Winford Hogan, the personable president of the Kiwanis Club of Clyde (population: 2500), gaveled the meeting to order promptly at 6:30 a.m., and everyone rose for a rousing verse of “When Kiwanis Calls.” On this particular morning, Kiwanis was calling from the back room of the Dairy Queen, where the full civic pride of Clyde had gathered. Joining in the chorus were the county judge, Baptist preacher, high school principal, savings and loan president, constable, stockbroker, and Texas Electric Service manager. The only dignitary missing was the bank president; he overslept.
The Kiwanians, like several other local civic clubs, meet each week at the Dairy Queen because, far more than any other place, it has become the social, cultural, and culinary center of Clyde. Parades are formed there, political deals are closed there, and several electricians and carpenters even conduct their business there (thanks to the obliging manager, Frankie Davis, who doubles as an answering service). The Dairy Queen in Clyde, in fact, may be the busiest and most prosperous Dairy Queen in the Western world. It’s certainly the most lucrative one in West Texas, a fact I have on good authority from co-owner James Utley, who shares franchises on 38 Dairy Queens from Borger to Van Horn to Fort Stockton. The Clyde store serves 250,000 customers per year, which works out to around 100 servings per resident of Clyde. Travelers on IH 20 help out, too, for the store has the prime location at the Clyde off-ramp.
“We raised a whole generation at the Dairy Queen,” said Utley as we sat down later that morning for a marathon coffee break. “All the kids who hung out here in high school are grown now, most married with children, and they’re still coming.” A woman pulled up to the drive-in window, and Utley ambled over to wait on her. “Large sugar-free, right?” he said, and he was pouring before she had time to nod assent. “In small towns,” said Utley, “you have to become part of the community. We sponsor Little League baseball teams, help out with fund drives, work with the Scouts. We know our customers on a first-name basis, and they know us. They know that if they sit three hours with one cup of coffee, we won’t throw them out.”
It’s not the most sophisticated marketing strategy ever devised, but it undoubtedly works. Dairy Queen has been dispensing fast food since before the term was invented—McDonald’s is a mere babe in comparison—and its red mansard roofs appear on the Texas landscape with a frequency second only to water towers. There are, to be exact, 994 Dairy Queens in the state, which is about 25 per cent of the world supply, and they’re located in places as large as Houston and Dallas, and as small as Snook (population: 372), Seven Points (205), and Elm Mott (190). But unlike every other hamburger chain in America, Dairy Queen has always found its greatest strength in rural areas, where people are finicky about their food and even more finicky about who serves it to them. That’s why most