Signs sit above all of the trash cans stationed outside the entrances to each Mayfield Dairy Queen. “Bad attitudes here,” they read, with an arrow pointing to the receptacle.
While they serve as a reminder to guests who have misplaced their perspectives and gratitude, the messages are intended for the approximately 150 employees of locally owned Mayfield Dairy Queens. It’s like the company’s version of the famous “Play like a champion today” sign in the Notre Dame University football team tunnel and similar to a placard I once saw over the service entrance to the Four Seasons Austin. Pretty august company for a fast food restaurant, but Mayfield Dairy Queens don’t operate like the stereotypical version of their drive-thru brethren.
The signs were the idea of Robert Mayfield, owner of 10 Dairy Queens in Central Texas, and they match the Cleburne native’s folksy wit while also illuminating the importance of customer service and hospitality. A happy customer service experience starts with a happy employee. I can testify: When the woman cleaning the table in the dining room at the Stassney Lane location busts into the chorus and sings along with Billy Ocean to “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going,” it’s hard not to smile.
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Mayfield understands the importance of the customer experience at Dairy Queen. He has soft serve running through his veins. His father, Tolbert F. Mayfield, opened his first Dairy Queen in Cleburne on April 2, 1949, and Robert worked the counter as an adolescent.
“He didn’t want to open on April Fools' Day,” Robert Mayfield repeats for the second time the morning we meet, obviously enamored with the cleverness of the family lore. Several times during our chat, Mayfield’s face turned the shade of his medium-rare-colored dress shirt, as he wound up the delivery or punctuated one of his apocryphal tales with a laugh. Ask him about how the Blizzard machine, with its aggressive propeller, whips all of the fat out of the tasty treat, or the one about how he and his brothers loved Dairy Queen ice cream so much as children they tried to take a pint to sleep with in bed.
Dairy Queen originally served only ice cream, and a photo of Tolbert Mayfield squatting next to a 10-gallon mixing jug stands sentinel near the entrance of each Mayfield Dairy Queen. It cost 10 cents to eat as much ice cream as you could manage back in those days, a prospect that would probably delight 4-year-old Alex Mayfield, who sits politely with his father, Linton, uncle Nathaniel and tickle-prone grandfather Robert during our chat in the private dining space at the RM 620 Mayfield Dairy Queen location in Round Rock.
Linton and Nathaniel both work with their father in the third-generation family business. Asked if the two men in their 40s had specific titles, the patriarch says with a chuckle, “Crown prince,” the ketchup rising in his cheeks.
Robert Mayfield attended the University of Texas for his undergraduate education and law school and spent about a decade working in land and title law around the state, including Hereford, the “town without a toothache” (ask Robert), before returning to Austin in 1977. The lure of the family business (and the misguided delusion that being a restaurateur was easier than practicing law) proved too strong to resist, and Robert Mayfield purchased his father’s Austin Dairy Queen locations in 1979, the same year the longest consecutively running location opened on Burnet Road.
The avuncular owner points to a fairly simple mission statement as the key to his company’s success: making happy memories for customers based on quality and service in the cleanest space possible. An employee will greet you when you enter, tell you “thank you” and “goodbye” as you leave and check in on you during your meal. It’s the kind of hospitality you might expect at a table-service restaurant with higher price points.
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Nathaniel credits his father’s sincerity, integrity and sense of humor for shaping the Mayfield Dairy Queen brand and experience, pointing out that restaurants take on the personality of the owner and management.
“We want you to have a good time when you come in the stores,” Robert Mayfield said. “People are looking for an experience.”
Area manager Ken Davis, who has been with the company for almost 20 years, brings Robert a cup of coffee with the precise amount of Sweet’N Low packets to suit the owner’s taste.
“If you have a problem, see him; if you have a compliment, see me,” Mayfield says with a chuckle. He’s kidding, of course. You’ll find the boss’s phone number at the store’s entrance near a picture of the owner hiding behind a dipped cone, and on the company’s website. He personally responds to comments, questions and concerns.
The care for the customer also extends to the family of employees, according to director of operations Earnest Paredes, who joined Mayfield about 25 years ago.
“Robert takes care of his people. You aren’t just a number,” Paredes says, explaining that the work environment leads to a higher quality of life than other restaurant industry jobs he’s had. Hourly workers start at $12 an hour, and general managers can make almost $60,000 annually.
Paredes takes Mayfield’s explanation of the company’s mission and breaks it down in a handful of bulleted points cribbed from the book “Fish: A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results”:
1. Be mindful.
2. Make the customer’s day.
3. Choose your attitude.
4. Have fun.
“We talk about it every day. We practice what we preach,” said Paredes, who started with the company as a general manager.
The interiors of the Mayfield Dairy Queens look like other modern locations you’ll find across the country, with flat-screen TVs showing sports, slick ordering monitors and black-and-white photos of national Dairy Queen locations mixed in with historic Mayfield family photos. And the menu looks similar to others in Texas, though there are a few notable differences.
The Mayfield Dairy Queens are among only a handful (four or five) of the franchises that serve chocolate-flavored ice cream. The decision — prompted by Linton, who has worked closely over the years with American Dairy Queen Corporation and boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of the company’s history — has been a smashing success, according to both Robert and Nathaniel. The trio of Mayfields have a habit of executing dialogue like a three-man weave seen during basketball practice.
Nathaniel also introduced the idea of flavored dips, currently cherry, butterscotch and a seasonal creamsicle. The butterscotch dip offering reminded one Minneapolis native of her childhood and brought her to tears, according to Robert. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but he looked pretty serious.
In addition to customer service and the special menu offerings, the trio also point to more mundane but equally important aspects that have led to success. The company has long given great consideration to efficiency of space and movement used by team members in the kitchen, former professional trumpet player Nathaniel says, echoing some lessons he learned in business school following his education at the Juilliard School.
Customers likely don’t know and probably don’t care much about those inside baseball ideas on management or the company’s rigorous hiring, training and measured growth strategies. But they undoubtedly notice the welcoming smiles, the cheerful service and the lack of bad attitudes.
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