Waicukauski was informed Dairy Queen corporate pulled the franchise licensing from the roughly 70-year-old locale. While the franchise agreement was held by the Bleyer family, Waicukauski said he owns the building and managed the day-to-day business operations.
"We disagreed about the ways things should be run, that's for damn sure," he told me, pausing to think about his words. "A lot of the decisions Dairy Queen's making these days definitely don't go along with what's best for my little ice cream shop."
Waicukauski said he would not be allowed to run the shop any longer with any Dairy Queen insignias or branding — including the iconic sign that sits atop of his building.
“There's no ifs ands or buts about that,” Waicukauski chuckled, noting their attempt to end their long-time contract for several years. But, he adds, that’s not going to stop him and he hopes to continue operating independently in his own vision. “I just got to look into see what I have to do and just talk to a lot of people and see what we're gonna have to do.”
The Carbondale-based Dairy Queen isn’t the only one to feel the impact of a sudden closure on Friday. The Dairy Queen in Glen Carbon, Illinois also announced its sudden closure, but did not give a reason behind the move. "We’re thankful for all the DQ fans that have supported this location over the last 9.5 years and for many years before with other owners," they wrote in part on social media.
Some former franchise owners and operators have noted as the company owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire-Hathaway moves forward with its “Next Gen' design, expectations have become increasingly demanding and unable to be met.
The 2019 business plan moves opening Dairy Queen locations as traditional ice cream-only shops to “Grill & Chill” locations, stores that offer indoor and outdoor dining and hot food items, in addition to traditional DQ staples like Blizzards and Dilly Bars with upgraded ordering technology.
“The last 28 years has had its share of ups and downs," wrote Mike and Deb Gentile, the former owners of a Florida-based Dairy Queen, in a notice announcing their closure earlier this year. “But with each passing year, Dairy Queen Corporate puts more and more unrealistic demands on us, leading us down a path that we would not have chosen.”
A similar scenario also played out earlier this year in Morton, Illinois. The family who owned the retro Dairy Queen location cited system requirement changes as a reason to “re-evaulate what we desired to be and remain, and thus, we have made the difficult decision to no longer be a Dairy Queen.”
Amie Hoffner, Corporate Communications Director for American Dairy Queen Corporation (ADQ), refuted the claim there was a trend of old-school DQ’s closing due to the push towards the “Next Gen” restaurant design, adding restaurants choose or are required to close for various reasons.
“We strive to maintain the highest standards at DQ restaurants to meet and exceed fan expectations. We expect that franchise owners will, at minimum, meet our operational standards in restaurant appearance, food and treat quality, and fan experience,” Hoffner writes in a response to this story. “We worked with the franchise owners of the Carbondale location to address operational issues over a period of time and, when the restaurant did not meet the necessary requirements, we made the difficult decision to close the restaurant.”
Hoffner declined to answer further questions regarding the Carbondale location’s franchise agreement, what standards the shop hadn’t met, whether or not ADQ provided assistance to the location in order for them to meet their standards, nor if the ADQ had weighed other options to keep Carbondale’s historic location open.
Waicukauski admits he didn’t meet all the demands put forward by Corporate.
He said there were differences in menu items ADQ wanted him to offer and what he was willing to concede to, in part, but it seemed like the goal posts were continuing to be moved as time went on. "[Corporate] wants everything to be just the same formula, the same thing,” he said. “I knew if I spent the money doing what they wanted they were going to keep finding more things to do," he said.
At this point, Waicukauski said he is just going to take things a day at a time and see what he can do moving forward — heeding his father’s advice from years ago.
“My father always thought an ice cream shop needed extra things to bring the people in and now Dairy Queen is not allowing that. He would have agreed you have to have something,” he said. “He always cared about everything [being] right. He wanted to put out a great product. He always wanted that.”
As social media floods with the news of the suspected closure, Waicukauski said he can reassure people he’s not going anywhere. While things may look a little different moving forward or even have a different name, he’s hoping to continue helping create those lifelong memories for years to come.
“I've had a lot of love and support tonight from a lot of people. You know, everybody wants to support me and help keep us doing the best we can,” Waicukauski said. “I think this all will be a good thing in the future — just not right today.”
Updates: A previous version of this story misstated the number of siblings Waicukauski has. The story has also been updated to clarify the Waicukauski family’s role with the Carbondale store and its franchise agreements.
Brian Munoz is a multimedia journalist based in St. Louis, Missouri. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media at @brianmmunoz.