It’s part lactose performance art, part boastfulness, and mostly awkward. Walk into any one of Dairy Queen’s 6000-plus U.S. locations (or up to a window) and there’s a very good chance your server will hand you a Blizzard—their soft serve treat packed with chunks of candy, cookies, baked goods, or fruit—upside-down, the spoon handle facing the floor.
A ritual since the national debut of the dessert in 1985, the eccentric hand-off has been questioned, puzzled over, and was even part of a nationwide promotion in 2016: If an employee failed to adhere to the policy, customers received a coupon for a free Blizzard. (Many outposts still offer a free Blizzard if yours isn't served upside down, but it's up to each franchise owner to determine whether or not it's a standard policy.)
If you’ve ever wondered why they do it, you can credit an obnoxious 14-year-old kid in St. Louis.
Like most restaurant chains, Dairy Queen has often relied on its franchisees to help shape its menu. Founded in 1940 to capitalize on the soft serve ice cream phenomenon, the brand was fortunate enough to attract the attention of St. Louis businessman Sam Temperato, who owned dozens of locations and proved to be a steady fountain of ideas. His Full Meal Deal, which packaged a burger, fries, drink, and sundae for one flat price, was a hit. So was his notion to add chili dogs to the menu's lineup.
In the 1970s, Temperato took notice of a custard stand operated by Ted Drewes Jr., a locally-owned operation that managed to hold its own against the marketing onslaught of Temperato’s Dairy Queen by peddling frozen treats Drewes referred to as “concrete,” ultra-thick shakes with bits of fruit mixed in. Drewes served them upside-down to customers to prove it wasn’t some watered-down concoction. The glob of custard was so dense it would hold the spoon in place and remain inside the serving cup.
That finishing touch was the result of a run-in Drewes had with 14-year-old customer Steve Gamber back in 1959. Gamber had been biking to Drewes’s stand for a sandwich and chocolate malt nearly every day. Each time, he’d demand Drewes make the malt thicker.
Finally, "just to shut me up," Gamber recalled, Drewes handed him a malt so solid he could turn it upside down without risking spillage. “Is that thick enough for you?” Drewes asked.
This practice did not escape the attention of Temperato, who went to Dairy Queen executives in 1983 with the idea for a soft serve concoction made with fruit or crunched-up candy bar chunks, a practice he had seen in another local stand called Huckleberry’s. (Drewes refused to use candy in his custards.) After executives visited St. Louis and saw the lines at Drewes’s locations, they signed off on the Blizzard, using a trademarked name they had owned since the 1950s.
Dairy Queen owner Warren Buffett marvels at the Blizzard's gravity-defying properties. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
At the time, the thought of candy mixed with soft serve was a novel concept, and not one that was met with total enthusiasm. Mars, which owns the M&Ms and Snickers candy brands, refused to ship Dairy Queen broken-up pieces for the Blizzard; so did Oreo. But once Dairy Queen rang up sales of nearly 100 million Blizzards in 1985 alone, the brands had a change of heart. Blizzards have been a staple of Dairy Queen’s menu ever since.
Temperato, who freely admitted the inspiration he derived from both Drewes and Huckleberry’s, was showered with praise for boosting company revenues by 15 to 17 percent. The McDonald's McFlurry and Friendly’s Cyclone followed, both attempting to capitalize on the frozen phenomenon. But only the Blizzard—born of "concrete" custard—is served upside down.
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