The summer between my junior and senior year of high school was spent working at the Methodist camp and lamenting to my friends about how much it sucked. My friend Meagan worked at the local ice cream shop: The Dairy Mart. Since I had two whole summers of experience at Twisters, Meagan offered to put in a good word for me.
There were definite benefits to a job at the Dairy Mart: first and foremost, it meant a cut in my availability, therefore less time I could spend working at the Methodist Camp. Second, I could work with Meagan, which would be completely awesome. Third, the Dairy Mart stayed open into October, giving me a source of income for an extra couple of months. And finally: tips, baby!
So Meagan told Julie – the owner of the Dairy Mart and, as it turns out, one of the best bosses I’ve ever had – about me and my previous ice cream experience, and I was hired without Julie ever having laid eyes on me. She called me up, told me I had the job, and gave me my first shift. That, my friends, is the beauty of a small town.
The Dairy Mart was a small building on the edge of town. It was covered in cow spots, and the inside sported a checkered floor and orange benches. There were cow figurines all over the place, and there was even a cow statue outside (that people – big and small – loved to ride).
I began my job in the middle of August, and the Dairy Mart was ALWAYS busy. Summer and ice cream go hand-in-hand, after all. I fit right into my new job (turns out that making ice cream cones is just like riding a bike: you never forget) and had a great time. I learned of all things Dairy Mart: I had their daily specials memorized in no time, and I learned to get there early so I wouldn’t get stuck with one of the crappy black polos (our uniforms were black polos that we changed into when we got to work, and some of them were pretty bad… hence getting there early for a good polo).
Summer was a lot of fun: the days flew by because they were so busy, and the customers were always cheerful since they had spent the day by the pool and were now treating themselves to ice cream. Though working during the summer at the Dairy Mart was great, I must say that working there during the fall was even better. My friend Meagan and I worked the closing shift together at least a couple of times per week because we were the only employees who were willing to work on nights when there were football games. Those nights were fairly slow (everyone was at the football game, of course), so Meagan and I had the run of the place. We would change the radio station to classic rock (otherwise, it was set to country all day – SHIVER), call in a few requests (we had more than one DJ dedicate a song to “the gals at the Dairy Mart”), and do our homework until the odd customer would wander in.
Speaking of odd customers, like every place of business, we had a handful of peculiar patrons. Fred would come in every single day in his teal and white pickup, and we always flipped a coin over who had to wait on him. Fred was crabby, and a terrible tipper. We Dairy Mart waitresses started competing over who could get the best tip out of Fred… no one topped 5%. Fred would always come in for lunch and get the same thing: a Mr Rib with half-cooked fries. If he was feeling really crazy, Fred would come back later in the afternoon for a sundae.
Our other odd regular was named Bruce. He didn’t come in as often as Fred, but once he was there, you knew he wasn’t going anywhere. Bruce would choose a table at the very back and really settle in. He brought a backpack everywhere he went, and he’d unload its contents on the table. There would be a toothbrush, some VHS tapes… you never knew what Bruce would pull out of his bag. Mostly, though, it would be piles and piles of scribbly paper. Bruce would take handfuls of napkins and proceed to write notes all over them until he decided it was time to leave. Bruce rarely ordered anything, but when he did, he paid in a mountain of coins.
By and large, the customers of the Dairy Mart were a pleasant bunch. They lived for the weekly specials and the sherbet flavors. The Dairy Mart made its own sherbet in all sorts of flavors, but the absolute best were the strawberry or raspberry cheesecake sherbet weeks. Those were the weeks I spent my tip money on pints of sherbet.
The Dairy Mart had the sherbet machine, plus the old classics vanilla and chocolate. However, there was another ice cream contraption at the Dairy Mart. It looked like a little control panel that attached to the vanilla ice cream side. It was called Flavor Burst, and it was super weird.
There were ten or so flavors you could
choose from, and you would punch the corresponding number before you made the
cone. The Flavor Burst machine would swirl some kind of super-bright flavoring
syrup along the outside of the vanilla ice cream, and that was that. It was a
huge pain in the butt, mostly because the flavors were either leaking or not
working at all. The flavors were things like watermelon, bubble gum, and mocha.
I was never brave enough to try any of the Flavor Burst flavors, save for green
apple: I mixed it up with some caramel and had a caramel apple shake. YUM.
(This was only one of many ice cream experiments I concocted while I worked
there, but one of the very few in which I used vanilla ice cream – the others
being the blueberry and black raspberry shakes. The rest of the time, it’s
chocolate or nothing.)
We Dairy Mart employees were lucky enough to get a four dollar food allowance for each shift we worked at the Dairy Mart. Four dollars may not sound like a lot to you, but food at the Dairy Mart wasn’t expensive. Your four dollars could get you a long way. I tended to go for the footlong, small fries, and small Coke… if memory serves me correctly, that rang in at about $3.75. Another favorite was called the senior chicken strip basket: there were two chicken strips instead of four (as in the regular basket), and it was cheaper. The weekly specials were usually under four dollars, so there were plenty of choices.
During my first year there, the Dairy Mart closed for the season on Halloween. Meagan and I worked the night before Halloween, and we got the go-ahead to ditch our black polos and wear a costume to work. I think I’ve said this before, but you can tell a lot about your workplace by the way they treat Halloween.
I went back to
work at the Dairy Mart during the summer after my freshman year, but that would
be my last Dairy Mart summer. The owners of the local grocery store purchased
the Dairy Mart that fall: not that they wanted the Dairy Mart. They wanted the
land upon which the Dairy Mart sat. In their contract was a clause stating that
the Dairy Mart must be kept open for two years after the purchase date. The new
owners tore the original Dairy Mart down, built a new one that attached to
their new grocery store, and kept it open for exactly two years. Sadly, the
Dairy Mart is now a hardware store.
|Meagan worked on Halloween day,|
so she got to don the cow suit.
I don’t spend much time in Arlington anymore, but whenever I’m there in the summer, I really miss the Dairy Mart. As soon as the Dairy Mart opened up for the summer (usually in time for my April birthday – score!), we’d all truck over there for the first ice cream cone of the season. My friend Tiffany and I celebrated the completion of our ACTs with Dairy Mart sherbet. I spent countless hours (on and off the clock) with my friends there… writing a horror movie script with Bob, studying for advanced biology with half the class, introducing Hipster Boyfriend to the Dairy Mart that I loved so dearly (predictably, he was unimpressed). And I have to say, not everyone is lucky enough to have a good boss, especially in high school. Julie was fine with us doing our homework when the going was slow, and not everybody provides a meal for their employees. Her husband even helped me break into my car when I locked my keys inside. Not everybody will do that for a lowly soda jerk.
I haven’t worked in food service since college (a coffee shop in Morris – another story for later!), and it’s just as well. Food service jobs kind of make me fat. As I’m writing this, I can’t stop thinking about Dairy Mart sherbet and cheese curds and footlongs. There are definitely some things about food service that I won’t miss (the horrible grease smell comes immediately to mind), but I do miss it a little. Though my food service days ended in Morris, my post-college jobs have all been in customer service… and let me tell you, non food-service customer service is a totally different ball game. On the whole, the Dairy Mart customers were easy to please. After all, if someone set a hot fudge sundae in front of you, how could you NOT be friendly?