How Dairy Queen has swirled ice cream cones and provided rewarding franchise opportunities for decades
By Kym Wolfe
If you grew up in Canada, chances are you’re familiar with Dairy Queen, and have enjoyed more than a few Scrumpdillyicious® treats over the years. The iconic brand made its mark with soft-serve ice cream, then expanded its menu in 1961 to include hot food items. Today, DQ® Fans (as customers are referred to) enjoy both their Grill & Chill® options equally, at DQ® restaurants across the country.
With the arrival of COVID-19 in Canada last year, and the closing of many DQ® dining rooms in March, there was a quick shift from restaurant and over-the-counter sales to focus on drive-thru, curbside pickup, and delivery. Service providers SkipTheDishes, DoorDash, and Uber Eats provided great support and partnership to the system as they onboarded more locations, and delivery will be an ongoing important part of how business is conducted going forward.
As a trusted brand, Dairy Queen seemed to be viewed as a safe place during the pandemic for people to purchase both hot and cold foods. “We saw an uptick in sales and were supported by our fans as a place to go to reward themselves in these difficult times,” says Peter White, executive vice president of Dairy Queen Canada. When people’s favourite restaurants were shut down, many new fans found their way to Dairy Queen, and when temperatures started to rise last spring, so did sales of take-home novelty treats and DQ® Frozen Cakes.
A family franchise
When you run any business, there are challenges every single day, says Saskatoon franchisee Kim Arnold. “The key to successfully overcoming challenges is to have a solid plan in place, to be able to pivot quickly when necessary, and to be willing to make changes. COVID-19 literally changed everything we knew about operating a DQ®, and we had to pivot virtually overnight. The first couple of months were the most challenging, as things were changing daily.”
Arnold and her husband Geoff built their first store in Saskatoon 18 years ago and have since opened two more Dairy Queens in the city. Those locations are co-owned with three other business partners. A fourth store, also owned by all five partners, is slated to open in December 2021.
“A business background is helpful, but not completely necessary,” explains Arnold, who has business experience, while Geoff has a mechanical background. “It would definitely be helpful to have experience working on the front line to gain a better understanding of the business from the ground up.”
White agrees that in a perfect world, new franchisees would have quick service restaurant (QSR) or at least retail experience. However, some do not. In those cases, the potential franchisee would hire a manager with a QSR background to become a qualified candidate, and that manager would be involved in initial training before the store even opened. Franchise owners do need to have a mindset that will accept change, as technology is constantly evolving within the QSR industry.
Dairy Queen offers extensive initial training and ongoing support to its franchisees. It starts with a three-phase manager training program, with the majority involving hands-on guidance in a training store. The brand also provides an online learning system for franchisees, managers, and crew members called DQ® Learning Link. Training and tools continue to evolve, particularly over the past year. “In managing COVID-19 restrictions, we have stepped up our ability to consult virtually with one-on-one coaching, district calls, and store-specific consulting,” says White.
Arnold says she and her husband really appreciated that support during the pandemic. “They have an entire training department at head office, and they were constantly providing us with updated training materials and best practices.”
Having those go-to people was what drove the Arnolds to look at franchising when they first decided to go into business for themselves. “Most people have experience or expertise in one part of running a business, but a franchise has all of it.”
After exploring different franchise opportunities, the couple decided to invest with Dairy Queen. “We looked for a franchise that has a proven track record and a good reputation,” says Arnold. “The corporate staff are there to help us be successful. They have helped us with everything from vendor and equipment contracts to training, marketing, and ongoing operations. There is a proven system that works, and that takes a lot of guesswork out of it.” They also knew that with Dairy Queen, there would be automatic brand recognition, another big plus for a newly opened business.
Overcoming the challenges
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, eight new DQ® locations opened across Canada in 2020, and the brand is on track to open 18 more this year, says White. “We modified training to accommodate smaller groups for new hires to allow for social distancing, and there were a lot of additional COVID-19 compliance protocols put in place to ensure we could safely serve fans.”
Dairy Queen encourages new franchisees to get involved to support their local community by embracing the brand’s cause-marketing initiatives with Children’s Miracle Network and participating in the annual Miracle Treat Day. In 2020, Miracle Treat Day was modified from its traditional August date to October, and 2021 will also be a transition year, with three days for Miracle Treat Day(s) from October 26-28.
The franchise also made staff safety a high priority. “We shut down our lobbies even before the government shut us down,” says Arnold. “We wanted to keep our staff safe by limiting contact with customers, and fortunately only a few of our staff members needed to take leave for health reasons.”
As is typical with QSRs, staffing and recruitment can be challenging, and White says the franchise looks for franchisees who want to be an employer of choice in their communities. While staffing was somewhat easier to manage when dining rooms were closed, franchisees were encouraged to recruit and train well in advance so that they would be ready to react quickly when dining rooms reopened. “It’s a hot topic right now, because all of our competitors are also going to be reopening,” says White. “COVID-19 will end, and we are looking to the future and continuing to have our franchisees execute at a high level to be an industry leader in Fan Satisfaction.”
Dairy Queen has always had a strong presence in Western Canada, which is where the first DQ north of the border opened in 1953. There continue to be opportunities for new franchisees in that part of the country, as well as in Ontario. The brand is also looking at a strategy to expand in Quebec and continues to be interested in opportunities for new stores across the country.
Every business has its ups and downs, says Arnold, but “overall, being a DQ® franchisee has been a very positive experience. It’s more than owning a business, it’s who we are – we’re known in the community as the Dairy Queen people.”