New Owners bring new life to Dairy Kastle.
Not long before Katherine Smith and Damian Vitale were set to open Dairy Kastle for their first season as the new owners, a truck mowed down the Eastern Parkway iconic ice cream stand’s sign.
“We didn’t know what kind of omen that was,” said Vitale.
March 6, 2012 – opening day – promptly answered that question. It was an unseasonable 75 degrees and the busiest day they’ve had thus far.
“All the faithful came out,” said Vitale.
For Dairy Kastle, “the faithful” doesn’t just mean duPont Manual High School students and neighbors who walk over, but folks that come from as far and wide as Prospect and Elizabethtown and Indiana, folks who have been coming for a sweet treat with their families for generations.
It wasn’t too long after the business opened for the season that Dairy Kastle started popping up on my radar again and again. I don’t eat sweets, so I’d never given Dairy Kastle much thought, but I kept seeing mentions of the place for decidedly un-ice-creamy reasons – veggie dogs, vegan chili, tacos-in-a-bag, Milk-Bone sundaes for dogs.
Dairy Kastle is really Smith’s baby; she’s only the third owner of the garage-turned-ice-cream-stand that’s been open for almost 40 years. A vegetarian, Smith has been responsible for most of the menu changes and additions. It’s these small changes that have raised the business’s profile over the past few months. Most of the menu and (jaw-droppingly low) prices remain from previous seasons (except now prices include tax), but now there’s a charming new website designed by Smith’s brother, a Facebook page, new benches, potted plants, T-shirts, and a new sign designed by local artist Rob Linker to replace the tangled mess left behind by the truck.
“We couldn’t change the menu, really,” said Smith, citing the preferences of their devoted following. “So we had to figure out ways to otherwise improve the experience.”
Sometimes, for example, if lines are getting long, someone will come from behind the counter to hand out free samples to folks in the queue.
Most importantly, said Smith, the focus has been on making it a fun place to work for their staff – a mix of returning staff and managers from previous seasons and new hires. According to the buzz about Dairy Kastle, that effort has been paying off in exceptional customer service.
One of my Twitter followers described the Kastle employees as “almost absurdly cheerful.”
The long lines go fast; the two to four servers per shift execute elaborate choreography in order to take and fill orders and negotiate the behind the counter space that’s only a little bigger than a walk-in closet.
According to Andy, the veteran manager, the best part about the job is the fast pace.
“It makes the shift go by in a flash,” said Andy.
This cheerfulness extends to the owners themselves. They’re buzzing with pride and enthusiasm as they show off the compact kitchen full of shiny gadgets and whatsits, dip ladles into wells of sauces and chili made from scratch, introduce me to the entire staff, and lead me to the tiny dark office with paneled walls and vintage calendars that broadcasts the building’s garage heritage. Vitale, a colleague of mine when I worked at the Louisville Collegiate School, is universally regarded as one of the nicest members of the faculty. He moved to Louisville 12 years ago and works full time in the Physical Education department. Smith had been working as a bartender at Shenanigans Irish Grille for eight years and decided it was time to make a change. The previous owner of Dairy Kastle was a regular at the bar. Smith approached him years ago, asking if he wanted to sell. He did not. But in late fall of 2011, he changed his mind. By the first of the year, Dairy Kastle was hers.
The tagline on the Dairy Kastle website is: “The greatest neighborhood ice cream stand ever.”
After you spend a little time at Dairy Kastle and watch just how happy people are when they’re there, the tagline seems like neither hyperbole nor braggadocio. I used to say that I wanted a job as a flower delivery person – no one is ever unhappy to receive flowers. But maybe my dream job lies at Dairy Kastle, handing out dipped cones to children and serving up Milk-Bone sundaes to dogs.
Dairy Kastle is located at 575 Eastern Parkway and is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon-10 p.m. on Sunday. Dairy Kastle’s season runs March-October. The full menu, including prices, is available at dairykastle.com. Cash only.
From the Faithful:
news producer at WFPL
“It’s very novel and awesome for a vegetarian to be able to get a chili dog at an ice cream stand! Get a chili dog with nacho cheese and an orange cow milkshake and you’ve got yourself a filling meal for around $3. I also love that they serve dog sundaes – a Milk-Bone with soft serve ice cream on top. They even made a tiny, half-Milk-Bone version for my Chihuahua!”
of Consuming Louisville blog and Menu and Hours app
“Besides being insanely delicious, vegetarian chili dogs serve as a subtle expansion of the all-American hot dog and ice cream stand to even more Americans, including those who don’t eat meat for whatever reason. It makes Dairy Kastle a spot that you can take just about any of your friends, no matter what their dietary preferences or restrictions.”
manager of electronic communications at Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
“When I was little, I swam every day. As an adult, the closest I get to swimming in the summer is walking around in Louisville’s greater than 90 percent humidity. The creamy, cold goodness of those Dairy Kastle banana shakes can be a sanity-saver on a steamy day.”
“There is no better place for a cheap meal in Louisville than Dairy Kastle. Though the two chili dogs and drink for $2.99 is enough to get people in the door, the desserts are what keep people coming back. My favorite is the fat Elvis…I love the blueberry milkshake, but I’d do unspeakable things for a fat Elvis.”
Mary Margaret Sparks
freelance artist and writer
“I remember the first time I tried the fat Elvis. It was last summer and my husband was taking me to Dairy Kastle for the first time. He talked about this banana peanut butter milkshake, but I was skeptical and wouldn’t order it. I took a sip of his and we ended up switching milkshakes because I liked the fat Elvis so much! It is my favorite milkshake in town. Who knew a chocolate lover like me could be converted so easily?”
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