In the pantheon of iconic buildings that are demolished or abandoned in the wake of development, the Decatur Dairy Queen hardly ranks in the same category as say, the original Wembley Stadium in London, New York’s Singer Building, or even Atlanta’s own Turner Field.
But try telling that to the residents of Decatur. The old “barn-” style building dated back to 1969. Located within a couple of block’s walking distance from the Decatur Recreation Center and DeKalb County Courthouse, the DQ had been a safe haven for decades. Families—literally generations of kids—flocked there after Decatur High School arts and sports events.
When I was in high school back in the ’70s, my girlfriends and I would walk there on our breaks from drill team practice at the Rec Center for chocolate-dipped cones and my favorite–Mr. Mistys. When I moved with my daughter to Decatur in 2004, she and her friends continued this tradition, and we spent many afternoons together there after her choral or musical performances at DHS, or just stopping by for an after-school treat.
Though I never knew the original owners, my daughter and I came to know the eventual franchise owners, the Momins, and they came to know us, although not by name. Nisar Momin, his sister Nadera, and her husband Rasul instead remembered us by our favorite sweets. Rasul had a classic way of turning my daughter’s Blizzard upside down—as if spilling it—just before he would hand it over to her, which always made her giggle crazily as a child. I never strayed from ordering my chocolate-dipped cone. (Mr. Mistys were eventually rebranded as “Arctic Slush,” and somehow that made them seem different to me.)
If you were looking for someone in Decatur, chances are you’d find them at the Dairy Queen. We almost always ran into friends there, and my daughter would often see schoolmates each time we went. It was a place to say “hi” to folks not seen in a while, or catch up on the last parent meeting I missed as a single working mom.
But in February 2014, the DQ closed to make way for a mixed-use development, the Arlo. Though my daughter and I had heard the business would be closing (everyone had), we didn’t have a chance to go by one last time before it closed. Instead, she simply came home from school one Monday and told me the word was that the old barn had shuttered over the weekend. Even though we knew it would happen sooner or later, it still came as a shock.
I honestly teared up. I could get a chocolate-dipped cone at any other DQ in the United States. What I couldn’t get was the honest integrity and hospitality of the Momin family. And while swarms of other Decatur residents had gone by to “pay their respects,” I felt guilty that we didn’t say goodbye. It felt wrong, somehow, not to let them know how much we would miss them. And I felt a tradition–just as my daughter soon would be leaving the nest I had so carefully feathered for so many years–slip away.
Nisar bought the DQ in 1986, and the family had been operating it for 33 years when it was announced it would close. The Arlo’s development company offered the Momins a space in the new building, and the city was deeply involved in negotiations to work out a deal. But regardless, a part of our lives was suddenly just gone.
When my daughter came home from college this Thanksgiving, she told me that she and her best friend–also home from school–were heading to the newly opened DQ. We had moved away from Decatur since she graduated from high school, and I didn’t even know that the business had reopened on Halloween. Busy with a new life, new job, and an empty nest, I had somehow let the whole idea of it returning slip my mind. But when she told me, I was jealous. The Arlo’s buildout had kept the Momins away for 32 months, and now they were back; I wanted to see them.
We finally paid them a visit together this past week. The new space inside the Arlo lacks the warmth of the old barn, and it’s still sad to us that a building we both shared as high school students is gone. The sleek, modern look, the self-serve drink station, the cool tiles that line a separate dining area away from where the ice cream is served; it all has a corporate feel. And it was so easy (and fun) to just pull in at the old location and hop out of the car; even with 30 minutes of free parking in the Arlo garage, the feel of it just isn’t the same.
But the Momins are there: Nadera smiling and giving out hugs, and Rasul still using his “spill trick” to make customers laugh. The minute we walked in they recognized us, Rasul pointing to my daughter and saying, “Oreo Candy Cane Blizzard, right?”
Anyone can dip a cone in chocolate. Not everyone can make friends for a lifetime.