The Demise of Dunn’s Dairy Queen

by Steve Lackmeyer

When Dairy Queen recently announced it was returning to the Oklahoma City metro, the first response among many was “why did they ever leave?”

Old timers in Oklahoma City recall when “Dunn’s Dairy Queen” was routinely a part of any post little league baseball game celebration or a special treat enjoyed on an outing with one’s grandparents.

Celebrating DQ’s 25th anniversary in Oklahoma, 1973

Eighteen Dairy Queens once operated in the Oklahoma City area, and some of the buildings left behind still remain.

They include spots at Reno and May near State Fair Park, NW 9 and Virginia:

… a building at SW 38 and Walker now home to a Chelino’s:

… 4217 S Pennsylvania Avenue, now home to a liquor store:

… one at 4024 N May Avenue, and another at 3925 N Lincoln Boulevard (now a Subway restaurant).

Charlie Dunn’s Dairy Queen was the chain’s 17th franchise in the country when it started up in 1947. Just two years later he began serving hot dogs and hamburgers:

He then grew the operation to 31 stores throughout central Oklahoma.

Two Dairy Queen ads from 1950

The demise of Dunn’s Dairy Queen may very well have started way back in 1968. Dunn was no longer expanding as he once was, while a new competitor, Bill Braum, was entering the market after selling his family’s 60-store Peter Pan Ice Cream chain, and agreeing to a non-compete requirement keeping him out of the state for about a decade.

The first Braum’s Ice Cream stores opened in Oklahoma City with not just a selection of ice cream, burgers and fries, but also a small selection of dairy groceries, bread, eggs and juice. By 1969 the Braum’s chain was growing fast, topping 13 stores after just one year.

A Braum’s ad from 1968, its first year in operation

By 1981, Braum’s controlled the biggest portion of the metro ice cream market with a 44 percent share.

Dunn’s Dairy Queen didn’t fade away right away. The name was closely attached to family events for decades, and was a title sponsor at many 89ers baseball games.  Dunn was also recognized numerous times for his partnerships with various charities, little league baseball and public schools:

Dunn attempted a modernization of his stores in the early 1980s and managed to catch up with Braum’s when it came to adding drive-through window sales.

In 1988, Dunn sold control of the operation to a Texas investment group, and that’s where the chain began its spiral.  Reports at the time indicate that instead of using proceeds to upgrade the restaurants and pay off debt to Dunn, the investors siphoned money to outside accounts. A year later, the company was declared bankrupt and Dunn fought to reacquire control.

Some of the DQ locations that Dunn fought so hard to win back

During the court battle, a handful of the restaurants were closed. Dunn prevailed, but now much older and with increasingly worn-out restaurants, reports showed the operation was no longer as successful as it once was.

Matters for Dunn worsened in 1990 when he was among 20 former directors and officers of the failed Security National Bank and Trust Co. of Norman accused of negligence and insider trading in a lawsuit filed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.  The FDIC alleged the directors were responsible for $16 million in losses. But rather than going to trial, the two sides went into mediation and the matter was settled with the court sealing details of the resolution.

Dunn prevailed in his battle to regain control his restaurants. But Dunn was much older and saddled with increasingly worn-out restaurants.

By 1998, all but one of the restaurants had closed.

A brief come-back was attempted the next year by Jane Richardson, a Texas resident, and she quickly built and opened new stores in Edmond, Midwest City and Guthrie.  Those stores didn’t last long. After just a few years, the brand new Dairy Queen on E 2nd Street, just a block east of the University of Central Oklahoma, was gutted and turned into a McAlister’s Deli.

By 2005, the closest Dairy Queen to the metro was one in Chickasha. The new chain is set to start off with its first restaurant opening in Moore in 2014.

An aside from Lynne:   My kids love Dairy Queen so much that we make the trek to Chickasha with some frequency to get our Blizzard fix.  One time on just such visit a few years ago, they and my niece, Erin, made up a song about their love for the chain.  Here it is:

We Drove 40 Miles for This!
Dairy Queen, Dairy Queen,
The yummiest place in the USA.
Dairy Queen, Dairy Queen,
I could eat there almost every day!
It’s a magical place for me and you,
It makes all of your best dreams come true.
So, forget Burger King, KFC,
and McDonald’s, too.
For me, DQ is the best,
and all the rest are poo.
I’m so happy, oh yeah, so happy.
To have my Blizzard with Butterfinger.
I’m so happy, oh yeah, so happy,
Over it I’m very thrilled to linger.
It’s a magical confection for me and you,
It makes every one of your dreams come true.
So, give me my Blizzard!
Yeah, yeah, and not a lizard.
I’d rather have a lizard than a gizzard,
But I’d rather have a Blizzard than a lizard.
Yes, we drove 40 miles for this,
For cold, creamy goodness and crushed candy bars.
Yes, we drove 40 whole miles for this,
To enjoy DQ goodness without ever leaving our car.
DQ, it’s a magical place for me and you,
DQ really makes all of your dreams come true.
by Will (8), Jack (10), and Erin (14)

5 Comments

  1. There’s a Dairy Queen in St. Jo, Texas, too – not too far across the Red River.

  2. There is another Dairy Queen close to Blackwell,OK

  3. Hey Steve you forgot the one in Midwest City in the 60s.Going to eat there all the time. Good Job

  4. We had three dairy queens in the Midwest City area. One was about 200 S. Midwest Blvd and one on SE 15 just a tab west of Lockheed Dr. And also one st the corner of NE 23rd and Douglas Blvd.

  5. Dunn is indeed a great columnist. Hoping for all the best!

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