The Dairy Queen in Dexter is a sweet reminder of the charm, personality and lasting memories of the place many have grown up in and have called home since Duane Luick served that first cone in 1953. And while the store has undergone many positive changes and modernizations over the years, longtime owners Mike and Sheila Hoelzer, along with their daughter, Heather, have kept that special feeling from melting away.
And, yes, you can still turn over the Blizzard without the ice cream falling out. It’s a tradition best served in a cup with a Dexter cherry on the top. Delicious!
“We did a major renovation a few years ago but we felt it was important to keep the exterior look the same because we want to maintain that nostalgia look that people remember.”
The Dexter Dairy Queen isn’t an ice cream shop – it’s a landmark, an institution, a part of what makes Dexter, well, Dexter. There is the Dexter Cider Mill, the Dexter Bakery and the Dexter Dairy Queen – pillars of the community.
First, a history lesson.
Duane Luick opened the store in 1953 and sold it to John and Camillie McLeod. In 1968, Frank, Agnes and Charlie Kramer purchased the DQ and sold it in 1977 to Bohdan and Carol Stefanik along with Bill and Judy Wismont, who sold the store to Mike and Sheila Hoelzer in June 1987.
The Hoelzers have followed some simple rules to success over the past 32 years – simple in description, but a lot of hard work and effort in execution.
“One thing that has always been important to me, and Heather has helped implement a lot of it, is that we are serving people a clean product that is of high quality, and we are doing it in a friendly fashion,” says Mike. “We go to a lot of extremes to make sure our store is clean and the product is fresh. And our health inspections show that.”
Mike and Sheila began talking about owning a business. It was a conversation that soon turned into a reality.
“My wife and I were looking for a business and my wife’s brother owns the Hamburg Dairy Queen so we knew a little about the business,” Mike says. “It sounded really interesting to us. And right around that time (1987) the owner of this store here in Dexter put it up for sale.”
The transaction was as smooth as ice cream – with discussions beginning in February and a deal completed in June.
“We had just had a baby (Megan) at the time, Sheila was working at the University of Michigan and I was working full-time in Ann Arbor at a mechanical contractor company so we had to factor all this in, but it just sounded interesting and exciting to us so we decided to take the plunge,” he said.
Hoelzer said the first year was anything but sweet and creamy.
“It was really challenging,” he admitted. “Sheila stopped working at U-M but I was still working full-time. She would work during the day and then I would come here after work and take over for her. We did this for a couple years until we were able to hire some management people that we could trust.”
Having Sheila’s brother in the business was a “big help.”
“We learned a lot by just going over to his store and seeing how things were done,” Hoelzer said. “We learned the products. The following winter I went to the franchise school and they teach you everything you need to know. That helped put us in a good place.”
A lot has changed over the years, especially the menu. But Hoelzer is proud of the products they serve today.
“We used to sell chicken and fish sandwiches, French fries, onion rings, barbecue sandwiches and hot dogs back when we first opened,” Mike says. “We have a lot of good products right now. I’m really proud of the menu Dairy Queen has introduced. Ours is considered reduced-fat ice cream at only 5 percent butter fat where others are around 10-14 percent.”
While they maintained the feel and charm of the exterior, the Dexter DQ underwent a major renovation in early 2017 that included all new ice cream machines, a new roof and a new POS system.
“That renovation and improvements really set us up well for substantial increases in business,” Mike said. “We feel that will happen with the increases in population we are seeing.”
The behind-the-scenes improvements have been a big boost inside the famous building. “We are always working on efficiency so people can get their order in and then get their ice cream as quickly as possible while at the same time making sure the product is of the highest quality,” Heather says. “We are always checking and double checking every single day to make sure everything is always perfect.”
Working at the local Dairy Queen is not only a wonderful experience but also gives many young people in the community a sense of accomplishment and family. There is a special bond and positive energy that can be seen as soon as you step up to the small screened windows.
“We have about 18-20 employees during the summer and many are high school or college kids looking to make some money and we have employees that work here three or four summers in a row,” says Heather. “They all go on to great things and when they come back to town they come up and say hi and update us on how they are doing. It’s really rewarding.”
One of those happy employees is Jackson Helmholtz, a junior at Dexter HS, who began working at the DQ last year.
“The thing I love about working at Dairy Queen is the people I work with,” he said. “The group is so much fun and makes making Blizzards an adventure on its own. Another thing I love about working at DQ is seeing the faces of customers when we flip their Blizzards upside down before we hand it out.”
Dairy Queen serves up more than just Blizzards, treats and cakes. They have long supported community events and activities – often behind the scenes. “Dexter is such a fantastic community and we help support and work with a lot of different organizations,” said Mike. “We donate to Little League and a lot of the sports teams, give gift cards to raffles and donate every year to Special Olympics, Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Dept. and the Children’s Miracle Network.”
They also support Educational foundation of Dexter, Faith in Action, Dexter Daze and many more.
Every year, the DQ hosts on average 24-26 school classes for their end of the year field trips. This has been a long-standing tradition. “I went with my class when I was at Bates elementary school,” says Heather.
Mike, who still works full-time at Boone & Darr Mechanical in Ann Arbor, admits that he is getting close to handing over the ice cream scoop to Heather. “She is real close to running the entire thing and she is doing a fantastic job,” Mike says.
Heather, of course, is glad to be working with her father, who she says brings a unique skill set to the ice cream profession.
“It’s helpful that he has that mechanical experience and skills because if we have problems with the freezer or the walk-in cooler or the refrigerator, he can fix them,” Heather says.
Dexter does not have to worry about the local DQ closing anytime soon. In fact, Mike isn’t ruling out opening another DQ in a different location – “It would just have to be the right situation,” he says.
Right now, Dexter is the perfect situation – as it has been for the past 32 years.
Dairy Queen Fall Menu (with commentary from Heather Hoelzer)
New blizzard menu: This is what we just launched, along with the pumpkin pie Blizzard. Dairy Queen recently began rolling out seasonal Blizzard menus (winter and summer) and each menu contains a set of new Blizzard flavors that are available for six months, then the switch happens again. It keeps the options fresh and interesting.
Royal Treats: This one is neat because it showcases the most classic DQ treats: banana split and peanut buster parfait.
Take home treats: Many people don’t know that we offer these items AND that we make them in-store. We hand dip each dilly bar and make each layer of fudge and peanuts for the buster bars. It’s a labor of love.
Cakes: Offering ice cream cakes is another little known fact about our store. We can customize a cake with any Blizzard flavor the customer would like. Customers can even make their own combinations of flavors. Cake orders need be placed at least 24 hours in advance.