The Dairy Queen restaurant in downtown Columbus will mark its 50th anniversary Thursday, when the 16½-hour event will double as a family reunion.

All four of owner Bob Franke’s daughters — Jill, Julie, Jennifer and Janae — will be at the restaurant, 616 Third St., along with their spouses and all 11 of Franke’s grandchildren.

And in their hearts and minds will be the family matriarch, Noel Ross Franke, Bob Franke’s late wife and business partner, who died April 10 at age 75, manager Julie Franke Comer said.

That was just shy of the couple’s 56th wedding anniversary.

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“I have an enthusiasm for this business, so I’ve always made an effort to be here no matter what,” the 76-year-old Franke said. “But my family should have come first.”

Out of respect to her father, Julie Comer remained quiet. But as soon as he stepped away, Comer said she wanted to set the record straight.

“Every single person in our family tries to emulate my father,” she said. “I can never express how proud we all are of him.”

Dairy Queen beginnings

Many factors have contributed to the restaurant’s success, but none of them more significant than J. Robert “Bob” Franke himself, said Harry McCawley, Bartholomew County historian.While Dairy Queen’s arrival in Columbus began in 1951 when Columbus grocer John Vorwald opened a seasonal ice cream stand at 1110 25th St., Bob Franke involvement started about 15 years later.

Franke had been keeping himself busy delivering milk during the day for his parents, Franke Dairy owners Roscoe and Martha Franke. And he was driving an ice cream truck during evenings and weekends.

“I kept stopping by Mr. Vorwald’s place and telling him we need to open another Dairy Queen,” Franke said. “Finally, he put up the franchise, which he controlled locally, and I put up some money.”

The concept of a sit-down family restaurant that provides popular ice cream treats year-round, as well as lunch and dinner items, quickly grabbed the community’s attention 50 years ago. Seven local businesses bought advertisements to wish Bob and Noel Franke success on their new business venture.

“It was a big deal,”said Franke, recalling that the restaurant’s doors opened on June 28, 1967. When the official grand opening of the Dairy Queen Brazier took place two months later, the special was a Brazier Deluxe burger and milk shake for 74 cents.

Franke and Vorwald remained business partners for 15 years until Vorwald’s death in May 1982, after which Franke purchased full control of the restaurant.

Community connections

Acknowledging that “Columbus supports businesses that support the community,” Franke became active in the Jaycees, Elks Club and Fraternal Order of Police lodges. He also was elected to the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Board of Trustees in 1972.

In a campaign interview that year, Franke stated a work and personal philosophy that Comer said her father has never abandoned.

“I’m a positive person and I am not afraid to say we have a community which does more than most,” Franke said in 1972. “I think we can continue to keep doing this by sharing in the responsibility in the best way we know how.”

Within the next three years after being elected to the school board, Franke would earn company recognition for selling the most meat products of any Dairy Queen Brazier in a four-state area, outstanding ice cream sales, superior inspection results during consecutive years, and running one of the three most profitable Dairy Queen franchise restaurants in the Midwest.

It was due to his late wife that Franke was able to balance community, business and personal affairs simultaneously, he said.

Noel Franke served as the restaurant’s bookkeeper, among other business responsibilities, while also being mom to four daughters, Comer said.

With a track record of success, the couple grew their business by purchasing Dairy Queen restaurants in Seymour, Nashville and Edinburgh in the late 1970s. Over time, however, the family switched its attention solely to the Third Street restaurant in Columbus.

Customer loyalty, traditions

Over the past five decades, family traditions were often tied to Franke’s downtown restaurant, as it became a go-to place to celebrate success in sporting events and or to enjoy birthdays, anniversaries or other family celebrations.

One factor in developing and maintaining customer loyalty has been the restaurant’s ability to keep employees — in some instances, for decades, Comer said.

“Because of Bob, we don’t think of his Dairy Queen as a franchise,” McCawley said. “We think of it as a local restaurant.”

Franke’s connection to the community can be seen in sponsorship of youth sports teams over the restaurant’s five decades. But he became widely known for one early sports sponsorship in particular.

In 1979, Columbus resident Nelson Stewart brought his 8-year-old son, Anthony Wayne, to the restaurant after attending go-kart racing events at the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds. Two years later, Franke agreed to become one of Tony Stewart’s first racing sponsors on the local go-kart circuit, a friendship with the motorsports champion that has remained strong to this day.

People have grown to love the downtown Dairy Queen for reasons of their own. But if you ask Bob Franke what the secret for his success has been, don’t be surprised when he replies with a health dose of humility.

“I wasn’t the most intelligent bird in the flock, but I had some good people around,” he said. “It turned out good.”

And on Thursday when the Franke family and community celebrate together for the restaurant’s anniversary, you can be sure that ice cream will be involved — as it has been for 50 years.

Timeline

Key dates in the history of the downtown Columbus Dairy Queen at 616 Third St.

1967 – J. Robert “Bob” Franke, the son of Franke Dairy owners Roscoe (1914-1994) and Martha (1915-1984) Franke, purchases the former Frost Top Root Beer stand at 616 Third St. and converts it into a Dairy Queen Brazier restaurant. The restaurant opens that year on June 28, and holds its official grand opening on Aug. 30.

1974 – The restaurant’s first renovation includes replacing tables and chairs with booths, as well as doubling the amount of seating.

1981 – Bob Franke agrees to sponsor a 10-year-old go-kart driver named Tony Stewart, marking the beginning of a long friendship.

1987 – One of Bob and Noel Franke’s four daughters, Julie, begins managing the restaurant upon her graduation from college.

1988 – The restaurant’s second major renovation includes a new glass atrium.

2006 — Installation of the Tony Stewart tribute mural designed and painted by Columbus artist Cathe Burris (1949-2011).

2007 — The restaurant’s restrooms are expanded and renovated.

2014 – Bob and Noel Franke’s four daughters complete a third major renovation costing and adopt the “Grill & Chill” concept.

Anniversary schedule

The 50th anniversary celebration for the downtown Dairy Queen, 616 Third St., owned by the Franke family of Columbus will take place from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, with special deals for customers and balloons for children.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.