By Dan Barry
KENHORST, Pa.â€”This American summer, the heat is the least of it. A pummeled economy. A credit-rating embarrassment. More tarmac ceremonies for dead war heroes. Tornadoes, floods and other disasters, including Congress.
Presidential aspirants stalking Iowa like Barbie and Ken zombies.
Clearly, the country needs to pull off the road and take a break. It needs to treat itself to a soft-serve cone, chocolate-dipped and melting so quickly as to demand a tongueâ€™s sculpting attention, while tiny tree creatures sing their carpe diem serenade, and reassurance comes with a stray evening breeze.
A tasty-twirly-twisty place has to be around here somewhere. There always is.
Thereâ€™s one. In the Kenhorst Plaza, just outside the small city of Reading, a Dairy Queen shares asphalt space with a Dollar Tree, a Sears hardware store, a Fashion Bug, a food market, a pawn shop and a few vacant storefronts. It is the neon beacon of comfort in a tired commercial tableau.
Inside, though, this Dairy Queen seems different from the 5,000 others lighting up the countryâ€™s summer nights. It has the standard freezer filled with Dilly Bars, and the black-and-white photographs evoking a past that includes the first Dairy Queen, in prison-centric Joliet, Ill., in 1940. But plaques and letters and childrenâ€™s handwritten notes cover nearly every inch of available wall, all praising someone clearly without Pennsylvania Dutch roots; someone named Hamid.
The Cumru Elementary School thanks Hamid. The Mifflin Park Elementary School thanks Hamid. The Brecknock Elementary School thanks Hamid. The Governor Mifflin intermediate, middle and high schools thank Hamid. The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, the soccer leagues and the baseball leagues, the Crime Alert program, the home for adults with mental retardation â€” they all thank Hamid.
And here comes the owner, Hamid Chaudhry, in the midst of another 80-hour workweek, fresh from curling another soft-serve. As he makes his way to a corner table, customers hunched over chicken-strip baskets and sundaes call out his name, and he calls back theirs.
â€œHi, Tracey; I have that check for you.â€ â€œBye, Mrs. Brady. All good for the homecoming?â€ â€œBye, Mr. Rush. How was the Blizzard? Want another one?â€
With such familiarity, you might think that Mr. Chaudhry, 40, grew up rooting for the Reading Phillies and taking late-night rides up to the iconic Pagoda on Mount Penn. But in words inflected by his Pakistani roots and slight speech impediment, he explains that he has lived in southeastern Pennsylvania only since the uncertain year of 2002, not long after Sept. 11.
Then, as a couple of local officials he knows catch up by the window, and a former state police officer he knows picks up a frozen cake, and a Mennonite family, regular customers, eat his soft-serve out on the patio, Hamid from the Dairy Queen tells his American story.
He was the youngest of six in a Muslim family in Karachi. His father, an accountant, was physically and mentally damaged after being hit by a car; his mother, a schoolteacher, took care of her husband and insisted that her baby go to America for a better life. That meant Chicago, where a brother was driving a cab while studying to become a college professor.
Mr. Chaudhry took several years to earn a college degree in finance, partly because of language difficulties, and partly because he was always working â€” mostly at the celebrated Drake Hotel. He was the unseen busboy, working his way up to assistant manager for room service and minibars, serving Caesar salad to President-elect Bill Clinton, delivering unsatisfactory apple pancakes to Jack Nicholson, tending to the dietary needs of a guest named Lassie. The Drake became an immersion course in Western pop culture.
He became an American citizen and started a career in financial-accounting software, eventually moving to New York, where he got fired. (â€œWall Street wasnâ€™t for me,â€ he says.) But he did meet a medical student named Sana Syed. Their first meeting was with her parents; the second was for a coffee at Starbucks; the third a brunch at a diner; and, finally, a dinner date at an Outback Steakhouse.
After they married in 2001, she landed a residency at the Reading Hospital and Medical Center. While his wife worked 90 hours a week, Mr. Chaudhry mustered the nerve to ask the owner of the local Dairy Queen, at Kenhorst Plaza, whether he wanted to sell. When he heard yes, Mr. Chaudhry scraped, mortgaged and borrowed to meet the asking price of $413,000.
He completed his classroom training at Dairy Queenâ€™s headquarters in Minnesota, where he studied everything from labor management to the proper way to hand a customer a Blizzard. On June 27, 2003, he finally opened the doors to his Dairy Queen, but he was so jittery, intent on making every customer feel extra, extra special, that one employee quit on the spot. Oh, and the soft-serve machine malfunctioned.
Once he found his footing, Mr. Chaudhry decided to give back to the community, and held an elementary-school fund-raiser in which he provided the parent-teacher organization with 25 percent of the sales.
Though the $450 seemed a generous amount, the publicity he received did not seem right to him.
â€œIt felt like I got more in return than what I was giving,â€ he says.
Just like that, the Dairy Queen began to become the center of communal good, notwithstanding its contribution to the high obesity rate recorded among adults in Berks County. Mr. Chaudhry immersed himself in fund-raising, splitting everything 50-50 so that he only covered his costs. Good for promoting the business, yes, but also good for Hamid.
Fund-raisers for a father of four with cancer; for the Childrenâ€™s Miracle Network; for soccer teams and Little League teams and the widow of a deputy sheriff recently killed in a shootout â€” he was a regular customer who liked Blizzards. Sponsorship of car washes and high school homecomings and blood drives four times a year. (Donate a pint of blood and get a $20 frozen cake.) Free parties held at every local elementary school, as well as at a Bible school run by the Mennonite church.
â€œMy customers have made me well-to-do,â€ Mr. Chaudhry explains. â€œThey patronize me, so why wouldnâ€™t I give back?â€
He gets up to hand a check to Tracey Naugel, the president of one of the local parent-teacher organizations who sits at a nearby table, enjoying a chocolate cone. Typical Hamid, she later says. She recently helped to organize a modest fund-raising event at Dairy Queen for a childrenâ€™s swim team. â€œHamid gave me a check for $1,000,â€ she says.
â€œAnd I know we didnâ€™t make $1,000 that night.â€
Every community has its magnetizing place: a post office, a diner, a coffee shop. Here it is the Dairy Queen, Ms. Naugel says, mostly because of Mr. Chaudhry. He randomly shows up at schools with frozen treats for teachers. He once set up a petting zoo outside his store. He even bought his own dunk tank to use on the patio. He tries.
â€œHe knows everybody and everybody knows Hamid,â€ Ms. Naugel says. â€œWeâ€™re so lucky to have him.â€
The soft-serve has been a welcome balm, but it is time to toss those balled-up napkins and get back on the nerve-rattling road. Time to say goodbye to Mr. Chaudhry, who can tell you that younger people prefer Oreo Blizzards and older people prefer dipped cones, but he cannot say more about his motives than that he is lucky, thank God.
Just living in Pennsylvania, he says, with a wife, two children, a thriving business, and many friends. Hamid at the Dairy Queen is home.