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By Carmen Ensinger
The people asked and the Dairy Bar in Carrollton has listened! Owners Ken and Shaana made the announcement recently that the popular eatery, located on the Carrollton Square, will remain open throughout the winter months – a first for Carrollton’s oldest ice cream shop and eating establishment.
Shaana Gray said there were many things that went into their decision to stay open year-round this year.
“Over the years, our food sales have increased so much,” she said. “When we first bought the business in 2014, our sales were mostly ice cream with a little bit of food and after a couple of years, it kind of balanced out where it was about 50/50. Then, we started selling a lot more food and just in the past couple of weeks our food sales have gone up to where they are surpassing our ice cream sales. That kind of tells me that people are coming here getting meals, especially lunches, so that is another indication that it is probably a good idea to keep going.”
Also, more and more people kept requesting that they stay open year-round.
“Every year since we bought it, more and more people kept asking us why we don’t stay open year round and so I just feel like we owe it to the community to give it a try and see how it goes,” Gray said. “The main reason we keep going with the Dairy Bar and why we enjoy having it is to provide a place for the community to go because there are not a lot of open indoor seating restaurants uptown.”
But, the most important reason of all for staying open year-round is for her 17 employees.
“I feel blessed to have really good workers who want to work and I don’t want to lose them and so by staying open I let them continue to work,” she said. “We are lucky, we are not struggling to find help like a lot of places are. I have applications of people wanting to work here and I find myself wanting to find a spot for them because I feel like if they are willing to work I should give them a job.”
Actually, the Gray’s were going to try to stay open year round last year but COVID-19 put a halt to that.
“We actually did think about doing it last year because we were one of the few restaurants who were already set up to do window orders because that is all the Dairy Bar had for many, many years,” Gray said. “When we bought it, there was some indoor seating, but we expanded it to include the back room which have now for parties or just groups of large people.”
So far, Gray says the number of people who come to the window and those who eat inside is about 50/50.
“I think that is probably because we have had a pretty mild fall so fall,” she said. “I think as it gets colder, we will see more and more indoor eating. We have seen more groups of people coming in. We have had a lot of groups reserve the back room. We have a lot of groups reserve it for birthday parties or just get togethers for no reason at all just to have a meal together. I have definitely noticed that.”
One thing that keeps customers coming back time and time again are the baked good from Gram Gram. Gram Gram, aka Sue Arnold, is Gray’s mother. She got the nickname from the Gray’s oldest daughter when she was really young and it simply stuck. Gray explained how Gram Gram came to be a part of the Dairy Bar.
“She got really passionate about baking several years ago and wanted to come up here and use it as an outlet for desire to bake,” Gray said. She started with the chocolate chip cookies and they went over so well she started doing some other things like the gooey butter cake and cake pops and now she can’t keep up with the orders.”
Gram Gram has even won ribbons at the Jersey County Fair for her cookies.
“That was kind of exciting for and she loves baking so she comes up here and bakes her little heart out and we are more than happy to offer it to our customers,” Gray said. “When we run out of her stuff – people ask for it.”
This summer, the Dairy Bar added something new to the business – a vintage mural to the south side of the building. This was something Gray has wanted to do for a long time and finally pulled the trigger on.
“We just kind of wanted to continue on with the vintage, old-fashioned vibe of the Dairy Bar since it is the oldest restaurant in Carrollton, dating back to 1953,” she said. “We have driven through lots of different little towns that have signs or murals on the sides of their buildings like that so that is what I wanted to do.”
Gray came up with the idea of what she wanted on the mural and set out to find someone to create it on the building.
“Steve from Sign Magic in Bethalto is super creative and he always sees my crazy visions and comes up with designs for me,” she said. “So, he designed it and then he and his daughters came up, drew it out and painted it and I’m super happy with the way it turned out.”
In June, the Gray’s expanded their business and added a mobile food truck to the offering. For now, the food truck only offers ice cream, but from the success it has had so far, there is no need to add anything else.
“Our first event was the Greene County Fair at the beginning of June and we have bookings all the way until next August,” Gray said. “So I would say it has been going very well. We have even had to turn down some events because it is really not geared for the smaller events like birthday parties under 50 or more people.”
They do, however, make exceptions.
“We have gone out to Mt. Gilead Shelter Care, which was wonderful,” she said. “We love going out there and they are having us come back next week. That is a smaller event but it is just something in our heart we want to do.”
Gray says the food truck is good exposure for the Dairy Bar and feels it, and other things, helps bring people to Carrollton to visit the Dairy Bar.
“I know we have been at a lot of events and people ask us where we are located and we tell them and I always wonder if they ever make here to check us out,” Gray said. “But the most exciting thing of all was being featured on the Great Rivers and Routs Epic Ice Cream Week this past summer.”
Gray said that one of the news people from Channel 4 took his kids to try out all the different ice cream places on the list and the Dairy Bar was on the list.
“So, on their midday program he mentioned the Dairy Bar and that they drove up here and said what a nice drive it was,” she said. “Since then, we have had people come from St. Peters and St. Charles and mention that they saw in on Channel 4 and thought they would come up and try it because the drive was pretty. That has been really exciting for me because it has been my goal to get people to come to Carrollton.”