One of the main rites of passage for a native Texan is the first, bewildering visit to a Dairy Queen outside of the state. Of course Dairy Queen in Maryland or Missouri will gladly sell you Blizzard and Dilly Bar. But where’s the steak-finger-basket, the fried chicken sandwich called “Dude,” or any Buster-owned burger, be it Hungr-, Belt-, or Triple-? And why aren’t the posters on the walls emblazoned with “That’s What I Like About Texas,” a phrase taken from a catchy tune more familiar to young Texans than our official state song? (It’s “Texas, our Texas,” kids.)
These details are so important to Texas DQ that it would be frustrating to cross our border into Arkansas, stop at the DQ on Main Street Magnolia and see only chicken fingers – no steak! — accompanied by the stunningly banal slogan “Happy Tasty.”
And yet, fifty years ago, there were few such favorite dishes. The Hungr-Buster did not appear until 1974, and the rustic basket trademark did not appear until two years later. And that iconic jingle? He did not appear on the air until 2002 as part of a highly successful advertising campaign.
But one institution that was Around 1973, the Texas Dairy Operators Board (TDQOC) was formed. This Texas franchise owners’ co-op was essential to turning Texas into the Texas Dairy Queens. It is thanks to TDQOC that the web has become such an integral part of our culture that Larry McMurtry used it in the title of one of his memoirs.
The origins of TDQOC date back to 1947 when Rolly Close opened the first DQ franchise in Texas in Austin. The Illinois-based Dairy Queen founders also sold the rights to the entire Texas area to Klose, allowing him to sell franchises to just about anyone. Klose ran his business informally; he loaned money to aspiring restaurateurs and wrote contracts on napkins. “Bob bought ours straight from Rolly, who was in pajamas in the garage,” recalls Jennifer Bowen, a DQ operator whose late husband bought his first franchise in Falfurrias in the early seventies. Klose, who occasionally made deals in casual clothes, was kept busy, and by 1973, Texas had more dairy queens than any other state.
Since Klose was rather hands-off, his franchisees were not shy about updating their menus as they saw fit. While the national dairy queens focused mainly on desserts, Texas owners began selling hamburgers and other savory foods as early as the fifties. After all, they had to compete with Whataburger. Based in Corpus Christi, this fast-growing chain was tightly controlled by the Dobson family, which gave its franchisees advantages of scale and reassured customers that when they walked into Whataburger, they would know what they would find. To provide such consistency to hundreds of Texas DQs, franchise owners created TDQOC to standardize menus and pool advertising money that funded Texas-targeted campaigns, similar to how Chevrolet and Ford shoot truck ads specifically for the Texas market.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of TDQOC is that it still exists. Rolly Close sold his rights to the Texas Territory back to DQ in 1980, and the bigwigs (who by then had settled in Minneapolis) tried to tell Texans what to include on their menus and how to spend their advertising dollars. The Texans, being Texans, did not approve of this and filed a lawsuit in 1991, alleging fraud and misrepresentation. “In 1992, we reached a settlement agreement and just coexist peacefully,” says Bill Hall, former president of TDQOC. “They keep making changes to our licensing contracts, but they have to agree that we use Texas Dairy Queen products and let Texas do its own advertising — unless they can convince the majority of Texas operators to agree to switch to their system. And this will be difficult to achieve, because these people love their independence too much.
Despite this victory for Texas exclusivity, Dairy Queen no longer has the presence here that it once did. In 1980, DQ had 1,008 offices in Texas; today there are fewer than 600, and the crash can be partly blamed on a Dallas investment firm that bought dozens of Texas DQs and then filed for bankruptcy. In many small towns where the dairy queen was once the main gathering place, it is now gone, which is a serious blow to our rural communities.
The Texas menu has changed over the years, but only for the better. It now includes fried jalapenos, steaks stuffed with jack pepper cheese and sometimes guacamole. But you can still get Hungr-Buster, rustic basket and Dude and you can still hear that classic jingle. (It was updated by Lubbock country star Josh Abbott in 2022.) A lot has remained the same. Regardless of which Midwestern conglomerate owns the company—at the moment it’s Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway—Dairy Queen is still what we love about Texas.
This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of the journal. Texas Monthly with the title “DQ, our DQ.” Subscribe today.