Liz Davis has always believed that the warmest of childhood memories involve the coldest of tasty treats.
“If you ask anybody that you meet, they’re able to tell you what ice cream or frozen custard place they went to as a kid and exactly what the scenario was,” Liz said. “They’ll say, ‘My teacher took me’ or ‘My grandparents took me.’ Or, ‘We got to go when we got good grades’ or ‘I went there as a first date.’ It’s the most nostalgic of businesses.”
Well of course Liz would say that. For the past 17 years, she has been creating childhood memories in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood as the owner of a beloved frozen custard shop called the Dairy Godmother. Last week, Liz announced that she would not reopen the Dairy Godmother after her annual month-long winter vacation.
Fans of the store are bereft, but Liz said it’s time.
“I’ve worked every Saturday and Sunday my whole adult life,” said Liz, 58. “I want to get out of here before they carry me out in a box. Because that would be sad.”
When Liz opened the Dairy Godmother, Del Ray wasn’t the hip, trendy, boutique-filled neighborhood it is now. Mount Vernon Avenue was a rundown strip dotted with boarded-up buildings.
Liz liked that. It meant rent was cheap.
“Nobody wanted to live here,” she said. “That allows people to be creative. They don’t have to spend all their time chasing a dollar.”
Liz chased custard, the eggy treat that is worshiped in her native Wisconsin. Well, I say “native” Wisconsin, but Liz’s relationship with the Badger State is complicated. She was a child when she moved to Arlington after her father, Glenn Davis, was elected to Congress from Wisconsin.
“This was back when all the families came,” she said. “They did not stay in the district.” Her family would often visit Wisconsin, where Liz’s frosty summer memories included frozen custard at LeDuc’s.
But given the vagaries of politics, an election every two years meant you might move back. Eventually, Liz would ask herself a question: Am I from Wisconsin or am I from here?
“For me, I lived here long enough that there wasn’t any going back to Wisconsin,” she said. “Instead of just wishing I lived in Wisconsin, but knowing that wasn’t going to happen, I decided to bring Wisconsin to me.”
And to her customers. Liz invested in a $70,000 frozen custard machine from Kiel, Wis., perfected her art and watched Del Ray gentrify around her.
“One of the things about Del Ray isn’t just that it has independent businesses, but that the owner is on site,” Liz said. “If you went in there you would see the owner, which is another level of independent business, in my opinion. My customers are used to seeing me. After a while, to be honest, I did start thinking I was the Dairy Godmother.”
Eventually, Liz decided to make herself an offer she couldn’t refuse: to sell the business. She’s not using a broker.
“A broker would just attract someone who can’t decide between a Subway franchise and the Dairy Godmother,” she said. “I wanted to give my customers a chance to keep it going in a way that makes their hearts sing.”
She’s hoping that a customer will buy the shop and let her work there a day or two a week. In the meantime, the space will house a pop-up called Salt/Bagel, serving pickled products from No. 1 Sons and bagels from Bagel Uprising.
In June 2009, the Dairy Godmother served perhaps its most famous customers: President Obama and his daughters, Malia and Sasha.
Liz didn’t hang any photos of the Obamas’ visit, but she did save the chair the president sat in. A new employee named Lindsay Carlson had an idea: adorn the chair with the words “President Obama sat here” and little American flags.
“She was a teacher from Nebraska and she had the idea of decoupaging the chair,” Liz said. “She was a good Midwesterner. She probably decoupaged a lot of stuff.”
What will become of the chair should Liz sell the business?
“The chair will convey,” she said.
As we spoke on the phone, Liz choked up only once, when she thought back over the past 17 years.
“I’ve had people who met, got married, had children, and now their children can come here on their own,” she said, her voice breaking. “The thing that makes my heart sing the most is seeing the small kids who are now so proud of being able to come to the Dairy Godmother without their parents. That is the single thing that makes me most nostalgic.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.