The Elm Road Dairy Monarchs | News, Sports, Jobs
WARREN – The Niemi family have been selling Dairy Queen soft serve for seven decades from the Elm Road store, and the family matriarch said she started her experience with dairy products at a young age.
“I was 5 years old and living on a farm in Hartford when I started milking cows,” said Ilene Niemi.
Ilene Niemi was a Spanish and English teacher at the old Bazetta High School when she met her future husband, Edwin.
“I saw him in front of the school when he was coming home from work”, Ilene said as she recalled the ice cream business at the Elm Road store last week.
Edwin Niemi was over 25 when he met Ilene. He has worked in various jobs before and graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy with an engineering degree. Ilene said she “married to” company when she and Edwin married in July 1953.
“It was a big part of our lives” she says.
The 95-year-old is now retired to a care home in Cortland, but the business is celebrating its 70th anniversary with his son Anthony Niemi at the helm.
Anthony Niemi has explained how the business of selling soft serve cones topped with the signature DQ curl started on Elm Road in 1952.
“My father and his brother had an uncle who ran a Dairy Queen in Toledo. The uncle wanted to start selling popcorn there, and he said, “Damn it,” and sold his two ice cream makers to his nephews. My uncle rode in his big truck to transport these big machines to Warren.
Anthony took over the business in 1998 from his father, who died in 2021. He said he had been in the printing business and was looking for a change. He said that like his parents, who shared the duties in the business, he did the same with his late wife, Kathleen.
“It’s always been a family thing here” Anthony said, pointing out that the secret to the family’s success may be that the store has had just four managers in seven decades of business.
The first three managers were Opal Rowlands, Sarah Pope and Gisela Hipkins. Hipkins’ daughter, Cindy Sumner, is now manager. Leslie Obradovich was also a longtime cake decorator.
“The business is getting complicated with all the new technologies. We will have new cash registers,” said Anthony.
The current store manager said she was lucky to have good workers, many of whom are high school and college students working their first jobs.
“We have a lot of workers who come back every summer, but you’d be surprised how many jobs they say they’ve never done before. They learn to work here. I am like their mother, I ask them to do a good job,” said Sumner. Each summer, she says, the number of jobs increases to about 20 workers and drops again at the end of the summer.
“We have to reduce the hours, now that school is back”, said Sumner.
Anthony Niemi said he often hears from former employees.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come back and say they appreciate what we’ve taught them about the job. I’ve had people tell me that I taught them how to work, and they appreciate it. Many have succeeded in their careers and in their lives,” he said.
Ilene Niemi said she’s met a lot of people over the years, but couldn’t name a favorite client.
“We have been such a big part of the community over the years. I loved every moment.” said Ilene Niemi.
Dairy Queen was a national chain of ice cream shops when the Elm Road store opened in 1952, she said. About 12 years earlier, the first Dairy Queen store was established in Joliet, Illinois.
Ilene Niemi still refers to the main product as Dairy Queen instead of ice cream.
When it opened, the store offered a simple menu with just vanilla soft serve and lots of toppings that came in large frozen tins.
“There were strawberries, pineapple and, of course, chocolate and fudge. We had a lot of toppings,” she says.
Anthony remembers the menu later expanded with Dilly Bars, banana splits and peanut parfait, which was invented in Akron, he said.
Ilene Niemi recalls brothers Edwin and Arnie Niemi obtaining the current ownership of Elm Road in a land deal.
“We had owned the land which is now the square (Elm Road), and we exchanged it for this”, she says.
Anthony Niemi said he started working at the store when he was 15.
“I remember that my mother kept the books and my father worked on the machines”, she says.
Anthony said he was not planning any special 70th birthday celebrations. But “On September 10, we will be selling special sundaes at 70 cents each,” he said.
At the end of the 1975 season, the original Dairy Queen building was demolished and a new one built. An atrium has been added to the front so people can wait inside for their orders. An outdoor picnic area at the rear and side of the business has also been added. The new building opened in the spring of 1976.
“We really appreciate all the years we have been here, the community support we have received and the opportunity to continue,” said Anthony. “It’s just a way of saying thank you and showing that we really appreciate the people who have worked for us and been our customers over the years.”