With 50 years and four generations at local Dairy Queen, family is ...
By Burton Speakman
After 50 years in business on Belmont Avenue, mother- and-daughter team Eileen Roth Spiesak and Susie Birkholtz remember how to make every product Dairy Queen has offered.
People still come in and ask for a chocolate soda, however. The item has not been on the menu for 40 years, but there are still instructions in the front of the store on how to make one, Birkholtz said.
“No matter what they ask for, we know what they’re talking about,” Spiesak said.
The store at 2155 Belmont Ave. doesn’t fit the typical Dairy Queen model. There is no inside seating; in fact there is no inside at all; orders have to be made outside.
The store is also open only seasonally from Feb. 1 of each year until the second Sunday in October.
“There are only five Dairy Queens in the United States that have the old contracts like we have,” said Birkholtz.
The little store across from the North Side pool has always had a loyal stream of clients.
“Where ever they go, they always come here when they come back,” Birkholtz said.
“Nearly everybody who lives in this area has had a sister, brother, niece or nephew that has worked here,” said Bill Gratz, Birkholtz’s son, who began working at the store when he was 9.
Gratz has moved on, now working as a diesel mechanic, but he still comes back from time to time to help.
“There are older people who ask all the time, ‘When is the boy coming back?’” Birkholtz said.
Bill Gratz’s daughter Sylvie, at 15, is the latest generation to work at the Dairy Queen. She started later than her father, having first helped out at age 12.
Sylvie said she has been thinking about taking over the store when she becomes old enough.
“There’s so much history here. I know it all like the back of my hand,” she added.
Spiesak said her daughter grew up manning the store. “She’s loved this store from the beginning.”
Birkholtz was 13 when she started working at the Dairy Queen after school and from open to close during summer break.
“I would take naps on that cooler,” she said pointing to a chest freezer.
Spiesak said she purchased the business in 1962 from a local man who had been a traveling salesman.
“My mother had worked for him for a couple of years,” she said. “I bought it off him and let him finish the season.”
Spiesak said that when her mother had worked at the Dairy Queen, she’d told Spiesak that she would have bought it if she had had the money to do so.
Spiesak was able to buy the store and franchise, but not the land, for $14,300, she said.
It was nine years later before she could buy the property.
The Dairy Queen is a landmark in Youngstown, partially through its proximity to the pool.
Its location next to the pool resulted in the Belmont Avenue location being the first Dairy Queen to open in Mahoning County, Birkholtz said.
“They were building one in Boardman on Market Street at the same time, but then they decided to open this one first to correspond with the opening of the pool,” she said.
Things have changed over the 50 years the mother and daughter have owned the store. Now, Birkholtz runs the day-to-day operations, while Spiesak does the books from home.
“We keep track of everything,” Birkholtz said.
The store is closing in on selling its four-and-a-half-millionth hot dog in the 50 years Spiesak and Birkholtz have owned the DQ building, Birkholtz said.
“Whenever the sun is shining, people will come,” Spiesak said.