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Blizzard of burgers, fries and ice cream is family tradition

ST. LOUIS HILLS – Some of Susan Leonard’s earliest job training came in all-night sleepovers at her parents’ Dairy Queen at Eichelberger Street and Hampton Avenue.

While her parents worked all night with employees to make ice cream cakes for Father’s Day, she and her three younger sisters hung out in sleeping bags in the front lobby.

“I grew up here. I was here from the beginning. I literally used to sit next to the grill when my dad cooked the burgers,” said Leonard, who now owns the operation with her husband, Darin.

It’s been a good life for Susan, 38, Darin, 44, and their five children. It also pleases the neighbors, long-time customers and local organizations they support. But at the start, joining her parents and grandparents as the third generation wasn’t Susan’s idea of a future.

Susan talked about it in an article she wrote in last fall’s edition of the St. Louis Hills News and Views. It started, she wrote, when her grandparents, Dennis and Doreen Schutte, bought the walk-up Dairy Queen at Hampton and Nottingham avenues in 1973.

“As the story goes, Grandpa saw a ‘For Sale’ sign and went to talk to the owner,” she wrote. “Grandpa was informed that someone else was interested and was coming to look at it the next day. Grandpa went around Francis Park to get his checkbook, came right back, and bought it on the spot – he said he needed something to keep his nine children busy!”

At different times since then, family members have operated Dairy Queens at two locations on Hampton and one they bought in 1975 at Gravois and Mackenzie roads in the Affton area.

Then in 1982, the operator of the Dairy Queen territory obtained the lease for a Jack in the Box at Eichelberger and Hampton. The Schuttes turned down the chance to run it.

But their daughter Mary and son-in-Michael Leeper did want it. They moved back from Kansas City and opened a Brazier Dairy Queen in the shell of the old Jack in the Box on March 13, 1983. At the time, Susan was 18 months old.

The Schuttes closed the location at Nottingham and Hampton in 1987. In 1995, they sold the Affton store to the Leepers in 1995. The Leepers sold that location in 2018.

Susan officially entered this line after she met Darin in 2001 while she was attending Southwest Missouri State University – now Missouri State University – in Springfield, Mo.

“I think about 8 years old, she was bagging fries,” Darin said. “As she got older, and she really worked a schedule, she felt like she did not want to stay in the business.”

Darin, meanwhile, was a police officer and wanted to stay one. But as he got to know Susan’s family and the business, he started to like the idea of running a burger-and-ice cream place.

“I just saw this being a better family opportunity, instead of working nights all the time,” he explained.

After Darin and Susan married in 2005, they ran a Dairy Queen in Eureka. In 2012, he started managing the Hampton Dairy Queen (now DQ Grill & Chill) at 5409 Hampton Ave. The couple bought the store from her parents in 2018, completing the transition. 

Running a restaurant is better for Darin than being a police officer. But it’s not perfect.

Darin works 30 to 50 hours a week at the store and puts in another five to 10 hours’ paperwork at their nearby home in St. Louis Hills.

He does work his share of night work at a place that’s open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. But at least he can control it and get home or to St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic School, which four of their children attend, when it’s necessary.

“I do the schedules,” Darin said. “I can usually get off for the things I need to get out for.” And most of the time, Susan’s home with the children.

“Something that my parents and Darin and I worked really hard to do is to make this a neighborhood store,” Susan said. “We’re very much invested in the community.”

Every week, Darin said, the store receives three to five requests for a donation. Frequently, the store will respond with a coupon for an ice cream cake.

The couple have memories of how they’ve helped the community over the years, in events such as Run for the Hills, Art in the Park, and school and church fundraisers.

A favorite for Susan was the “Blizzards for Brett” fundraiser in 2017. All the money spent on Blizzards that day was for the family of a student at Bishop DuBourg High School who was suffering from cancer. A total of $5,000 was raised from sales of Blizzards that day. 

“I feel like I have a responsibility to keep the family tradition going, which I take pride in,” Darin said.

The Leonard family (from left): Susan, Mason, 4, Michael, 10, Madison, 13, Darin, Molly, 7, and Mary Ann, 8. The Leonards own and operate the Dairy Queen at 5409 Hampton Ave. (Photo by Robert C. Holt III / for MetroSTL.com)
The children, who range in age from 4 to 13, will work part-time in the store when they’re old enough, Darin said.

“I come up here after school sometimes with my friends,” said Madison, a seventh-grader at St. Gabriel’s. 

It’s too early to tell whether there will be another generation of the family in the business. But it’s definitely a possibility, Susan said.

One person who remembers the days when Susan broke in is Laurie Harper. Now an assistant manager, she started at the Hampton Dairy Queen on May 1, 1987, when she was 16.

“I prefer the family businesses,” Harper said. “You feel like you’re a person, not just a worker.”

She recalled that Susan sometimes came in to the store in the afternoon and watched movies on the VCR.

As for the sleepovers, Susan said, “It was not as fun as it sounds.”

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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