When I first went to The Dairy Shoppe, an ice cream store about five and a half miles from Kenyon’s campus, I was an incoming first year still trying to get a sense of what my surroundings would be for the next four years. I wasn’t sure yet what to think of Mount Vernon, and hadn’t spent much time there besides driving through the town square to reach campus. One of my first tastes of Mount Vernon, both literally and figuratively, was of a bowl of ice cream inside a warehouse building whose worn brick façade reflects its 61 years of use.
Well-known around the community for its house-made ice cream, low prices, original recipes and entrées such as hamburgers and hot dogs, the Dairy opened in the building, at 300 Wooster Road, in 2005. During my first visit, I was surprised by the prices — I couldn’t have paid more than $2 for a couple of scoops — and the high quality of the ice cream. I’ve been back on several occasions since, and the shop has yet to disappoint. On a cold February afternoon a year and a half after my first visit, Wesley Graham, the Dairy’s owner, sat down with me to discuss the building’s history, the state of the local economy, and the dozens of flavors he offers.
Graham, who makes his ice cream daily, is tall with a silver beard, his camouflage pants and shirt contrasting with the bright colors of the tubs of ice cream at the front of the shop. A Mount Vernon native, Graham has worked in remodeling, as well as the local restaurant scene — including at Ike’s, the Curtis Inn and Fat Daddy’s Pizza — and began renting the Dairy’s property after the deaths of Ruby and Lester George, the owners of L.G. Dairy, the ice cream shop that previously occupied the site.
Graham then began to create his own footprint in Mount Vernon by creating original, house-made ice cream. When I asked him where he found his inspiration for new flavors, Graham recalled taking trips to the now-closed Meijer in Newark, Ohio. “They had the bins where you went and bought the bulk nuts, candy and stuff,” he said. “I’d just walk down a candy aisle … and look at it, and think, ‘Cookies, what could I do with that?’” In other instances, the customers he refers to as “diehards,” or regulars, will come back after vacations with a new flavor idea gleaned from ice cream they ate on their trip. Over the years, Graham’s ideas and suggestions from his patrons have resulted in eighty-eight flavors; only a quarter of those are stocked regularly, however, due to limited freezer space.
Ashlyn Billman, 19, has been working at the Dairy for a year and a half and has risen to the rank of manager. A graduate of Mount Vernon High School, Billman said she most enjoys “the people I work with, and the customers that come in.”
Graham said he makes a point of hiring students. “I like to stay with the younger crowd,” he said. “You get a little more spunk, spontaneity, out of the younger group … and they don’t wear out as easily. We get very busy.”
The summer months are the shop’s busiest. When Kenyon and Mount Vernon Nazarene University return for the fall semester, the Dairy is a common destination for students seeking to escape Ohio’s sweltering late-August weather. Some of those students are on athletic teams, as Kelly Menzel ’15 recalled. “The first time I went to the Dairy was with the cross-country team for preseason, and I’d heard a lot about how cool it was … from a lot of different people, and that you just got this insane amount of ice cream for hardly anything,” she said. When Menzel first went to the Dairy, she almost drove past the building because of its nondescript exterior. “But then I walked in and there was such a long line,” she recalled, “people from Kenyon and people from Mount Vernon, like you knew it clearly must be a favorite spot among everyone in the community.”
Graham credits the support of the community in enabling him to keep costs low, even when his own wallet takes a hit. As we sat in a faded booth in the small, tidy dining area of the Dairy, Graham explained that although running an independent ice cream shop in a rural area is economically challenging, “As long as I can keep a few employees busy, help their families out, then I don’t need to make a killing,” he said. “I just want to survive and survive happily.”