Nashville DQ Celebrates 40 Years Of Food, Family
By Alex Haglund
Nashville Dairy Queen had a landmark 40th anniversary on July 1, and during that time of change, one thing stayed the same at DQ– it’s a family venture.
Sure, it’s a family venture for the Caplingers, with father Ray and late mother Mary Kay initially leasing the restaurant in 1976, and brother and sister Mike and Melanie who own and operate it today.
It isn’t just about the owners though, it’s also about 40 years of people from the the area who have worked at the Nashville Dairy Queen.
“We’ve had employees that have been there for eight or nine years or more,” said Ray Caplinger, “over the 40 years, we now have the children of the children that started in 1976 working for us.”
The story starts out with Ray moving to Hoyleton in 1974 from Belleville. He had been with Burger Chef for eight years, and they had a store in Centralia that Ray would manage. Later on, he was managing Timbers in Nashville.
Nashville Dairy Queen opened in January of 1976, owned by Allan Holzhauer, Dr. Thomas Coy and R.J. Hagist. By June of that year, they were out a manager. Holzhauer approached Caplinger and asked if he would run DQ for him until they could find a manger, “which didn’t happen,” Caplinger said.
Ray and Mary Kay leased the restaurant on July 1 and bought it formally in February of 1977.
Mary Kay was responsible for the DQ for much of that time. “She had more control of the store than I did,” said Ray. He still ran Timbers for a while and she took care of much of the day-to-day operation of the DQ.
They ran the DQ through June of 2004, when Mary Kay got cancer. She passed in November of 2005 while Melanie had taken over management of the location in January of 2005. Mike retired from his career as a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps in February of 2007 and he and Melanie took over ownership then.
“My kids worked in the Dairy Queen, and they started when they were about 13 or 14 years old,” Ray said. Shelly is the oldest, then Mike, David, Lori, then Melanie. All of them worked through high school, but Lori, “when she got out of high school, she had enough of DQ,” said Ray. She’s now an accountant. Shelly and David have owned and operated the Carlyle Dairy Queen for the last 20 years.
As for the other family, the employees, Ray has a lot of stories too. “We treat them fair and they’ll be fair to you.”
“We’ve only had two employees that we’ve had problems with,” said Caplinger. These two were the only employees Ray said Mary Kay ever fired: one girl who got into a fight in the store over boy trouble with another girl, and one guy who squirted the parking lot flood lights with a hose (which cause them to blow up).
“That’s a pretty good record, two in 30 years (Mary Kay’s time there),” said Ray.
“We’ve had families, brothers and sisters that all worked there at the same time,” said Ray. “It kept life interesting, when you had brothers and sisters there.”
Ray remembers a lot of the names of the people that have worked there. He mentions that three of the four Paszkiewicz sisters worked there at the same time, so did Mike and Judy Varnum, and Tina and Gina Caldwell (along with many others he didn’t immediately recall the name of).
It’s not just siblings either. Sue Askew worked at DQ for eight years, and during that time, so did her daughter Randie.
Some employees joined the Marine Corps after working with Mike. “We had five boys from Nashville Community High School that all worked at DQ, all of whom were stationed at the same base in California (Miramar– San Diego),” Ray said.
As far as the offerings at Nashville Dairy Queen, Ray said that they have always had both food and ice cream at both the Nashville and Carlyle locations.
“We’re the only DQ in the country that sells tacos,” Ray says, “at least until you get to Texas and Arizona.”
“The vice-president of DQ, Gil Stemmerman visited Nashville,” Ray said, and his wife sent the VP to Timbers for lunch, which Ray was still managing. “When he tasted our Mexican food, he told me, ‘you ought to put tacos in at Dairy Queen,’ because it tasted so good.”
Nashville DQ had to report back on their taco sales for two years, and they had to be at least two-percent of their sales. “They’ve been there ever since.”
Warren Buffett sold off his stock in McDonald’s and in 1998, purchased the DQ system.
“The first two or three years,” Caplinger says, “he had a lot of ideas the franchisees didn’t care for, but he didn’t get to be as successful as he is by being a dummy.”
That change put tacos off the menu, because they aren’t an approved item, but they are still available, even if they aren’t listed, because they were grandfathered in.
Other menu items weren’t so lucky though. Pork fritter sandwiches were discontinued. Despite being very popular in this area, they just didn’t make the cut nationally.
“We had a chili dog split,” Ray continues, “they took it out and replaced it with footlongs and now they’re gone.”
Overall though, Ray speaks very positively about the changes that came from Buffet’s ownership. “when he came out with ‘Grill and Chill,’ there was a lot of dissent from among franchisees,” Ray said. “Once they saw the results, now they’re standing in line to do the Grill and Chill, not put it off.”
Caplinger says he likes all of the food DQ says, but says his son and daughter “make me keep the grass cut out in front in order to eat, since I don’t work there now.”
There are a lot of new sandwiches in the new menu expansion too. “They’re good, and we sell the dickens out of them,” Ray remarks.
In the end though, it’s not just Ray, his family, or even the extended family of employees that make this all possible. It’s the customers that keep coming back to Nashville Dairy Queen.
“In a small town of 3,300 people,” Ray says, “this store is in the top ten of 113 stores in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area.”
“Dairy Queen has raised my entire family,” Ray smiles, “It’s been a good business.”