‘A Family Affair’: Leo James celebrates 50 years with Dairy Queen – The Cherokee One Feather
By JONAH LOSSIAH
A FEATHER STAFF
50 years ago Leo James was just trying to find the best way to pay for his education.
He was working at Cherokee as a teacher, but he was worried about his financial future. For three years, he had been in business partnership with Roger Shelton. Back in those days, when you could get ice cream for a penny, Shelton owned the Dairy Queen in Cherokee. In 1970, Shelton was ready to hand over the business to James.
“In 1970 we built a building here on the river. It was a large barn. Of course, I was a child. I didn’t know what I was doing, ”James chuckled.
James and his wife, Sandra, have run the business since then. They exploited it, like most things in their lives, with a family mindset. They have worked closely with family members in all of their businesses, especially the Dairy Queen.
“For us it started as a family affair. Sandra’s family, the Dunlaps, they go back a hundred years to the area. His mother and father, his sister, everyone helped us get started.
It was a turbulent start for the Jameses, as 1970 was more than the start of their Dairy Queen ownership. This was the year Leo started his postgraduate courses. It also happened with the birth of their first son, Rollie. They needed the support of their families, and it paid off from there.
As we got older, the family continued to be heavily involved. The Jameses had a second son, Chris. The two boys worked at the Dairy Queen at different times. Even today, James’ grandson Ethan works in the restaurant when needed.
After 11 years of operating the Dairy Queen, James decided it was time to add another business to his plate. In 1981, he opened Pizza Inn Cherokee, which is about to turn 40. Again, there was a familiar aspect to the operation.
“Everyone cared about everyone and did the right thing. My father-in-law was a Methodist pastor, but he was an electronic genius. The first oven we got was an electric oven at Pizza Inn. He and I together made this thing work until I got rid of it, ”James said.
“The first time I went under this oven after his death, I cried. Because I had never worked on it without him.
50 years has been a brand James has had in mind. He was very excited to get to this point, but he never imagined how great this 50e the year would be. Like all restaurants across the country, Dairy Queen has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Without the PPP and the Tribe… we probably wouldn’t have made it in the summer,” said James. “It’s just that we are running this far. Fortunately, here we have drive-thru. But even with drive-thru, we’re running about 40 percent less. The Pizza Inn works like 70 percent less. Part of this is because we are not open two days a week. But still, it’s because of the virus, because we couldn’t get help. “
This was yet another circumstance where the family could help in the most basic way.
“I’ve worked here from time to time,” Ethan James said.
“I started working this time around because we were understaffed… we are so understaffed. It’s hard to keep people. So I started working because we were worried that we would have to close the restaurant doors, ”said James.
Much of James’ annual staff is seasonal. The biggest part of this is the influx of international students who come to the university. Because of the pandemic, this was not an option. Ethan James said they lost around 20 staff over the summer.
“Well, when you say 20 people, international students wanted to work as much as they could. So we always worked overtime for them. So when we lose 20 internationals, we lose between 25 and 30 people every hour, ”said Leo James in response.
He and the staff managed to stabilize at that point. With a reduced staff, they once again had to rely on their families as well as long-term employees. One of those, who is considered family at this point, is director Kay Garcia. She has worked at Dairy Queen since 1992.
“Rollie, her oldest son, called me and asked if I would work. I told him: “Two weeks! Because I hate this kind of work. I’ll give you two weeks, and that’s it. So, I’m still here. But it is mainly because of them. They’re like family, all of them, ”Garcia said.
When things started to get unstable with the spread of the virus, many staff members started to worry about being paid or having a place to work. Garcia said she spoke with each of them and promised they would be taken care of.
“You know you will always have a place. I guess heartwarming is what you would say. It’s reassuring… I told them that I have worked here for 27 years and that I have never missed a paycheck.
Leo James, even at 82, is still going strong. He has had a busy life and will continue to work both in his companies and elsewhere. He still has several irons in the fire.
“I was a member of the Jackson County School Board, I am a trustee at Mars Hill University, I am a member of the CSC founding board, I am a member of the chamber of commerce here in Cherokee. So we didn’t just sit down and do business.
He took over the Dairy Queen while still learning. He has seen four different buildings since working there. In this new location up the river, you can see the history on the walls. Celebrate 30 years, 40 years and try to find room for another plaque.
“Next year is another year. We are fortunate to have been here for a long time, ”said James.
“When we started moving here from the river. And the people saw that we were closed, and they saw that we were moving our equipment and everything. People came to me and said, “What are you doing with our Dairy Queen”. And this is the highlight. The Dairy Queen is owned by Cherokee. “