The soft-serve formula was first developed in 1938 by John Fremont "J.F." "Grandpa" McCullough and his son Alex. They convinced friend and loyal customer Sherb Noble to offer the product in his ice cream store in Kankakee, Illinois. On the first day of sales, Noble dished out more than 1,600 servings of the new dessert within two hours. Noble and the McCulloughs went on to open the first Dairy Queen store in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois. While this Dairy Queen has not been in operation since the 1950s, the building still stands at 501 N Chicago Street as a city-designated landmark.
The first DQ restaurant was located in Joliet, Illinois. It was operated by Sherb Noble and opened for business on June 22, 1940. It served a variety of frozen products, such as soft serve ice cream.
Since 1940, the chain has used a franchise system to expand its operations globally from ten stores in 1941 to one hundred by 1947, 1,446 in 1950, and 2,600 in 1955. The first store in Canada opened in Melville, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1953. In the US, the state with the most Dairy Queen restaurants is Texas. Using the 2010 census, the state with the most Dairy Queen restaurants per person is Minnesota.
The company's products expanded to include malts and milkshakes in 1950, banana splits in 1951, Dilly Bars in 1955 (introduced to the franchise by Robert Litherland, the co-owner of a store in Moorhead, Minnesota), Mr. Misty slush treats in 1961 (later renamed Misty Slush, then again to Arctic Rush; as of 2017, DQ again calls them Misty Slush, as seen on dairyqueen.com), Jets, Curly Tops, Freezes in 1964, and a range of hamburgers and other cooked foods under the Brazier banner in 1958. In 1962, the Buster Bar, consisting of vanilla soft serve in the shape of a small cup with a layer of and covered with peanuts and chocolate was invented by David Skjerven in 1962 in Grafton, North Dakota. In 1971, the Peanut Buster Parfait, consisting of peanuts, hot fudge, and vanilla soft serve, was introduced by Forrest 'Frosty' Chapman in his St. Peter, Minnesota Franchise. In 1990, the Breeze was launched, like a Blizzard but was made with non-fat, cholesterol-free yogurt. This was pulled of stores in 2000. In 1995, the Chicken Strip Basket was introduced, consisting of chicken strips, Texas toast (only in the US), fries, and cream gravy (gravy in Canada). Other items include sundaes and the blended coffee drink, the MooLatte.
The name "Brazier" originated in 1957 when one of the company's franchisees, Jim Cruikshank, set out to develop the standardized food system. When he witnessed flames rising from an open charcoal grill (a brazier) in a New York eatery, he knew he had found the Brazier concept.
The red Dairy Queen symbol was introduced in 1958.
"Little Miss Dairy Queen" began appearing in Pennsylvania signage in 1961. She had a Dutch bonnet, resembling the ellipse logo, with a pinafore apron over her dress and wooden shoes.
Prior to the reintroduction of the Blizzard in 1985, Dairy Queen served conventional "thick" milkshakes called "Blizzards" in the 1960s. These were the original Blizzard milkshakes, so thick and creamy, the attendant would demonstrate amazingly by tipping them upside down. They sold for the premium price of 50 cents in 1962. These were served in traditional flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, with or without added malt on request. The Blizzard was also invented by Samuel Temperato.
The company became International Dairy Queen, Inc. (IDQ) in 1962.
A popular Dairy Queen item is the Blizzard, which is soft-serve mechanically blended with mix-in ingredients such as sundae toppings and/or pieces of cookies, brownies, or candy. It has been a staple on the menu since its introduction in 1985, a year in which Dairy Queen sold more than 100 million Blizzards. Popular flavors include Oreo cookies, mint Oreo, chocolate chip cookie dough, M&M's, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Heath Bar (Skor in Canada), and Butterfinger (Crispy Crunch in Canada). Seasonal flavors are also available such as October's pumpkin pie and June's cotton candy. It has been argued that Dairy Queen drew its inspiration from the concrete served by the St. Louis-based Ted Drewes. On July 26, 2010, Dairy Queen introduced a new "mini" size Blizzard, served in 6 oz. cups. During the 25th anniversary of the Blizzard, two special flavors were released: Strawberry Golden Oreo Blizzard and Buster Bar Blizzard. Salted Caramel Truffle was released in 2015 during the Blizzard's 30th anniversary and Dairy Queen's 75th anniversary, but it has since been removed from the menu.
In 1987, IDQ bought the Orange Julius chain. IDQ was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway in 1998.
In 1990, Dairy Queen began offering frozen yogurt as a lower-calorie alternative to its soft serve ice cream. The product was named Breeze. According to a company representative, Dairy Queen's regular soft serve has 35 calories per ounce, whereas the frozen yogurt was 25 calories per ounce. However, in 2001, the company phased out the frozen yogurt option in all its stores, citing a lack of demand.
Although it had been used interchangeably with the Dairy Queen name for many decades, "DQ" became the company's official name in 2001. The font remained the same as in the original signage introduced 60 years prior. Throughout this period, the company placed the registered mark symbol immediately to the right, on the bottom side of the logo. When the company modernized its signage and logos in early 2007, it modified the font and italicized the letters, as well as adding arced lines, an orange one to represent its hot foods above and a blue one below to represent its ice cream products. In the new design, the registered mark symbol was moved to be adjacent to the letter "Q". The first overhaul of its logo in almost 70 years, the company claimed that the new logo would show brand growth and reflect the "fun and enjoyment" associated with its products. Advertising industry observers have noted that the new logo was an unneeded update of a known and trusted industry brand and that its new features were distracting.
DQ Grill & Chill locations feature hot food, treats, table delivery, and self-serve soft drinks. It is the new concept for new and renovated full-service restaurants. Stores are larger than older-style locations and feature a completely new store design. In most cases, they offer an expanded menu including breakfast, GrillBurgers, and grilled sandwiches, as well as limited table service (customers still place orders at the counter). They also contain self-serve soft drink fountains allowing free refills. Some of the older stores have upgraded to the new format. However, there are still older stores that have not upgraded to the new format. In December 2001, Chattanooga, Tennessee was the site of the first two Dairy Queen Grill and Chill restaurants in the United States. The nation's largest DQ Grill & Chill is located in Bloomington, Illinois.
Dennis the Menace appeared in Dairy Queen marketing from 1971 until December 2002, when he was dropped because Dairy Queen felt children could no longer relate to him. From 2006 to July 2011, the advertising focused on a large mouth with its tongue licking its large lips, which morphs into the Dairy Queen logo. The mouth was dropped in 2011 after Grey New York produced outlandish spots featuring a dapper man, played by John Behlmann, sporting a mustache, performing crazy feats for Dairy Queen replacing it. After announcing tasty menu offers, he would do something outrageous, like blow bubbles with kittens in them, water ski while boxing, or break a piñata, out of which tumbles Olympic gymnastics great Mary Lou Retton. Later, the same firm made additional commercials based around odd situation titles with the DQ logo placed somewhere in them, like "Gary DQlones Himself", "Now That's A Lunchtime DQuandary!", "After The DQonquest" and "Well, This Is A Bit DQrazy!". All were narrated by a man with an English accent.
In 2011, International Dairy Queen Inc. filed a request for a preliminary injunction to stop Yogubliz Inc, a small California-based frozen yogurt chain, from selling "Blizzberry" and "Blizz Frozen Yogurt", alleging that the names could confuse consumers due to their similarity to Dairy Queen's Blizzard. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner denied Dairy Queen's request.
The original signage is still in use in older locations or in locations that use a "retro" design motif in the property's design. One example was the sign used at the Dairy Queen in Ottawa, Ontario, which was destroyed and replaced in 2013.
In 2015, Dairy Queen and model railroad company of Milwaukee, Wm. K. Walthers came out with a Walthers Cornerstone HO 1:87 Scale models of a restaurant – one from the 1950s with the original logo and one from 2007–present with the current logo. The models are both officially licensed replicas.
In the nineties, investors bought Dairy Queen stores that were individually owned, intending to increase profitability through economies of scale. Vasari, LLC became the second-largest Dairy Queen operator in the country and operated 70 Dairy Queens across Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. When stores were not profitable, these investment firms closed stores that did not meet their profitability goals. On October 30, 2017, the Vasari LLC filed for bankruptcy and announced it was closing 29 stores, including 10 in the Texas Panhandle.
The majority of Dairy Queen locations serve Pepsi-Cola products, but unlike most other restaurants such contracts are not mandated onto the franchisee, and as a result, some locations serve Coca-Cola products instead. Wendy's (until 1998), Subway (until 2003), Arby's (until 2006; returned to Coke in 2018), IHOP (until 2012), and Applebee's (until 2012) also allowed such leniency on beverage choice before signing exclusive soft drink deals with Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, making Dairy Queen the last major restaurant chain without an exclusive soft drink contract until 2015 when all DQ stores switched to Coca-Cola.
From 1979 until 1981, the restaurant chain used the slogan "It's a real treat!". For many years, the franchise's slogan was "We treat you right". From the early-to-mid 1990s, the slogans "Hot Eats, Cool Treats" and "Think DQ" were used and preceded the aforementioned line in the Dairy Queen jingle. Later on, it was changed to "Meet Me at DQ" and "DQ: Something Different". Another slogan, introduced in early 2011, was "So Good It's RiDQulous", with Dairy Queen's current logo infused in the word "ridiculous". In the mid-to-late 2010s, their slogan was "Fan Food, Not Fast Food". As of 2019, DQ uses the slogan "Happy Tastes Good". The slogan This is Fan Food not Fast Food is still used on the cups, wrappers, and paper baskets.