Dairy Queen is one of those rare companies that is remembered fondly in memories of summer.

Many Americans, especially those from small towns, can easily recollect many a summer afternoon or post-Little League party enjoying the longtime chain’s trademark treats such as Blizzards, Dilly Bars and sundaes. However, before you have dessert, you still need to have a meal.

And that is the other area in which Dairy Queen, also known as DQ, has worked to remind people, while also keeping its rule over frozen treats.

DQ has served center-of-the-plate proteins such as hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken for five decades. In fact, this year marks the company's 50th year with protein products.

Taking a bite

Lane Schmiesing, DQ’s vice president of brand marketing-food, says that the chain began with an operator down in Georgia in the late 1950s. Back then, the company had territory operators, not franchisees.

“You started with the rights to sell the DQ product in a geographic area,” Schmiesing says. “In the beginning, it wasn’t really a franchise.”

The operators would buy the mix for the soft-serve ice cream and the rights to the name, but beyond that they were often independent. And very few of them were year-round operations largely because people rarely wanted to have ice cream in the middle of January.

Jim Cruikshank, that first operator from Georgia, was first to add protein items to the menu. The offerings were basic — hamburgers and hot dogs — but these items marked the beginning of DQ’s journey into serving full meals.

As time went on, Schmiesing says, territory operators took note of McDonald’s and Burger King popping up along the nation’s highways and began adding to their menus as well. By the late 1960s, the operators came together and decided if they were going to succeed, they would need to streamline how things operated and standardize menus that were as wide ranging as the communities they served. This is also when American Dairy Queen came into being and started the formal franchising of locations across the country.

The menu that was chosen was the “brazier” menu that Cruikshank had developed in Georgia. “The name came about after he decided the charcoal broiler was the way he wanted to prepare his burger line,” says Schmiesing. “He was walking down the street in New York City, looked into a diner where he saw a flame up. He thought it gave so much excitement and energy, he worked with an ad agency to come up with brazier.”

There were a couple of other menus, the Queen’s Kitchen and Sizzling Kitchen, but those never gained the popularity of the Brazier brand. Those first Brazier products were basic, like Cruikshank’s menu. Customers of Brazier locations had a choice of hamburgers, fries, barbecue beef and onion rings.

The chain, whose parent company is now Minneapolis-based International Dairy Queen Inc. (IDQ), is celebrating its 50th year of serving meals (40 of them companywide), by rolling out a new version of its full-menu restaurants.

“Our whole focus is on ‘Grill & Chill,'" says Schmiesing. Any other celebrations the company is doing for the anniversary are purely internal. And there is a lot to look at with the new version of DQ.

“The fully evolved version of Brazier isn’t that different from Grill & Chill,” Schmiesing says. The biggest differences are menu items such as quesadillas and iron-grilled sandwiches. The menu items that are available nowadays with both Brazier and Grill & Chill include the still-popular hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken strips and chicken sandwiches, both grilled and deep-fried.

One of the biggest drivers for the new concept was actually some confusion over the original brand name. Dean Peters, director of communications for International Dairy Queen, says that many consumers have been unfamiliar with the term “brazier,” which is French for charbroiled. The new term, Grill & Chill, is better at highlighting the fact that more than two-thirds of all DQ locations in the United States have full menus.

Not just small-town

DQ’s presence in small towns has been a hallmark from the beginning. The very first location in 1938 was in the then-small town of Joliet, Ill., selling the now-famous soft-serve ice cream. The Brazier concept itself was developed in small Southern towns. And that presence in small-town America has been one of the things that has kept the chain in the top 20 nationally. Not to mention the food itself, which, according to Peters, “Once people try our hamburgers, they love ‘em.”

That small-town focus has set DQ apart from other chains. Many of the larger chains for years targeted larger towns and cities rather than the more rural areas. As the quick-service restaurant (QSR) segment has gotten more crowded and more competitive, chains such as McDonald’s have moved into smaller markets. That has lead DQ to adapt yet again. Grill & Chill is one of those adaptations.

“We’re telling the consumer that we not only have the world-class treats, we also have food,” says Schmiesing. He compares the menu options to fast-casual restaurants more than the typical QSR. The company has also changed its building design, working to create a comfortable and inviting restaurant that has energy beyond what is typically expected of “small town.”

DQ is also doing some expansion of its own. Schmiesing says the company doesn’t have that strong a presence in suburban and urban areas. However, that also means those areas are available for expansion that won't cannibalize business from the company's existing locations.

“We have the growth opportunity to go into the more urban and suburban locations,” he says. “And having a competitive food menu and perception allows us to compete effectively.”

The small-town reputation does guide DQ's marketing, but only to a point. Schmiesing explains that the marketing department likes to draw on the nostalgia of the brand, but in a way that keeps the brand timeless and classic.

“If you meet people on the street, they have something very visceral about the company,” he says. “We always remember the good, and the bad slips away. Our whole marketing focus is to create smiles and stories.”

Some of those efforts have shown how those stories can carry. One particular commercial has made the rounds on video-sharing Web sites such as YouTube. In this particular commercial, a man is introducing his friends to DQ’s Flamethrower chicken sandwich. When those friends realize the sandwich is so hot that flames shoot out, very funny chaos ensues. Such commercials, which have won the company awards, are typical of what the company aims for.

“The fun nature of DQ gives us a little bit of license,” Schmiesing explains. “The irreverence is a characteristic of the brand. We think the consumers’ fond memories give us license to do so.”

Corporate culture

Such an attitude marks the company as a whole. The parent corporation does give a lot of guidance, mostly in the company’s strategic vision and managing the look and feel of the brand. Plus, IDQ also provides all the resources to make the system run smoothly including support, infrastructure, research & development and purchasing.

DQ is still marked by the entrepreneurship that has been a trademark since the first hamburger went on the grill.

“It was the entrepreneurial spirit that drove it,” says Schmiesing. “The franchisees still have a role in the development of the system. Items are tested in DQ locations before rollout.”

The system was developed in that meeting that established the brazier concept. Until that meeting, there had been no umbrella company handling the national advertising or menu standards. There were simply a lot of businesspeople who had seen an opportunity with the brand and bought the rights to sell DQ for a particular area.

“The corporation was formed when a bunch of operators got together to take advantage of synergy and economies of scale,” says Schmiesing. The synergy has been a success. According to Technomic, DQ ranks in the top 20 of QSRs and the top five for hamburger chains.

With all that success, the company remains focused on the food and treats that have given DQ a solid reputation in the Heartland, while having some fun with it too.

“The one thing I’d like to stress is that we are really working on becoming a serious player without walking away from what brought us to the dance,” Schmiesing says. “Marrying those two, we offer something that nobody else can do.”

A time line of DQ's Success

1940:FirstDairy Queen store opens in Joliet, Ill.
1949:DQ introduces malts and shakes.
1951:Banana Splits appear on the menu.
1953:First DQ store opens in Canada.
1955:The Dilly® Bar debuts.
1957:The Dairy Queen/Brazier® concept is introduced.
1958:The Dairy Queen/ Brazier food products are introduced.
1961:TheMr. Misty slush treat cools throats in the warm South.
1962:InternationalDairy Queen Inc. (IDQ)is formed.
1965:First national radio advertising sends DQ message169 million times a week.
1966:First national TV commercial is aired, “Live a Little.”1968:TheBuster Bar® bursts forth.
1968:Hot Fudge Brownie Delight™ debuts.
1972:First DQ store opens in Japan and Dennis the Menace becomes the spokes character for DQ.
1973:Say the word Scrumpdillyishhus! and get a Peanut Buster Parfait for 49 cents.
1979:The DQ system debuts in theMiddle East.
1980:“We Treat You Right” theme line is debuted.
1980:“We Treat You Right” theme line is debuted.
1985:More than 175 million Blizzard Flavor Treats sold in its first year.
1989:Dairy Queen ranked America’s No.1 treat chain.
1991:First DQ store opens in Mexico.
1995:DQ Treatzza Pizza™ and the Chicken Strip Basket make their debut.
1998:Chocolate Rock® Treat is introduced system wide.
1999:Pecan Mudslide® Treat is introduced.
1999:An operator of several DQ locations in Massachusetts builds the world’s largest blended treat weighing in at 5,316.6 pounds.
2000:The S’more Galore™ Parfait makes its debut.
2001:Crispy Chicken Salad is introduced.
2001:The first DQ Grill & Chill® restaurant opens in Chattanooga, Tenn.
2002:Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, becomes manager for the day of a DQ location in Texas.
2003:The Blizzard of the Month Program kicks off.
2004:Award-winning Dairy Queen commercials can be seen throughout the country in the system’s first full year of national advertising.
2004:The MooLatte® Beverage line debuts in Mocha, Vanilla and Caramel flavors.
2005:GrillBurgers™ were introduced to consumers on national TV.
2005:The record is broken on June 21, when a new World’s Largest Blizzard Treat was built in Springfield, Mass. It weighed 8,224.85 pounds and was 22 feet tall.