Texans have a unique relationship with Dairy Queen (DQ). For a true Texan, stepping into a DQ outside the state can be a disorienting experience. While the Maryland or Missouri branches happily serve Blizzards and Dilly Bars, something crucial is missing. Where are the steak-finger country baskets, the mouthwatering Dude chicken-fried-steak sandwich, and the beloved burgers from the Buster family? And why aren’t the walls adorned with posters proudly proclaiming, “That’s what I like about Texas,” a catchy jingle that resonates more with young Texans than their official state song? (Just for reference, it’s “Texas, Our Texas,” kids.)
These staples are so ingrained in the Texas DQ culture that going across the border into Arkansas and visiting the DQ on Magnolia’s Main Street, only to find chicken fingers but no steak, would be a jarring experience. The bland tagline “Happy Tastes Good” doesn’t quite capture the essence of a Texan DQ visit.
Surprisingly, many of these favorite Texan foods didn’t even exist until fifty years ago. The Hungr-Buster made its debut in 1974, while the country basket was trademarked two years later. As for the iconic jingle, it only hit the airwaves in 2002 as part of an incredibly successful advertising campaign.
However, there is one institution that has been around since 1973 – the Texas Dairy Queen Operators Council (TDQOC). This co-op of Texas franchise owners played a vital role in shaping the Texas identity within Dairy Queen. In fact, Larry McMurtry, a famous Texan author, found the chain so significant that he titled one of his memoirs after it.
The TDQOC’s origins date back to 1947 when Rolly Klose opened Texas’s first Dairy Queen franchise in Austin. The Illinois-based founders of Dairy Queen had sold Klose the rights to the entire Texas territory, paving the way for him to sell franchises almost anywhere. Klose had a laid-back approach to running his business, often lending money to aspiring restaurateurs and scribbling contracts on napkins. Jennifer Bowen, a DQ operator, reminisces about her late husband purchasing his first franchise in Falfurrias in the early seventies, straight from Klose, who was sometimes seen doing business in his pajamas in the garage. Klose, always busy, managed to outpace every other state, making Texas the home of the most Dairy Queens by 1973.
With Klose’s hands-off approach, franchisees felt empowered to update their menus freely. While other Dairy Queens across the country focused mainly on desserts, Texas owners began selling burgers and other savory delights as early as the fifties. After all, they had to compete with the rapidly growing Corpus Christi-based chain, Whataburger. The Dobson family, who controlled Whataburger, provided advantages of scale to their franchisees, ensuring customers knew exactly what to expect when they walked into a Whataburger. To bring that consistency to Texas’s numerous DQs, franchise owners established the TDQOC, standardizing menus and pooling advertising funds to create Texas-specific campaigns. This approach mirrors how Chevrolet and Ford create truck commercials tailored specifically for the Texas market.
It is worth noting that the TDQOC’s greatest accomplishment is its continued existence. In 1980, Rolly Klose sold his Texas territory rights back to DQ, and the corporate headquarters in Minneapolis attempted to dictate menu items and advertising budgets to the Texans. Texans, being Texans, did not take kindly to this interference and filed a lawsuit in 1991, alleging fraud and misrepresentation. The dispute was settled in 1992, resulting in a peaceful coexistence. DQ made changes to royalty contracts over the years, but they had to accept the use of Texas Dairy Queen products and allow Texas to manage its own advertising—unless they managed to convince the majority of Texas operators to switch to their system, an unlikely scenario due to the operators’ fierce independence.
Despite this victory for Texas exceptionalism, Dairy Queen no longer has the same presence it once did in the Lone Star State. In 1980, DQ boasted an impressive 1,008 locations in Texas. Today, that number has dwindled to fewer than 600, partly due to the bankruptcy declaration of a Dallas investment firm that had purchased numerous Texas DQs. Many small towns, where a Dairy Queen used to be the main gathering place, now find themselves without one, leaving a significant void in rural communities.
However, the Texas DQ menu has only improved over the years. Now, offerings include fried jalapeños, pepper jack cheese-infused steak fingers, and occasional servings of guacamole. But fear not, beloved classics like the Hungr-Buster, the country basket, and the Dude are still readily available, accompanied by the timeless jingle that has become a part of Texan culture. In fact, in 2022, the jingle received an update from Lubbock-born country star Josh Abbott. Much has changed, but Dairy Queen remains a cherished aspect of what we love about Texas.
To learn more about Dairy Queen’s impact on Texan culture, check out 5 WS.
(This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly under the title “DQ, Our DQ.” Subscribe today.)