Point/Counterpoint: On Dairy Queen Coming to Manhattan
News broke last week that Dairy Queen will be opening in Union Square later this month (its first New York City location outside of Staten Island), and once the Serious Eats office heard, well, let's say things got heated. After words were exchanged and tongues were stuck out, native Midwesterner Jamie Feldmar and native New Yorker Max Falkowitz retreated to their desks to write out their debate in more civilized terms. Their arguments are reprinted below, starting with pro-Dairy Queen Jamie.
Let me start this thing off by explaining that I'm a cranky old man. I read books instead of tablets, drink rye on the rocks and fall asleep, and own a cardigan collection that rivals Mr. Rodgers'. I'm not exactly the type to revel in the chain-ification of a city as fabled as New York—I shook my fist at the 7-11 on Bowery, bemoaned the I-Hop on 14th Street, and refuse to visit the Steak 'n Shake in Midtown. What drew me to New York years ago was the city's staunch independence from markers of suburban mediocrity, its dynamism, and its proud, profound weirdness.
And yet...there is always an exception, and for me, that exception is Dairy Queen. I will put things bluntly: I fucking love Dairy Queen. Always have, always will. And when I heard that DQ just signed a lease on a new space near Union Square, I squealed—as much as a cranky old man can squeal—with unfettered delight.
I freely admit that part of my love for Dairy Queen is nostalgic (and in this way, perhaps Max and I aren't so different—we're both caught in the honeytrap of wishing for the good old days); I grew up eating it in Chicago, where I developed a "secret code" with my dad for sneaking out from under my mother's health-conscious eye for a Blizzard: "Q me." The DQ of my youth was a standalone building with a sloping red roof and a retro aesthetic, with walls covered in vintage-looking ice cream menus. But Dairy Queen isn't just a Midwestern thing, though it was founded in Joliet, Illinois. I've been Q'd at DQ's all over the country, most memorably at the base of a long, winding road through Arizona canyonland. Dairy Queen, regardless of your personal feelings toward it, is an iconic part of the American landscape.
Any true DQ fan knows that Blizzards are the chain's calling card. Max suggested that a Blizzard is interchangeable with a McFlurry, a suggestion that cut me to the core. Blizzards are a totally unique, distinct invention of DQ, and their flavor and texture cannot be mimicked. A few years ago, our own lovely Bravetart wrote of the Blizzard, describing its poetic taste as "cold, creamy whiteness...frosty simplicity. The way we, as children, imagined snow might taste in Candyland." I'd say that's about right, and anyone who thinks you can achieve even a fraction of the transcendental joy of licking a Blizzard off a cherry-red plastic spoon with a goddamn McFlurry...not only is that person misguided, but perhaps that person has never experienced joy.
Some (cough) might take issue with the fact that a giant corporate chain is snapping up valuable real estate in what was once a vibrant hub of city life. Part of what makes New York New York is that the city is constantly evolving, and this, too, is part of that growth. There are hundreds of independent food businesses thriving across the city (like these ones in Union Square); and Dairy Queen is not displacing them—if anything, it's merely a cheap addition to a rich edible landscape.
I will admit that DQ's turn in recent years toward offering a broader menu of savory items like chicken fingers and hamburgers has left me unenthused. As far as I'm concerned, the chain should stick to the classics: Blizzards and soft serve. And I'm under no illusions that Dairy Queen uses anything close to real dairy in their sugar-and-chemical-laden confections. I don't care. If you want fancy soft serve, go to Momofuku Milk Bar. And sure, I love a Mr. Frosty on a hot summer day, but Mr. Frosty does not have Blizzards, and it does not trawl the streets with their seductive chimes in the off-season. My argument may be emotional, and possibly even irrational, but that's what some food does to you: it makes you a little crazy.
So to anyone who opposes the new NYCDQ, I have only two words: Q you.
God Stave the Queen
Growing up in this city and spending most of my life here, I've never eaten at a Dairy Queen. I have nothing against it, and I'd be happy to get some on my next trip out of town. But I sure as hell don't want it here.
If New York has any reason to call itself great, it's because it's a city of particulars. Delivery Indian burritos at 2 a.m.? You got it. Trucks that roam our streets with grizzled men dispensing swirly cones of chemical-flavored soft serve? Sure thing. Your favorite homeless person in the park who always has a kind word to say on your walk to work? New York's here for them all.
But such things, to say nothing of killer pizza and bagels and people who know that you wait on line at Katz's or Shake Shack, come at a price. It means New York is lacking in amenities the rest of the country takes for granted, like porches and parking spaces and people that say "excuse me." That's just fine with me, because there's a price for everything. Living in New York, in all its terrible beauty, should command a high one.
Is the price worth it? Well for me, my deep pride in this city comes in large part from our local industry that defies the need or desire for whitewashed, cookie-cutter businesses. Local doesn't mean better, but it does mean independent, a statement of sorts: "we can make it on our own."
Whenever we get a new national chain, we become a bit more like everyone else, and New York's funky uniqueness gets diminished just a little more. It's one thing when famed restaurants from other cities open up here, or immigrants set up culinary and commercial enclaves in one or another neighborhood. When someone else's local becomes New York's local, the city's diversity is enriched all the more. But a national empire like DQ isn't anyone's home—it's an invasive species that replicates itself without end and without any care for its host population. Not to sound apocalyptic about it, but what's the next chain that'll learn by example that New York is a market to be reaped and sown?
It'd be incorrect to draw causal lines between the growth of national chains and the shuttering of New York businesses, and I'm not going to say Starbucks killed local coffee shops, but its aggressive expansionist tactics certainly helped. 7-11's citywide colonization hasn't closed all convenience stores, but every drunk purchase of chips at 3 a.m. at one of them is a lost opportunity for the owner of some bodega cat. 14th Street wasn't pretty before, but IHOP made it a whole lot uglier. And it's a cruel joke that neighborhood institutions keep dying off to become fertile soil for more banks.
The problem isn't only national chains out-competing local business. It's their very presence blanketing us in a sameness that makes New York less and less special. The city is a big place, and it can take hits from national chains while retaining its local character, but every such incursion contributes to drowning out some of what makes New York New York.
So if you want your low-quality-but-awesome soft serve, hit up any Mr. Softee truck in the summer (or Big Gay Ice Cream year-round for actually good soft serve). If you need a Blizzard, a Shake Shack Concrete or your corner diner's milkshake can satisfy a similar need. Are they exactly the same as DQ's proprietary concoction? Of course not, but they're ours, delicious in their own ways. We should take some pride in them.
Dairy Queen's Union Square debut doesn't spell the death of local culture, especially in a city that's always changing and a neighborhood that's already stuffed to the gills with chains. And hey, even I'm grateful for conveniences like Starbucks providing a tax-free municipal public bathroom service for our city. But there comes a point when the weeds of bland national corporations begin to choke out our town crops. Dairy Queen may look unassuming, but once we let it in, there's no going back.
How do you feel about Dairy Queen coming to Union Square? Sound off in the comments.