By Ann Cipperly
Over the years as Lee County continued to bloom with new restaurants, Mrs. Story’s Dairy Bar in Opelika continued to be run by a single family, serving the same menu. After being open for nearly 69 years, family member Rhonda Booth announced Friday the business is closing due to not being able to find workers and the Covid virus. Rhonda is not sure if the business will be temporarily or permanently closed.
When Rhonda made the announcement Friday, fans of the old fashioned milkshakes and foot long chili dogs rushed to the dairy bar. By the end of the day, the business was completely sold out.
Rhonda’s mother, Cora Reames, began working at the business with her grandparents when she was 12 years old. As she looked back over the years, Cora does not believe the business will be closed permanently and has hopes once Covid’s numbers are down, they will be able find employees to keep the business going.
Originally called Dari-Delight, the business opened in 1952 with owners Dan and Annie Story. Cora recalls her grandfather had visited his sister out west where he saw a Dari-Delight. The 57 year old came home with a desire to leave the mill and open a franchise in Opelika.
Local banks thought he was foolish and couldn’t make a living selling ice cream and hot dogs. Every loan application was rejected until finally a bank in Auburn took a chance. The ten-year mortgage was paid off in six.
The Storys, who already owned the property on Pepperell Parkway, moved their house to the back of the lot in order for the business to be built near the highway. Signs placed around the small white building advertised “Iced Milk Sold Here” and “Ounce Cup Sugar and Cream – 10 cents.” The foot long chili dogs and fruit milkshakes were 30 cents each, while ice cream cones sold for 5, 10 and 15 cents. Mrs. Story prepared her own chili recipe, which became a guarded secret.
When the drive-in opened in the 50s, the Storys refused to have a separate window for blacks and whites as most restaurants during that time. Cora remembers her grandfather saying everyone deserved to be treated the same.
Mr. and Mrs. Story greeted customers in white starched, pressed uniforms and paper hats. Friendly service and quality food were always important.
At age 12, Cora rode her bike from Pepperell to help at the restaurant picking up paper in the parking lot and emptying trash cans for 25 cents a day. She continued to work there during high school and vocational school.
“Back then,” Cora said, “families didn’t eat out much but did go for ice cream.” Mrs. Story was known for having a tender, generous heart. If anyone were low on cash, she would run a tab.
Dan Story suffered a stroke after only three years in business. During the following three years, his health declined. He died a few days after the final payment on the mortgage. Cora believes he was hanging on to be certain the debt was paid.
When the business celebrated its tenth anniversary, the contract with Dari-Delight expired. Mrs. Story decided not to renew the franchise knowing she could do better on her own. She couldn’t decide what to name the business when a man from Dairyland Farms suggested calling it “Mrs. Story’s Dairy Bar” since that was what everyone called it anyway.
“My grandmother was very straight-laced,” recalled Cora. “She didn’t believe in any public display of affection. She did not allow smooching in her parking lot. She would raise the window and beat on the counter. If that didn’t grab their attention, she would pound on the car hood.”
When Mrs. Story retired, she refused offers to sell. Cora was working at Ampex. Every time a co-worker passed her, he pleaded for her to open her grandmother’s business because he was craving a hot fudge sundae. Cora was also craving a sundae, which was her first treat at the dairy bar when she was a child. The hot fudge sundae was always her favorite.
Mrs. Story never would have sold the business to anyone who was not family, but she did lease the business to her granddaughter in 1980 with an option to buy. Cora remembers it being a big step for her since she was raising four children.
She tore down the grandparents’ old house, which had been used for storage. She added the storage area and office onto the building. She decided to close the business on Sundays. When her four children were in high school, they all worked at the restaurant.
The menu remained essentially the same, with the chili dogs and tempting fruit milkshakes being the most popular. Banana splits and flurries were added to the menu, and chili dog toppings were offered. The orange slush was the only item she removed from the menu since she lacked storage space for the supplier’s minimum purchase of a hundred cases.
Cora knew most of the customers. When someone drove up, she would get busy preparing the order. She couldn’t remember everyone’s name, but she knew what customers always ordered. “It was the personal touch and quality ingredients,” said Cora, “that kept people coming back.”
Her grandmother was a regular customer until her death in 1988. Mrs. Story came to the dairy bar nearly every day to visit with customers.
After 25 years, Cora felt it was time to retire. Her face had become so well known in the community people called her Mrs. Story and still do.
Rhonda was the only one of her children who was interested in the business. Rhonda’s husband, Bob Boothe, who desired a career change, had been managing a fertilizer plant. Growing up in Opelika, Bob was always a fan of the chili dogs and milkshakes. He and his brother rode bikes from Floral Park to the dairy bar.
When Bob was in the Navy, he called home at Christmas and talked to his brother, who wanted to know what the family could do for him. Bob said, “All I want is a Mrs. Story’s chili dog.” His brother actually sent one to him. It was inedible when it arrived three weeks later.
Once he was discharged from the Navy, Mrs. Story’s was one of his first stops after returning home. He attended Southern Union where he met Rhonda.
The Boothes purchased the dairy bar in 1997. Like her grandmother, Cora would only sell to family. While the Boothes made major decisions together, Bob ran the business, while Rhonda worked as an RN at the East Alabama Medical Center.
He updated the equipment and added tables outside. A year after opening, he and Rhonda received the Small Business of the Year Award from the Chamber of Commerce. He considered expanding the space, but everyone said not to change the front of the existing building.
One afternoon when a driver drove into the building, Bob was thankful no one was standing outside. He decided to add parking poles across the front to protect customers.
The menu remained the same, and everything was still prepared using the same method as when the business opened. It was difficult to compete price wise with restaurants that use a milkshake mix and flavored syrup instead of real fruit.
His biggest problem running a small mom and pop business was getting supplies from some of his vendors. “Almost everyone is interested in the chains,” he said, after coming in from buying milk at the grocery since one vendor didn’t deliver.
Over the years, their largest order was serving 10,000 chili dogs to Uniroyal employees. Some local businesses have requested as many as 50 chili dogs and milkshakes, and a car dealership in Montgomery called for large orders.
After the Boothes took over, the business continued to grow with new customers, which Bob said was primarily by word of mouth. “I always thought if you served a good product at a decent price you would have customers.”
The personal touch continued over the years with the workers knowing their customers. A customer said by the time he gets to the window, his order is waiting.
One morning a couple knocked at the window an hour before opening, wanting a milkshake for a terminally ill friend. Bob stopped what he was doing and quickly made a shake. The pleased customers had been told at the hospital he would open early to fulfill the request. A few days later, Bob received a two-page letter saying how difficult it was to find such personal service these days.
Rhonda and Bob’s son Blake, the fifth generation, worked there since he was 15 years old. In July 2018 Blake and his wife, Amber, purchased the business from his parents. A couple of years later, the couple received the Small Business of the Year Award from the Opelika Chamber.
“We have been told so many times that when former Opelikans come back home to visit parents,” Rhonda said, “they have to make a stop at Mrs. Story’s for a chilidog and milkshake.” Others say they are from out-of-town but have to make Mrs. Story’s their first stop.
With slow simmered chili topped footlong hot dogs and made to order old fashioned milkshakes, the small business received numerous awards over the years. The chili hotdog and milkshake are both listed in 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. In 2017, Mrs. Story’s received the honor of being named Alabama’s Best Milkshake.
When the dairy bar received the award for best milkshake, the family was featured on the Simply Southern television show accepting the honor. They have been featured in numerous magazines and newspapers.
Now, with the doors closed, an Opelika institution sits empty on Pepperell Parkway while many in the area are hoping the business will open again one day in the future to continue the legacy.