OPINION | REX NELSON: At the dairy bar

I cover a lot of ground in this job, but I don't come close to Kat Robinson.

Robinson, an author and food historian, has written her 10th book, "Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats & Cool Treats." How can you be an Arkansan and not love independently owned dairy bars?

"Part of the reason dairy bars continue to exist is because they tie a community together," she writes. "Many are named after the local high school mascot. Others bear the names of owners who become known for their products and the atmosphere their restaurants exude. In some cases, these restaurants are the only locally owned and operated game in town.

"They become beloved. Their continued presence in their communities are a stronghold against the winds of change. They're pockets of nostalgia held fast against the decades, a spot by the road where grandparents can share memories with their grandchildren, where first dates are made, where a young boy or girl has the first bite of cold ice cream, where a traveler can find a good bite to eat year after year."

In January 2021, Robinson was looking for her next project. The pandemic was nearing the one-year mark, and she was tired of being in the house.

"I had spent time during the pandemic writing cookbooks instead of the travel guides for which I'm known," she says. "But, like many, I was itching to get out and about again and resume my normal life--normal for me being visiting, researching and sharing the stories of our state's dining establishments.

"My partner and I were out one Saturday afternoon delivering books. I wanted ice cream and so did he, so we stopped at a place I knew--a restaurant that didn't even have a sign. That place was Mel's Dairy Bar in Malvern. It's south of downtown on U.S. Highway 67, a little yellow building from whence ice cream and massive burgers come. It was while I was enjoying a caramel shake that the idea popped into my head."

Robinson realized that dairy bars were the restaurants best prepared for a pandemic. You stand outside and order through a window. There's no need to go inside.

"I got busy researching the state's dairy bars," Robinson says. "I was quite surprised to find that the model I had thought about was indeed working. Of the state's 95 dairy bars around in 2019, 94 of them were still in operation.

"I sampled all sorts of fare--from remarkable butterscotch sundaes at Lion's Den Drive In in Clarendon and the steak fingers at the Lighthouse Drive-In in Wickes to dipped cones at Portia's Dairy King and righteous burgers at Sheridan's Yellow Jacket Drive-In--and started building this book."

A dairy bar had to be locally owned, be a permanent establishment, serve ice cream and foods other than ice cream, and offer ordering through a window to make the book. Photos often show Robinson's orders sitting on the dashboard of her vehicle.

"I wanted to show what diners should expect," Robinson says. "There's no styling, just the dishes from each place on a tray under my windshield and natural light."

Halfway through the project, the folks at Arkansas PBS contacted Robinson to create a film based on the book. It first aired in August. The documentary focuses on 13 dairy bars. The book has them all, including the one that didn't survive.

"I was sad that the Timbo Dairy Bar didn't survive the pandemic but was thrilled to find that relatives of the owners had restarted it as Brad and Dad's Drive In," Robinson says.

The book ended up covering 99 dairy bars. They range in age from Betty's Old Fashion in El Dorado, which opened in 1934, to the Dardanelle Ice Cream Shop & Deli, which began business in 2019.

"While I was doing my initial run in February and March, a few dairy bars weren't open," Robinson says. "Some--like Susie Q Malt Shop in Rogers and the Dairy Dream in Mountainburg--close down over the colder months. I wanted to make sure this was an all-season guide to finding these locations."

Too often, while we focus newspaper reviews and social media posts on our favorite fine-dining establishments, we fail to realize how much a part of life dairy bars are in a small, rural state such as Arkansas.

"Dairy bars matter, not just for what they sell and who runs them, but for their unique position as stand-alone eateries that remain open for business, even in the roughest of times," Robinson writes. "Though national chains and franchises have encroached into their business model, these dairy bars have managed to keep on keeping on through the decades, serving all of those who come to the window.

"Restaurants have always come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A full-service restaurant offers sit-down service, usually with wait staff inside. They range from high-end restaurants to local diners. Dairy bars, however, function differently. They are intrinsically linked with car culture. Ordering is at a window. The menu is on a wall or marquee. The standard fare is burgers, hot dogs and other items that can be prepared somewhat quickly. And there is always ice cream."

After reading the book, Gov. Asa Hutchinson described Robinson as someone who understands this state and its people.

"Kat took the pandemic head-on and blazed a different route," he says. "In one of her books, she writes about the character of her state. She calls Arkansas 'a stubborn, hang-on-by-your-teeth subsistence land that adapts to weather, new folks and the lay of the land.' That's an accurate description. ... With imagination, sweat of the brow and a dash of courage, we can work our way through anything."

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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