Ray Duckler: Can Arnie's remain the king with Dairy Queen moving in?

  • Linda Wells (left) of Wolfeboro laughs with her granddaughter, Lauren Hart, during lunch at Arnie’€™s Place in Concord on Wednesday. Hart is visiting her grandparents from Michigan and the family stopped at Arnie’€™s after picking her up from the airport. Photos by ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Wells shows the text messages on her phone that talk about her family’s trip to Arnie’s Place.

  • Dave Wells of Wolfeboro walks back to his table with his family’s order at Arnie’s Place in Concord on Wednesday. The group got ice cream to go after eating their meals. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Thursday, August 04, 2016

For perhaps the first time in his life, Tom Arnold didn’t like a scoop.

We had learned that corporate giant Dairy Queen would soon open a branch a mere cone’s throw from Arnie’s, his iconic family-owned business on Loudon Road.

“There’s not a thing I can do about it,” Arnold said recently by phone. “We know our customers by name and we’ll do the best we can and see what happens. There’s no magic wand to help us deal with this. We’ll just have to take care of our regulars.”

That, Arnold figures, is the key to his continued success. He’s owned the indoor-outdoor ice cream and burger joint for nearly 25 years, building a reputation for quality in both the food service and public service arenas. Although seasonal, Arnold annually extends Arnie’s season by months, opening while snow remains on the streets, giving the area a taste of warmth to go with licks of his homemade ice cream.

The landscape on The Heights will soon change, however. You’ll have a choice when it comes to ice cream, now that a Dairy Queen will open on the Hodges Companies-owned eyesore known as 192-196 Loudon Road.

Dairy Queen will build on 2,600 square feet, with construction set to start within a month and doors opening by the end of the year.

Thankfully and finally, we say so long to the Entertainment Cinema and branch location of Movie Gallery, a ghostly, crumbling vision for the past six years. But for those who like the mom-and-pop flavor in their ice cream, this corporate America mainstay, with a menu similar to Arnie’s, could mean trouble.

“I’m sure we’ll lose people to this, but we’ll do the best we can,” Arnold said. “I recall before Kentucky Fried Chicken came up the street we had a chicken promotion and sold 300 to 400 pieces of chicken a day and they came in and we went a different way.”

The decrease in chicken sales was “huge,” Arnold said, forcing him to get creative. That ushered in his era of barbecued food, “and we do a pretty good job of it,” he added.

He has no ideas yet how to battle Dairy Queen. But with a loyal following, built over more than two decades of goodwill, perhaps he won’t need to do much.

He won’t if you listen to Marie Houle of Manchester, who stopped by Wednesday during a mid afternoon break from her job at Granite State Management and Resources in Concord.

Houle told me she visits Arnie’s three times per month, buying hot fudge sundaes for herself and co-workers, and Wednesday was one of those days.

“I love it here,” she said. “I love the atmosphere, I love the oldies music, since I’m old.”

She’s been buying ice cream at Arnie’s for 14 years. Will the new guy in town, a nationally known business opening two-tenths of a mile to the northeast of Arnie’s, lure her away?

“We have a Dairy Queen in Manchester,” Houle said. “I don’t really care for it that much, so probably not.”

Linda Wells, a business analyst from Wolfeboro, and her husband Dave Wells, an engineer, stopped by for burgers before turning to ice cream cones to go. They had picked up their granddaughter, Lauren Hart, from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. They texted Hart’s father so he knew she had arrived safely.

Included in their text, they said: “On our way to Arnie’s. Best burgers in NH. Will have her call you tonight.”

“When we pick up our grandchildren at the airport and Arnie’s is open, we come to Arnie’s,” Linda Wells said. “We love Arnie’s. We wait for the day it opens. When Arnie’s is opening, whoever sees the sign first calls the other to tell them.”

But while Houle said she doesn’t care for Dairy Queen, the Wellses like it. In fact, they went to one last Sunday in upstate New York.

“We do like it,” Linda said, “ but we would never choose Dairy Queen over Arnie’s.”

“The food?” Dave asked. “Here. Ice cream? Probably here, too, although Dairy Queen has the Blizzard, and those are great.”

Be that as it may, there’s little doubt that Arnold’s community-minded focus has endeared him to the community and created a loyal following.

Girls scouts wash cars on his lot to raise money. Christmas trees are sold there. His ice cream is given away at good-cause events all the time.

The king of soft serve also has a soft spot, saying he cries during sad movies and teared up when customers replaced stolen hanging baskets from a fence near his business.

It is this two-way street of businessman and community, looking out for each other, stretched over decades, that Arnold hopes will keep his business where it’s always been.

“It’s been amazing since this happened how many posts we’ve gotten on Facebook and letters we get from people,” Arnold said. “We must be doing something right, I guess.”