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.
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.
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.
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: