There’s little doubt of the success of a chain like Dairy Queen near a seaside locale, but Bill Shook, owner of the franchise in downtown Millsboro, has been finding year-round prosperity with more than just the ice cream. After 10 years, thanks to big taste and a welcoming staff, he is proving that even a business with a corporate structure can evoke a friendly mom-and-pop feel.
“We’ve really built this restaurant from the ground up,” said Shook, who opened the Dairy Queen along the west end of Main Street a decade ago. A retired chef who was originally from the Allentown, Pa., area, Shook was looking for something more when he decided to relocate to Sussex County. “I had a job transfer bring me to the area,” he explained. “I wanted to get back to the beach, but I really wanted to start having fun again.”
And, for 10 years, he and his staff have been doing just that. From their plentiful ice cream treats, like the popular Blizzard, to a bevy of sandwiches and sides, the Millsboro Dairy Queen offers a wide variety to customers.
“Whether you want something hot or cold,” said Shook, “we’ve got it all. Our product niche changes dramatically with the seasons. In the summertime, we sell more ice cream than anything else and, by winter, our ice cream and food sales even out. Over the last five or six years, we’ve really pushed the great quality of food we offer. We’re not just ice cream and burgers. People come in for the chicken, chili-cheese dogs and shrimp. We put out a product that is at a higher quality than other quick-serve restaurants.”
The mild, snowless winter this year has been a blessing for Dairy Queen’s “cool treats,” as well as the “hot eats,” as their slogan boasts.
“We’ve sold more ice cream this winter than we ever have,” Shook said proudly. “People are realizing that, even when it’s cold outside, our ice cream is still delicious.”
As with any business, much of the success is going to come down to location, location, location.
“We chose an in-town spot for the restaurant, as opposed to a high-traffic one, such as along [Route] 113 or Coastal Highway, because of the type of franchise it is,” Shook explained. “If you’re out along the highway, you may see a customer who you’ll never see again, but if you’re in a great small town like Millsboro, you become a part of it. You build that reputation with the regulars.
“Over the years, Dairy Queen has become very community- and family-oriented,” he noted. “It’s a place that has been around for many, many years, and it holds a lot of memories for lots of people. Throughout the generations, it becomes a place you go for a treat.”
But it’s not just the location or the food itself to which Shook is chalking up 10 years of success. A lot of the repeat business comes down to the familiar faces behind the counter.
“I am extremely lucky and blessed with the staff that we have here,” said Shook. “We’ve got a great group of employees, many of whom have been here for a long time. If we hire someone who’s 14, 15 or 16, more often than not they’re here until they graduate from college. We don’t have the turnover rate like other places, and customers enjoy seeing the same faces each time they come in.”
Currently, Shook has a staff of about 25. Through the winter months, shifts may be a bit scarce, but the consistent help requires little hiring when the busier summer months roll around.
Dairy Queen sees their share of regular customers, too.
“We’ve got customers who are always coming by,” said Shook. “Most of the time, our staff will even know what one of our regular customers is going to have when they see them pull into the parking lot. They’ll see someone walking in and already know that they’re getting a chocolate shake with whipped cream and no cherries, or a medium vanilla cone, dipped in butterscotch. Sometimes, they’ll switch it up on us, but that familiarity with the staff is what keeps people coming back. You can have the best location, the best product, whatever; but if it’s not delivered properly, it’s just not going to happen.”
During the course of the past decade, Shook has seen families grow and expand, bringing new generations of customers.
“This isn’t just my Dairy Queen, or our staff’s Dairy Queen,” he added. “It’s the customers’ and the towns’. They have really taken on that sense of ownership. The entire community has really embraced us.”
Of course, the beach can be an appealing place for other ice cream shops to get their start, but Shook said he welcomes the friendly competition.
“It’s good for the commerce to have that competitive edge,” he said. “That way, [consumers] don’t have to drive somewhere else to get what they want or need. Business creates business. The Millsboro and Long Neck areas are obviously still growing, and we always have to be aware of that. But as long as you are producing a great product and providing the service and quality customers expect, they’ll come back.”
With 10 triumphant years behind him, Shook hopes to see the same in the next decade.
“It’s a matter of not getting complacent, though,” he said. “We’ve got a great corporate team in research and development, and in marketing. They are constantly figuring out what the customer wants. But, in a market where everyone always tries to stay in front of the consumer, it’s important to be true to them, too. We’re a lot like Cheers. We’re a place to come where everybody knows your name.”
Dairy Queen is located at 129 Main Street in Millsboro. For more information, stop in or call them at (302) 934-7240.