Reflections from the drive-thru: the end of an eraOct 04, 2021 10:15AM ● By Julie Nichols Thompson
Four generations of the Nichols Family. Julie Thompson
EDITOR’S NOTE: This Saturday (Oct. 2) will be the end of an era for Centerville, as the Dairy Queen closes its doors. Journal writer Julie Nichols Thompson, whose family has owned and operated the franchise location, reflects back on those many years and the future ahead. A longer unedited version of this story will run in our November monthly publication – The City Journal.
From slogans such as “scrumpdillyicious” to “in the land of Dairy Queen, we treat you right” to “happy tastes good,” our family has been treated like royalty at the Dairy Queen in Centerville, Utah. As my parents, George and Ann Nichols, were presented with the option of taking over sole ownership of the local DQ as part of the dissolution of a business partnership, family members with decades of experience in the restaurant industry advised them against it. They pointed out that Parrish Lane was largely undeveloped, had no large retailers or office buildings, and the nearby residential neighborhoods were thought to be woefully inadequate to sustain a business that was already failing.
They prayed, fasted, and prayed some more, coming to the decision to rent their home in Roy to my sister so that they could have a little income as they worked to turn the business around and secure a retirement that had been lost in the break-up of the partnership. My husband and I were new to the area, having moved to West Bountiful less than two years earlier. They moved into our basement, which our toddler children thought was the greatest adventure EVER! The kids were too young to see the stress in their grandparents’ faces and the fatigue in their body language as they worked to make the store profitable.
The Dairy Queen in Centerville had been open on Sundays for a period of time. This was in stark contrast to my parents’ personal beliefs and on their first day of ownership my father posted a large sign that said, “New Owners/Closed Sunday.” What he thought was a disclaimer turned into a better marketing strategy than he could have conceived on his own. One of the first customers in the store stated, “This place was so bad that I swore I would never come back. But I support businesses that are closed on Sunday so I will give you a chance.” This man became a close friend as they found common interests including piloting small planes.
George was at the front counter right where he wanted to be. We referred to him as a Walmart greeter on steroids. If you smiled as you read that last sentence, you likely had a memorable encounter. He LOVED people and made friends. For years after he passed away, people stopped in, looking for him. They would explain how the simple act of providing delicious food and treats by someone who was so sincere, had an impact in their lives. Ann, who was naturally shy, preferred to work in the background, keeping the kitchen running efficiently. Known for soft serve products, it is unusual for a Dairy Queen to sell a higher percentage of food than frozen treats, but this was just one of the unique statistics of the store.
Unlike urban legends that have no factual basis, the versions were very similar and mostly accurate, with the only embellishment being that the Centerville Dairy Queen was the busiest DQ in the world! While we enjoyed more than 20 years as the busiest Dairy Queen in Utah, we were far from the highest volume store in the system. As far as we know, until we announced our impending closure, we were the busiest store in the system that is only open six days each week.
Scott and I met as teen employees at the DQ in the Ogden Mall. We knew we didn’t want to work at DQ as adults, so we went to college and chose other careers. In 1998, my parents were ready to retire and were preparing to sell the store. We decided to leave our careers at UPS and the University of Utah Medical Center for a few years to keep the store in the family. We thought we would return to our previous careers once we grew tired of the restaurant business. We hit our stride and a few years turned into 10 and then 20. Oct. 1, 2021 marks 23 years for us.
In the last few years, it has become evident that our five children are on different career paths and as retirement is hopefully just a few years away, we began to consider the future of the Centerville Dairy Queen. We have two successful stores now. One is iconic and loved in the community and the other seems to be growing into that role. One store is older, less efficient, requires more staff to run, and is facing an expensive modernization requirement that is part of our license agreement with American Dairy Queen. The other is newer, more efficient, and has another seven years before there is a modernization requirement. About a year ago, we knew we could not keep up the pace in the current environment and we began to explore ways to simplify our lives. We had managers at each store, yet we were still working long hours under stressful conditions. Something had to give. We have received offers on the property over the years, but the timing and the price tag were never right. With real estate prices at an all-time high in Utah, an offer that met our needs was received.
A popular rumor has been that we are retiring. While at times we certainly feel old enough to retire, we will continue to work full time at our Woods Cross location. We look forward to seeing some of our favorite fans from Centerville there. In return, you may see some of your favorite crew members who are transferring to Woods Cross. We will forever feel indebted to the community. They deservedly feel ownership in the success of the Centerville Dairy Queen and we will never forget the warm welcome extended to George and Ann Nichols when they took a chance here and then to us as they passed the baton. The entire Nichols and Thompson families will be forever indebted.
A few years ago, one of our vendors asked “Out of all the concepts you could choose, why DQ?” That was an easy answer. It is the connection to community. No matter where we are, when people find out what we do for a living, they feel compelled to share their own DQ memories from whatever part of the country they spent their youth. They often describe how they knew the owners and how generations of the same family could be found working in their local Dairy Queen. When our grandchildren come to work with us on a Saturday morning, they are the fourth generation in that store. We will proudly share our own DQ story and memories of the Centerville Dairy Queen and the community that made it a legend!