Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Customers of the last remaining Dairy Queen in Battle Creek are chill for all the right reasons, says Yvonne Powell, a resident of the Post-Franklin Neighborhood which is home to the ice cream shop.
“This area of town gets a bad name, but people are still drawn to the Dairy Queen and I’ve never heard of anything negative happening at that location,” Powell says. “I think it’s because people like it and want it to be there and wouldn’t want to jeopardize it not being there. People just kind of respect that area where it is. Things can happen up and down the street, but they know that Dairy Queen needs to stay.”
The business which sits on a corner at 283 Main St. is now under the ownership of the third generation of the Champlin family. Tita Champlin says she and her husband, Ray, took ownership in 1984 from his parents, Maxine and Ted Champlin, who purchased it sometime in the 1960s. In 2009, Tita and Ray Champlin sold the business to Tita’s son, Michael Vincent and his wife, Dawn.
“I was never concerned about the location,” Tita Champlin says. “We could be down there working on the machines at 2 a.m. in the morning and not worry.
“At that time a lot of Post and Kellogg employees were still working and people kind of protected it. People showed that respect by continuing to come down there. All of the people who used to work at Post and Kellogg would walk or drive down there and get their lunch and walk or drive back.”
Although layoffs and downsizing have reduced workforces at both cereal makers, the Dairy Queen continues to have a robust and loyal customer base made up of retirees, new generations of families who have been patronizing it for years, and students who attend schools in the neighborhood.
As a young child growing up in Marshall, Champlin says she remembers her parents taking her and her siblings to a Dairy Queen there. “Being one of 11 kids, I will never forget driving to the Dairy Queen and each of us getting a cone,” she says. “It’s a family thing and people around here recognize that.”
Even before the weather turns to traditional ice cream weather, Powell says there are people lined up to get a signature shake, cone, or Blizzard. “People can’t wait for it to open,” she says. “It may be snowy and cold, but people are still lining up for it.”
Vincent opens for the season in February and closes in September. Champlin says customers often ask why the Dairy Queen doesn’t stay open until October.
“I used to tell them that it was the change in climate and once kids go back to school it’s very dead. It didn’t make sense to stay open for one or two customers,” she says. “When the weather is good you could drive by most anytime that it’s open and see lines filled with individuals and families.”
A family business begins
Before it was a Dairy Queen the building that houses it used to be a gas station. Maxine and Ted Champlin renovated it when they decided to become franchise owners.
About the time that they decided they wanted to retire from the business, Ray Champlin decided he wanted to buy it. He was a maintenance supervisor at Clark Equipment and Tita was working towards a nursing degree at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
“Ray wanted to buy it and he wanted me to manage it,” she says. “I went to Minneapolis for two or three weeks to train on the Dairy Queen machines and to learn their management style.”
The couple juggled the management of the Dairy Queen with the maintenance of rental properties, including one that used to be across the street from the business for storing supplies.
Vacations and time away were reserved for their off-season.
“A lot of that was Ray’s work ethic that this is our business and we have to be here. I was managing everything so it fell into my hands,” Tita Champlin says. “It’s a 24/7 job. I remember that we would have gatherings at our house and I’d get called down to the Dairy Queen because there was a machine that wasn’t working or someone didn’t come in to work a night shift.”
Despite these demands, she says she loved being around the kids and adults, many of whom were regulars.
“They liked it when you remembered them and what they usually ordered,” she says. “I remember telling my kids (that’s what I called my employees) to have a smile on your face and make the customers feel important because your smile may be the one good thing that happens in their day. I remember people who would come up to the window and they’d have a frown and a smile would turn their day around. Just that few minutes can make their day.”
Even though the Dairy Queen is part of a much larger organization, she says people in Battle Creek consider it a mom and pop business. Her son and his wife have maintained that local flavor.
“With his personality, he gets along with people and loves being there and that helps too and Dawn is so good with advertising,” Tita Champlin says. “The franchise fees go to the commercial that you see, but we’re a limited brazier meaning that it’s a walk-up window and not open year ‘round.
“Being a franchise you have to abide by their rules and regulations and food which is a good concept because it’s like when you walk into McDonald’s in Marshall or Battle Creek you want to see the same food items and have that consistency.”
The menu at the Dairy Queen expanded over the years to include non-ice cream items like hot dogs, barbeque sandwiches and nachos, but Champlin says it’s really all about the sweet stuff. She remembers how customers would laugh when she’d turn a Blizzard upside down just to prove how thick it was.
She says families used to come in and get a banana split or a peanut buster parfait and add the Blizzard for the sake of variety.
With the exception of a woman who managed the Dairy Queen with the Champlin’s before they sold it to their son, Tita Champlin says the majority of their employees were high-school age kids. She says it wasn’t until just before they sold the business and the city’s economy took a downturn that adults began applying.
Keeping employees was somewhat of a challenge for her and her husband because of negative perceptions people had of the neighborhood. Tita Champlin says parents didn’t want their kids working there at night.
These perceptions, she says, didn’t have much merit. “We had one break-in while we owned it,” Tita Champlin says.
Powell, who retired in 2018 from Neighborhoods Inc., agrees with Champlin's assessment. Powell says the negative is always spotlighted, but the average, everyday goings on in the neighborhood aren’t.
“I don’t fear for my safety,” she says.
What the Future Holds
Tita Champlin says she’d like to see the Dairy Queen stay in the family and be managed by the next generation, but she says that decision is her son’s to make.
Her husband has two daughters from a previous marriage who have followed different paths and their children also are pursuing other careers.
“Nobody has ever expressed any interest in it. I don’t know if Michael wants to put in 25 years and call it quits, too,” Tita Champlin says. “It would be nice to keep it in the family, but I feel like it should be what Michael wants to do. If he decided to sell, I would encourage one of the grandkids to take it over because it’s been in the family for so long.” (Michael Vincent was out of the country and could not be reached before deadline for this story.)
For now, she says she hopes it continues to be a happy place where good memories can continue to be made.
“There’s something that happens with people when they hear the words ‘Dairy Queen’” Tita Champlin says. “I want them to remember that that corner is a Dairy Queen.”
Photos by John Grap of John Grap Photography. His work is featured here.