After more than 50 years, longtime Dairy Queen family sells Lawrence, Eudora stores; new owner to keep all three open

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A Dairy Queen sign is pictured in Eudora on March 16, 2023.

If empty cartons were the requirement to become Lawrence’s royal family of ice cream, mine might well be on the throne. But it’s not, and we aren’t. Instead, for about 50 years, the Walter family has been in the best position to claim that title as the owner of Lawrence and Douglas County’s Dairy Queen franchise.

But now, officially consider the torch — umm, make that cone — passed.

Steve and Millie Walter recently sold their three Dairy Queen stores — two in Lawrence and one in Eudora — to a new operator, ending a business venture that Steve’s father started in the late 1960s.

“It was a walk-up store where our store’s parking lot is on Massachusetts Street today,” Steve said of the original Lawrence Dairy Queen, remembering that the old store near 19th and Massachusetts had no indoor seating or a drive thru. (Having to walk all the way to the window surely meant you had burnt enough calories to have both a chocolate and caramel sundae, right?)

Ike Walter came to Lawrence in the late 1960s after having got into the Dairy Queen business in his hometown of Hoisington, rather by accident. Ike was in the grocery business, and bought the small walk-up store in Hoisington to tear down for extra parking.

“Now look at it 50-plus years later,” Steve said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Steve Walter is pictured on March 16, 2023 at the Lawrence Dairy Queen store on south Iowa Street.

Ike Walter ended up owning Dairy Queens in several small towns across the state, but eventually focused on Lawrence, figuring that ice cream, college students and parents with wallets probably made a good equation.

A new owner is making much the same calculation, with the added twist of thinking a pending 4,000-employee Panasonic battery plant that is less than 10 minutes away from her Eudora store will be a boost too.

“I hope they are 4,000 people who like ice cream,” new owner Lubna Khan said of the battery plant employees.

Khan knows there are plenty of ice cream lovers in the world. She’s been in the Dairy Queen business for eight years, and currently owns the stores in Burlington and Garnett, which are both a little more than an hour south of Lawrence.

Khan said she likes Lawrence’s growth potential and is excited about all three stores she has acquired. Yes, there are three operating in the county again. We had reported last year that the Massachusetts Street Dairy Queen store had closed temporarily due to difficulty in finding employees. But the store reopened before the beginning of the year, and Khan said all systems are go to keep all three stores running.

As far as changes go, Khan said she simply is working to improve a few internal processes to ensure the highest quality and quickest service possible at her three new stores. She’s also looking at ways to highlight that the stores can take mobile orders through smartphones, and, down the line, she may work on ways to provide some delivery.

“I’m working on learning what the community wants because that is my first priority,” she said.

Steve said he decided to get out of the business simply because the calendar told him he could.

“I’m 65 and it is time to retire,” he said. “And the time to sell is when you have a buyer.”

Lawrence has had a Dairy Queen since 1949, Steve said, noting that his father bought the business from a group that had operated earlier.

Steve got into the family business in 1996, when he opened the Eudora store, after having served as a college football coach at Washburn, and for a stint as a graduate assistant on the staff of Don Fambrough at KU.

By 2016, he was running all three stores, after a pair of long-term operators who had leased the franchise rights from his father retired. Those operators, Jerry and Susan Potter, ran the day-to-day operations at the south Iowa Street and Massachusetts Street stores for more than 20 years.

“You can’t write about Lawrence and Dairy Queen without mentioning the Potters,” Steve said of the longtime operators.

There’s a lot of other people who likely are worth mentioning too, because Steve said it was the people that very much kept him enjoying the business all these years. Whether it be employees, vendors or customers, Steve said the daily interactions would be the element he misses most. That makes sense because the Dairy Queen corporation — which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s company (no, Steve never got to share a cone with him) — has a mission statement about creating smiles and a story for customers.

“It is where they went as kids after church on Sunday or after the ballgames with their friends, or where they get those frozen birthday cakes,” Steve said. “We’ve made a lot of connections in this business. Because of all that, I wanted to make sure the franchise was in good hands, and it is.”

For her part, Khan said there is no doubt that the business is about making happy memories.

“We have ice cream, so we have all the reasons to make people happy,” she said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Steve Walter points to a display showing the evolution of his family’s Dairy Queen businesses in Lawrence and Douglas County, which dates back to the late 1960s.


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