Well before Dairy Queen re-opened Monday, a red truck sat parked at the drive-thru window. A caravan of vehicles soon fell in behind it, spilling out into the road as more filled the parking lot. Just over a year since the popular ice cream place was forced to close down, the wait was over — and the community came out in droves to welcome the business back.
“We had that red truck waiting for us when we opened,” Dairy Queen owner Tamara Peterson said Tuesday, reflecting on the first full day of the reborn business. “The driver said, ‘I’ve lost 30 pounds waiting for you to open!’”
The man was just one in a sea of smiling faces who greeted the Dairy Queen’s return with open arms and a craving for the frozen treats that have become a staple at the corner of Rowan Road and Southeast Boulevard in Clinton through the decades.
An early-morning fire on July 30, 2013 threatened to halt Dairy Queen and the Peterson family’s 60-year legacy operating the local business. However, 377 days later a bigger, better DQ opened its doors to the public and the outpouring was immense.
“We’ve never been busier. It was very humbling to know that you’re loved and needed, not only by your family, but by the community,” Peterson remarked. “It was really, really cool. They left hopefully with a bigger smile than when they came.”
While its future was in doubt for months after the blaze tore through the Waffle Kitchen and left the beloved ice cream establishment damaged, owners Bill and Tamara Peterson vowed at the beginning of 2014 that DQ would return — and in May, following some hurdles that needed to be surmounted, construction began in earnest.
That included demolition of portions of the existing building and a subsequent construction process to prep the foundation for an expansion into the former Waffle Kitchen footprint. An outdoor patio area and a serving window were constructed on that side of the building, with the wooden picnic area on the back eliminated. The DQ’s 1950s-era walk-up window in front was preserved, as was the drive-thru window.
To meet code, the existing building was rewired. While some renovations were necessary, others were simply added to extend the life of the building, including plumbing upgrades and a roof replacement.
Dairy Queen employees, including Peterson herself, are still getting their bearings inside the new building, it will no doubt better serve the clientele, she said. Many of the “old-timers,” the younger employees who worked for Dairy Queen last year, have come back to work along with some new faces. While everyone is a bit “rusty” and getting used to the new store, Peterson stated, “Everything just fell into place.”
Taking up some of the larger space are two new ice cream machines — “they are workhorses,” Peterson noted — and Bessie, believed to be the oldest operational ice cream machine in the South, was unharmed in last year’s fire and is expected to be a part of Dairy Queen’s new chapter.
With the DQ open for business, Waffle Kitchen owners will soon follow suit, expected to open Gristmill Restaurant on Faison Highway in the near future. The public’s interest in seeing both return has not waned in a year’s time.
Peterson said she was overwhelmed by the amount of visitors for Monday’s opening, estimated at 2,000. The traffic has not died down a bit since.
“It poured yesterday but people just kept coming and they were patient. They were just great,” Peterson said Tuesday. “There are busy days and other busy days, then there was (Monday). You put all those busy days together you still couldn’t come up with that. It was one for the Guinness World Records.”
“They were of all ages, young and old,” she said. “It’s amazing how genuinely happy they were to have us back.”
And there were plenty of first-timers to Dairy Queen, youngsters whose parents whet their palette with talks of Dairy Queen and let the anticipation build while the local store to open.
“A lot of people waited so their kid could have their first ice cream at the Dairy Queen,” she said.
And while much has been added, DQ’s expansion has preserved the history of the building, including the hundreds of young employees’ signatures etched into the interior facade above the customer service window over the years, Bessie and the down-home feeling you get when you walk and drive up to the window.
Bill Peterson’s step-grandfather built the business in 1953.
“It was bittersweet,” Tamara said of Monday’s opening, as she reflected on the past year. “Although it was sad to see the old store go, we’ll be able to served the community better in this store.
It is a store the community deserves, she pointed out.
“They waited so long and cheered us on,” said Peterson. “My husband and I sat down (Monday) night and we just said ‘poppa must be shaking his head.’ We were just so grateful and humbled by the response.”
While it is just ice cream for now, Dairy Queen owners hinted toward “some big plans for the near future.”
Throughout the past year, the Petersons have said they are very mindful that Dairy Queen has been blessed with countless loyal employees and customers through the decades and sought not to lose them, crediting the community with making DQ a “Sampson County legacy.”
This week has stood as a shining example of that support.
“The Peterson family may own the building,” said Tamara, “but Sampson County and this community runs the business.”
That community business is now open. Hours are 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1-10 p.m. Sunday.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-249-4616. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.