Community mourns burned Dairy Queen

As Cyndi Day cruised down the Sterling Highway and into Soldotna Tuesday evening, a familiar craving struck.

It was 8 o'clock, a beautiful day outside, and she was only in town to run an errand or two. But as she approached the Dairy Queen, Day found herself turning the steering wheel and maneuvering her car into the drive-thru lane, sucked in by temptation and ready to indulge.

"I thought I'd pull in and get a Blizzard," said Day, who is the owner of the Maverick Saloon, located right across the street from the ice cream shop. "But the line was too long. So I went, 'Ah, no, I don't have to have that.'"

Seven hours later, something ignited near the rear roof of the popular Soldotna spot. Smoke began to billow out the eves. Flames clawed through wood and insulation to dance atop the building, a bright orange glow against the 3 a.m. sky.

By Wednesday morning the fire was out but the damage was done. A collapsed roof and extensive heat and smoke damage totaled the Dairy Queen, with neighboring Alaska Fudge & Gifts receiving a considerble hit as well.

"I woke up this morning to a text from my bartender telling me about Dairy Queen burning down," Day sighed. "That's just a (bummer); I missed out on my Blizzard."

Day, though, knows the ice cream franchise is more than just another chain restaurant where she can go to sate her sweet tooth. Co-owners Pete and Val Ischi are consistently community-minded, sponsoring everything from Soldotna Little League Baseball to local youth hockey. 

"That whole family has always been very, very supportive of everything in the community," said Tom Salmon, who went to high school with both Pete and Val when he moved to Soldotna in 1972.

"There's going to be..." Salmon paused to choose his words carefully, "a change in the community if they don't keep it open."

Soldotna Little League President Jerry Holmgaard echoed the sentiment.

"It's a shock that something like that happened," Holmgaard said. "They sponsored us for the last couple years and they're a huge asset to the community."

Aside from supporting local sports teams and activities, Soldotna's Dairy Queen was basically important in and of itself, a landmark of sorts due to the company's scarcity in the state of Alaska.

"I don't know how many years Dairy Queen has been there, but I've been here 20 years and it's been here since then," said Brent Elkington, noting that it's probably one of the busiest places in town.

"A lot of people in the community had kids who worked there, or they worked there."

Elkington recalled the multitude of trophies, model airplanes, and other memorabilia that decorated the store, real Soldotna history crammed into a building whose claim to fame is mixing candy with a frozen dairy product.

"You could walk in there with your kids and there's a trophy sitting up there," Elkington said, "and you could say, 'When I was a kid, my team won that trophy.'"

While a fire is obviously bad news at any time of year, the fact that Dairy Queen burned down during the busiest season for business only serves to compound the blow. Increased traffic flow due to tourists and fisherman means more people passing by, which means more customers experiencing that same spontaneous craving that Day felt the day before the fire.

"I always tell everybody, 'You work your butt off in July so you can afford to order pizza for your kids in December,'" Day said. "That's how it is here. So for this to happen to somebody at this time of year...all of our hearts go out to them."

Day said she will be looking for the owners to eventually rebuild, and the Ischis have stated their intentions to do so. But until that time comes, a flimsy orange construction fence and a crude plywood sign announcing "Closed due to fire" in hot pink spray-painted lettering is all Day is going to get.

"Hopefully they have good insurance and they'll rebuild and be back," Day said. "And I'll get my Blizzard."

Fire damages Dairy Queen
Fire destroys Dairy Queen

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