MUCH MORE THAN AN OLD-FASHIONED BURGER JOINT
If you had asked Zach Ruh in high school what a life of service might look like, he would have said, “Simple, I want to own the Dairy Joy Drive-In and make hamburgers for my customers.” At least that is what he told his mother when she asked what he wanted to do when he grew up.
Serving others seems to be a part of Zach’s DNA. He grew up in the Hinckley-Big Rock community. His dad is the chief of the fire department in Big Rock, and it probably isn’t surprising that Zach followed in his dad’s footsteps for a time. He became a fireman and, at 20, the youngest paramedic in the entire county. Zach started the Hinckley-Big Rock Thanksgiving Turkey Drop several years ago, which benefits the local food pantry and provides holiday dinners for people in four towns. He has also volunteered his time to run concessions at the Big Rock Plowing Match, and the thing he says he likes most about small town living is the willingness of neighbors to help each other out, whatever the need may be.
But what drives a high school student to dream of becoming the owner of a drive-in restaurant? A history of great experiences.
“I had my first job at Dairy Joy in 1994,” remembers Zach. “I went to work there for Wyn and Jan Wahlgren, and they taught me everything there was to know about running the place. It has been here since 1957, when it was about a third the size it is now and was called Don’s Delight, but it has been Dairy Joy for nearly 64 years now. It was just a great place to work. I loved going there as a kid too. Everybody in the area knows it as a local landmark.” Over the years Zach would return periodically to pitch in when Wyn and Jan needed extra help, and when Jan passed away in 2015, Zach stepped up to help fill the gap.
In the meantime, Zach had met Mike Greutman, who shared his passion for the food business, community service, and the charm of life in the close-knit Hinckley-Big Rock community. The two had been on the lookout for a drive-in restaurant similar to Dairy Joy that would fulfill Zach’s dream of owning his own restaurant.
As luck would have it, Zach and Mike were considering purchasing a drive-in on the other side of the county when Wyn contacted Zach and asked if he’d be interested in buying the Dairy Joy. The deal was done on April 22, 2016, and Zach and Mike are now partners in a vintage piece of Americana.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” says Mike. “We’re just really grateful for this opportunity. This was Zach’s dream, and he’s the perfect person to run the Dairy Joy.”
Though Mike says Zach is the face of the Dairy Joy, Mike is anything but a silent partner. Now 42, Mike has been in the food industry since he was 16. He has managed a number of restaurants in the Chicago area, as well as restaurants in Central Illinois and Indiana. He is also a real estate broker. “I handle the business side of Dairy Joy,” says Mike. However, you can often find Mike cooking burgers and waiting on customers. If he isn’t at the Dairy Joy, Mike is likely how selling homes. He is a real estate broker for Coldwell Banker Real Estate Group.
Though Mike grew up in a small town just north of Decatur, Illinois, he says Hinckley-Big Rock is home now. “It’s funny. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to escape small-town life. Now I couldn’t image living anywhere but here.”
Dairy Joy has always had a close relationship with Hinckley-Big Rock High School. Over the last 65 years, scores of students have found their first employment there, and it’s not uncommon for couples to come by for photos before prom. One tradition that continues to contribute substantially to Dairy Joy’s success is the “mandatory” status it enjoys with sports teams in the area. “We get every sports team – softball, baseball, soccer, you name it – stopping by after the game. That’s the home teams and the away teams,” Zach points out. “We can seat about 50 people inside and a bunch more outside on the patio, and it fills up.”
As he is talking, a freight train rambles by just a few yards away on the rail line that parallels Route 30. “And where else can you get that?” Mike yells over the din. “That’s been doing that for 65 years!”
Nostalgia notwithstanding, a drive-in restaurant doesn’t succeed for six decades without a reputation for some really good food. The current owners have strived to keep doing the things that have made Dairy Joy a mainstay and kept fans coming from as far aways as Aurora and Batavia. As always, burgers and fries are cooked to order. The Arctic Swirls, Bostons, Royal Nut Bars, and other ice cream concoctions are still whipped up before the customers’ eyes, and the slaw and potato salad are homemade from secret recipes. “It’s all about being brilliant with the basics,” says Mike.
The variety of offerings at Dairy Joy is truly astounding and includes just about any kind of sandwich, salad, side or dessert you can imagine. So how does Dairy Joy manage to produce all of these delicacies, cooked to order, in about he same amount of time it takes to get your “fast food” at a chain drive-thru?
“When we’re busy,” says Zach, “it’s controlled chaos. We hire people for their personalities, and their smiles. We can teach them how to cook how to serve, and how to run a register, but we can’t teach personality.”
Some of Dairy Joy employees have been there for 20 years. “We employ a lot of high school and college students,” says Mike, “but we have employees who are teachers too. We really don’t have all that much turnover. The employees love working here as much as we do.”
And that loyalty doesn’t seem to fade with time, either. After Zach and Mike bought Dairy Joy, they had a combination farewell party for Wyn and celebration of the next chapter in the drive-in’s history. “We had people at the party that were Dairy Joy employees 30 years ago,” says Zach. “In 65 years, this restaurant has only had five owners, including Mike and me. Wyn owned it for 25 years, and Warren Burmester had it for 27. That’s pretty unusual.”
Zach points out that the business is seasonal and the drive-in is closed from the end of October to about the end of February. it would seem, however, that being closed for a few months a year is an intrinsic part of Dairy Joy’s magic. “it’s always great to be at Dairy Joy on opening day,” Zach says. “I think that’s my favorite thing about this place – seeing the smiles on peoples faces after they’ve been waiting for it to open for three or four months.”
Opening day for the 2022 season is Friday, February 25.