By the time you read this, Richard Barrett will likely have handed his last soft-serve ice cream cone through the window of his tiny Dairy Queen in south Wichita.
He’ll tell you it’s been a long, sweet ride.
“Few people have a job where they make a lot of people happy,” Barrett said.
Barrett, who bought what’s known as the “Little Dairy Queen” in 1987, said last month that he was in the process of selling it to a Hutchinson man. The sale was contingent on approval from Dairy Queen corporate headquarters. The 600-square-foot store is located at 849 S. Poplar, near the intersection of Lincoln and Grove.
A Navy veteran from northeast Kansas, Barrett bought his first Dairy Queen, located at Maple and Sycamore, 45 years ago. He sold that one a few years after buying the Poplar store.
The store was built in 1951, the city’s seventh featuring that floor plan. Small DQs are called “soft serves” by the company, while the larger DQs that serve burgers and other savory items are known as “big stores.” A Garden City soft serve is the only other remaining one Barrett knows of in the region.
Barrett seems to have been equally devoted to his employees and customers. Through the years, he’s hired hundreds of teens to work in the store, giving many their first jobs.
“Most of the time they turn out pretty good,” he said. “We’re pretty particular about who we hire. And most of the time they’re kind of fun to work with.”
Two girls who worked for him this summer are the daughters of a former manager, who finished her degree at Wichita State University while working for Barrett. “I’ve known them since they were born,” Barrett said.
His current manager, Amanda Albrecht, used to visit the Little Dairy Queen with her family to eat sundaes at a picnic table outside the store. When she was looking for a job four years ago, a high school classmate who was managing the store suggested she come to work there. Now a student at Fort Hays State University, she’s come back every summer since.
Asked about her boss, Barrett laughed and said: “I could tell you stories but nothing you’d want to publish.”
Inside, it’s barely big enough to hold all the equipment, supplies, up to four employees and Barrett. When it’s busy, one employee does nothing but restock supplies. Like many businesses, Barrett has had trouble finding workers lately.
As for customers, Garrett has served five generations of some families.
“We have some people will come every day, and a lot that come two to three times a week,” he said, adding that Albrecht starts making regulars’ orders as soon as she sees them pull into the lot.
For years, soft serve cones and the thick concoctions known as Blizzards have far outsold other menu items. When Barrett checked his computer at 5 p.m. on a recent afternoon, the tally was cones, 68, Blizzards, 65. But there were hours to go.
Blizzard flavors are one of the few things that regularly change on the menu. To make sure customers can still get favorite versions that have been discontinued, Barrett keeps their recipes on cards taped to the wall. The store is also known for making its own Dilly Bars.
Asked how many cones he’s made through the year, Barrett answered “thousands.” But with his store cranking out around 100 cones a day, more than 200 days a year for four-a-half decades, it seems like the true total could be hundreds of thousands.
He’s closed the store every winter from November through February. Asked what he did during the long breaks, he grinned and said, “Whatever we liked to do.”
Barrett was inundated with cards from customers on his 90th birthday earlier this year. He decided to sell the store around that time but had trouble finding a taker at first. He described the prospective buyer as an enthusiastic thirty-something and said he “was glad to find somebody interested in it.”
He doesn’t have any huge plans for what comes next, although it will probably involve classic cars. He’s got a collection that includes several Thunderbirds, and the Little Dairy Queen has hosted a car show in its parking lot many months.
“I don’t try to make too big of plans,” he said. “I just go with what comes along.”