MOORHEAD — If you ask people around the United States to name the first signs of spring, they might tell you when they hear the robins sing or see the trees start to bud. But if you ask people in Fargo-Moorhead the same question, you might get another answer.
For us, one of the first promising signs that winter is drawing to an end is the opening of the historic downtown Moorhead Dairy Queen, 24 Eighth St. S. The walk-up treat shop, located on the busy corner of Eighth Street and Main Avenue, opens for the season every year on March 1 — rain, snow, sun or blizzard.
It's become a tradition for many Dairy Queen fans to line up on opening day to kick off yet another season, but this one will be a little different. It's the 70th anniversary of this little ice cream shop, and owners Troy and Diane DeLeon want to celebrate in style. Mayor Johnathan Judd has proclaimed Friday, March 1, as "Historic Moorhead Dairy Queen Day," and the business is offering small cones and Dilly Bars for just 70 cents to mark the big day.
However, before any of us get that first bite of Dairy Queen soft serve, the DeLeons must put in countless hours of preparation. This week on "The Scoop with Tracy Briggs," The Forum takes you behind the scenes of the iconic restaurant to see what goes into getting ready for the annual onslaught of eager customers.
The most important way to prepare for opening in March is properly cleaning, detailing and organizing in November as the restaurant closes for the winter.
"People just think we lock up and head south," Diane laughs. "Nothing could be further from the truth. It's really a process."
They turn off the water and heat shortly after closing for the season at the end of October, then make sure everything is in its proper place and as clean as possible.
"We do a very detailed super-clean of the inside of the store and all the equipment, top to bottom. Ask our co-workers — we are very detailed," Diane says. "You could eat off the floor when we leave here in the fall."
Even though the crowds are no longer here as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's come and go, it doesn't mean the work stops for the DeLeons. The couple, who bought the restaurant from original owners Bob and Phyllis Litherland in 1995, try to carry on the family feel among employees by staying in touch over the winter and planning occasional gatherings for the staff. This year, 22 employees are coming back to work.
"They are returning for their second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth season!" Diane says. "Our co-workers range in age from 16 up to 72 years of age."
Over the winter, the DeLeons look at staffing and how many additional employees they might need as March rolls around. They also look at reordering products — and not just food.
The Moorhead Dairy Queen, which opened in 1949, is credited with inventing the brand's Dilly Bar and has become a must-see for some visitors to Fargo-Moorhead. The store sells souvenirs for those wanting to bring home a memento. On the day "The Scoop" filmed for this story, a representative from CI Sport in Fargo stopped by to talk about the new T-shirts the DeLeons will be selling.
"They're going to be really cute," Diane says. "The theme of our T-shirts for this year is, 'All roads lead to the historic Moorhead Dairy Queen.'"
With opening day less than a month away, Troy says things really get rolling again in early February. This year, he turned the heat back on in the restaurant on Feb. 14. At first turn of the DQ doorknob in February, he didn't even need a freezer for the ice cream.
"As cold as it is outside, that's how cold it is inside, because there's no true heat in here," Troy says. "So, yes, it was really cold in here."
Diane says about a week after the heat is turned on, they turn on the building's water.
"Every year, we pray for no water leaks," she says.
By Feb. 18 or so, they begin making some of the packaged treats.
"We're making about 1,700 Dilly Bars," Diane explains as two nearby employees dip the frozen soft serve on a stick into chocolate sauce. Once dry, they'll package the treats in a box for sale. Most of the treats are handmade here in the store, including Mr. Maltys, Buster Bars and Treatzza Pizzas.
Troy is on cake duty, making approximately 100 full-sized cakes in preparation for opening day. After piping soft serve into the cake mold and adding cookie-type chocolate crumbs ("everyone's favorite part," claims Troy), he smooths out the top and makes ridges on the sides of the cake.
"After this, the cakes go in a 20-below freezer for five or six hours to set. Then we can decorate them," Troy says.
Diane says there is so much to do before they open again for another season, but they don't do it alone.
"There is no way we could do this without Moorhead Public Service, Dakota Refrigeration, Ken's Sanitation, Food Services of America, Tim Fischer from Big Tree Nursery for snow removal, Carlos Quintero for our website, our Coca-Cola service technicians, our co-workers and customers," Diane says. "I know we're forgetting someone."
As March 1 approaches, Diane says she's "anxious and excited" to get things rolling again. But the couple says they most look forward to seeing their co-workers and regular and new customers again this spring and summer.
"It's very humbling that this has become an individual and family tradition every year," Diane says. "We have grandparents, their children and their children come here. It's cool to see the line form and to just be a part of it."
If you go
What: "Historic Moorhead Dairy Queen Day"
When: Friday, March 1; store opening at 9 a.m. and mayoral proclamation at 1 p.m.
Where: Moorhead Dairy Queen, 24 Eighth St. S.