Last Dairy Queen Still Tastes As Sweet

October 17, 1990|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Tucked between fast-food restaurants and a shopping center, the small, white building stands as a last frontier, offering the sweet taste of old-fashioned America to those speeding by on Route 175.

Bright '60s-style neon lights advertise the main attractions. Dripping ice-cream cones and hot chili dogs. Flame-broiled burgers and thick, chocolate milkshakes. Service with a friendly smile.

It's all still there at Anne Arundel's last surviving Dairy Queen.

Twenty-five years after opening in Odenton, the Dairy Queen on Route 175 still draws faithful crowds seven days a week.

Teen-agers stop by to munch fries and slurp a shake after school. Police officers cruise in the drive-through to pick up lunch. Families indulge in trays full of gooey sundaes and banana splits.

Robert Hough makes a beeline for the black-and-white checkered counter every afternoon to indulge in his traditional snack. Cookies 'n Cream. The 48-year-old retired Army sergeant rarely misses his daily trip to the Dairy Queen after finishing classes at a Baltimore electronics school.

While Hough is drawn by his sweet tooth, other customers are attracted by the taste of nostalgia the Odenton Dairy Queen provides. The owners, James and Patricia Knaack, outfitted their ice-cream shop with neon lights and checkered tile to give it a retro, 1960s look. They polished up the booths and painted a Dennis the Menace cartoon on the outside of the building, overlooking a narrow courtyard with picnic tables for the summer crowds.

When the Knaacks moved to Maryland from Milwaukee, Wis., eight years ago and decided to get into the Dairy Queen business, they also introduced an innovation that has brought a steady stream of customers on weekends. They started running classic car shows at their Dairy Queen every Friday and Saturday night.

Keith Lannon, a 26-year-old professional carpet cleaner, is one of the antique car fans who heads to the Dairy Queen for a taste of the oldies. He likes "the nostalgia and seeing the old, custom cars."

"It's been very popular," says Jim Knaack, who is Maryland's representative to the National Street Rod Association, a nationwide group of more than 42,000 classic car owners.

"People will come out to eat ice cream and see the cars. Occasionally, we'll have disc jockeys spin some tunes."

His recipe of mixing antique cars with ice-cream cones and old-fashioned entertainment has the sweet smell of success. Between 50 and 100 antique car owners and aficionados show up on most weekend nights, Knaack says.

Most splurge on at least one Dairy Queen treat.

Since the Knaacks' Dairy Queen is the last in the county, business is rarely slow, except in winter. In the peak summer months, when the temperature soars into the 90s and beach traffic grinds to a halt, more than 2,200 customers line up at the counter each day. Only about a third of that number stroll past Dennis the Menace once school starts again.

Knaack introduced a new line of frozen yogurt last summer and opened a drive-thru to attract more customers. But Dairy Queen's special brand of frozen ice milk still is the biggest draw.

Few people realize that the Dairy Queen blend only has 25 calories per fluid ounce -- the same as frozen yogurt, Knaack says.

"It's been healthy for you for the last 50 years," he announces, referring to the nationally franchised chain's golden anniversary this year.

Dairy Queen has suffered in the last decade, squeezed on one side by other fast-food restaurants and on the other by specialty ice-cream shops offering exotic flavors.

While most hard ice cream contains 14 percent butterfat, the ultra-rich brands like Haagen Daz and Ben & Jerry's have at least 18 percent butterfat. But Dairy Queen's famous confection really is frozen ice milk and only contains 5 percent butterfat.

In an attempt to woo back customers, the company has expanded its line of luncheon foods to include specialties such as chicken filets and has begun offering frozen yogurt and ice-cream cakes.

Blizzards, a blend of the traditional chocolate or vanilla soft serve with M & Ms, Reese's Pieces or other candy goodies, are a best-seller at the Knaacks' Dairy Queen. The soft-serve cones and cups run a close second, with hamburgers, hot dogs, onion rings and other munchies trailing behind.

Since the couple bought their Dairy Queen in Odenton eight years ago, the only other Dairy Queen in the county closed. The Glen Burnie shop shut down a few years ago when the owner retired and failed to find a successor, Knaack says.

The scarcity baffled the Ford family when they moved to Laurel from Austin, Texas.

"It's taken us a long time to find one," says Kari Ford, while digging into a hot-fudge sundae yesterday. "I think they should bring some more back."

She and her husband, Ken, are surprised to hear they're indulging in sugar at a county landmark of sorts. But Knaack promises that they will have the chance to keep slurping soft serve for years to come.

"I can't imagine closing," he says. "Where would people go for the American Original anymore?"

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