To this day, virtually every Dairy Queen is a franchise; only two, both in Minnesota, are company owned. (International Dairy Queen Incorporated is based in Minneapolis and is now owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.) That’s markedly different from the growth strategies of chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, which have always maintained a healthy number of company-owned outlets. That, plus the chain’s lower franchise fees and shorter wait times for prospective owners, made Dairy Queen appealing to small-town entrepreneurs. Soon stores were popping up across rural Texas, and they became ingrained in the social fabric.
“Before the Dairy Queens appeared the people of the small towns had no place to meet and talk; and so they didn’t meet or talk, which meant that much local lore or incident remained private and ceased to be exchanged, debated and stored,” Larry McMurtry wrote in his 1999 memoir Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond. (Benjamin, a German philosopher, pronounced his name “Ben-ya-meen,” so the title rhymes.)
Last summer, when Republican representative Will Hurd conducted a series of meetings with constituents, he hosted them at Dairy Queens across his district, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso. That wouldn’t surprise the 1,200 residents of Gruver, near the border of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, where many used to begin their workday in the fields at the now-shuttered Dairy Queen. “That’s where the farmers would meet in the mornings and drink coffee,” said city manager Johnnie Williams.