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​​The Dairy Queen Franchise That Saved a Marriage

A personal essay by Paul H. Belz


Their concupiscence was a casualty of the American penchant for pursuing material dreams in exchange for career landscapes featuring central gardens of stress, overwork, and shortchanged relationships.

The once frequent storms of angst over their withering, undernourished romance had subsided. Now there were only rare sprinklings of prescriptive discussions as they groped halfheartedly and myopically for ways to irrigate their parched relationship. It was a barren desert with diminishing moments of physical intimacy.

During the rare discussions of their connubial anorexia, the semantics differed but the rationalizations echoed a physical anorexic’s pleadings with her doctor; clinical, passionless, and predictable. Jenny and Frank’s typical script included a few “yes, I still love you” lines; a few “in a couple of years I’ll be able to take more time off work” lines; and a closing “every married working couple has the same dilemma we just have to ensure that our time together is quality time.”

The hackneyed euphemisms could all be distilled to the hapless anorexic’s habitual rejoinder to her doctor: “It’s not my fault; I’m a victim of society’s expectations.”

Victimhood and dependence became America’s defining personal character trait as the 1990s drew to a close, supplanting responsibility and self-reliance as inexorably as killer bees supplanting European honey bees. Compromise was vanishing from the national ethos, replaced by unrestrained personal gratification and an entitlement mentality.

Republics historically follow the same script: ruthless capitalism makes them great and over-indulgent socialism then destroys them. No one has devised a non-violent braking mechanism on either extreme. Marriages tend to reflect the ethos of the larger society.

When spiritual bonds vanish in a marriage and the vibrancy of youthful physical relationships mutates to the prosaicness of brushing teeth, a crossroad is reached. One road leads to separation and a second to a Faustian accommodation of apathetic acquiescence.

Jenny and Frank had reached that crossroad. Would they begin anew with fresh partners or would society and its ephemeral lures endure as their master? A third less traveled path, carefully engineered by Frank but with far more potholes, was also accessible at that crossroad.

That path would require significant risk-taking from both partners but could facilitate the reintegration of their souls and the reawakening of slumbering passions. It would necessitate abandoning well-established careers and working together in a joint business enterprise that would thrust them into close physical proximity for much of each work day.

They would be trading the risk of relationship underexposure for that of overexposure. Regardless of the loathsome time-line of tedium life may become, stepping out of a well-ingrained comfort zone is never easy.

Frank was ready for a radical career change. He was a successful computer software consultant to companies which designed programs for the medical profession. But a nagging memory of a disturbing incident persistently nudged him toward self-employment.

In the early 1990s, a client firm fired a fifty-two year old employee with four children, two in college. In seventeen years of service this man had tripled his company’s accounts and made them a force in their industry. He was not fired for age or incompetence but because the owners had decided to sell the firm.

In order to enhance the financial lure for potential buyers they jettisoned one of two executives with large salaries. Frank learned that they had tossed a coin to determine the direction of two careers, two families, and two lives. That atrocity imprinted Frank with the understanding that for those who have a good work ethic, self-employment is the only way to “do” rather than be “done to.”

The stark reality is that most employees are a variable expense and a temporary resource. The computer age inserts and deletes jobs from the economy at a rate which the disintegrating educational system cannot accommodate. In the 1990s—an era notable for large numbers of leveraged buyouts, mergers, and layoffs—job security became a cruel delusion and compassion an antediluvian notion relegated to the fairy-tale books of future generations’ children.

While living in Minneapolis, Frank had acquired a bass-fishing buddy named Eric, who was vice president of franchise development for Dairy Queen, the venerable soft-ice cream company begun in 1940. Eric sowed the seeds for self-employment firmly in Frank’s psyche with persistent preachments on the virtues of franchising in general and Dairy Queen in particular.

Frank enjoyed his current work and savored its substantial monetary compensation but was tiring of travel, time pressure, and subservience. He ached for independence. Running a franchise business with Jenny as a full working partner would either quickly fracture their marriage or cement its widening fissures and lift it to dimensions of respect, intimacy, and exhilaration not fathomable within their current blueprint for life.

Jenny was a high school social studies teacher who loved her work but acknowledged that her perfectionist personality was allowing the job to consume her. After school she became involved with coaching volleyball and lacrosse. Evenings were devoted to lesson plans, correcting papers, and occasional school meetings. She had job security, great benefits, a career that made her non-husband-dependent and in her mind the energizing high school environment was tantamount to the fountain of youth.

Her job satisfaction propelled her to endure workloads possible only through adrenalin surges at the end of the day. Opening the front door to her home each evening turned off that adrenalin as mechanically and reliably as a light switch. She loved her work to the point of exhaustion—the word obsession would not be hyperbolic. The trade-off was that her marriage had become a caricature of once romantic dreams.

Jenny and Frank were both in their upper thirties. Their only attempt to start a family had resulted in a miscarriage. Subsequently their disparate life-styles, divergent schedules, and Frank’s frequent travel reduced them to the effective status of roommates.

Their communication had become so sporadic and superficial that their rare “dates” did not involve catch-up conversation but instead were “get re-acquainted” chats. Jenny actually felt more comfortable in the company of some of her fellow teachers and even a few athletes than with Frank. For Frank’s part, he felt he might as well be speaking Greek when he attempted to discuss his computer work with Jenny.

In concert with their wedding vows they had promised that workaholism would be tolerated just long enough to buy a house and secure a comfortable lifestyle as a prelude to raising a family. But like a newly planted tree, as roots grow deeper, life-styles and routines become ingrained and difficult to discard no matter how ugly and destructive they become. Their optimal window for child-bearing had nearly closed.

The lust for acquisitions becomes a self-fueling engine propelling workers toward addiction with goal-obscuring acceleration. In what seemed a heartbeat they had reached their tenth wedding anniversary. They looked in the proverbial mirror and didn’t like what stared back. Robert Frost wrote in a poem: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Frank and Jenny decided to have a soul-searching discussion about getting off the prevailing life-path of 1990s America, a path leading increasingly to dysfunctional families and divorce.

They chose that “road less traveled by,” quit their jobs, and bought a franchise.

I first met her at a “sidewalk” health fair sponsored at the mall. Jenny’s display table was on the first-floor promenade. She was distributing free samples of a concoction called an “Orange Julius.” Mall management forbade tenants from aggressively marketing products to passersby, so this was a unique opportunity to introduce a vital sales item to a captive audience. Her exuberant smile was a more efficient lure than the aggressive pitch used by many fellow retailers.

It was as if people contact was absorbed and instantly processed as nourishment by each cell in her body. While personal interaction exhausts some, it invigorated her. Her persona drew people in as the sun’s gravity draws in asteroids.

At that same health fair, I was flush with pride after a Union Memorial Hospital Sports Medicine group’s electrode test indicated only 5% body fat—the same as Orioles’ star Cal Ripken. The acceptable body fat target for my population cohort was 15%. Buoyed by the confidence of having 10% body-fat “in the bank,” I tried an Orange Julius sample, loved it, and added another ritual to my afternoon and evening mall walks. I subsequently got to know Jenny, Frank, and many of their employees over a several year span.

The ex-teacher Jenny thrived in a people-oriented environment and kept smiling in the face of some ugly behavior. I recall one incident in which an elderly lady, about eighty years old, shuffled slowly into the store.

Her body, aided by a cane, was so bent and distorted by arthritis and osteoporosis that her face permanently angled toward the ground. She had to lean backward almost past the point of equilibrium in order to look at you. Virtually every passerby eyed her with pity.

This poor, tortured soul struggled up to the counter, and suddenly an other-worldly transformation occurred as she exploded into a paroxysm of anger at Jenny over the quality of the “Chicago Hot Dog” she had just eaten—in its entirety—and she demanded a refund. Even more surrealistic was that this “tortured-soul-to-bitch” transformation didn’t dim Jenny’s smile, derail her pleasant demeanor, or leave her detectably nonplused.

She was obviously the people-person of the husband and wife team. Frank had no experience with onslaughts of people. His previous work had involved very intense, prolonged relationships with only a few people—very predictable ones—each day. At the counter, he was much less at ease with customers, and his responsibilities, consequently, were skewed toward back office duties.

Frank was always very professional and courteous with customers but could never relax his guard with them. Computer professionals deal with logic and predictability and customers in an ice cream shop can never be counted on to possess those attributes.

When Frank and Jenny decided to plunge into self-employment, they had to quickly disavow themselves of the myth that it meant escape from bosses. Nominally it does, but practically speaking, that never happens. Even the mightiest are on someone’s leash, be it that of a banker, general partner, board chairman, crucial client, or indispensable employee.

Jenny and Frank would be on the leashes of the franchiser and mall management. Franchise contract terms and mall lease stipulations are daunting and unforgiving.

Upon close inspection it seemed the venture they were contemplating would not shed employment servitude but simply alter the format. Ultimately, though, the only boss it was critical to escape from was the American lifestyle and marriage paradigm which devoured their time together and eroded their relationship like a winding river dissolving the banks deflecting it. Whatever its rational uncertainties, intuition told them that their franchising plan would provide an avenue to escape that dynamic.

They had amassed sufficient operating and reserve capital, possessed a wealth of carry-over skills and had an unquenchable thirst to succeed. Where others saw the onerous franchise and lease terms collectively as an obstacle on the order of the Grand Coulee Dam, Frank and Jenny saw only an innocuous “beaver dam.” An examination of the beaver dam, however, illustrates the extent of the risk the couple was undertaking.

Why buy a franchise and why select Dairy Queen? Sobering statistics make the first question simple to answer for a couple intent on pursuing their first business venture.

In the 1990s, thirty-eight percent of new independent businesses failed in the first year, and seventy-seven percent failed within the first five years, whereas only about five percent of franchisees failed each year. That was a pretty compelling argument for neophytes such as Jenny and Frank.

While statistics are the heart and soul of all polemics and business failure statistics will fuel endless debate, a franchise is an inarguably safer investment for inexperienced businesspeople than an independent enterprise.

In return for an established product, advertising, guidance, and product purchase discounts, franchise buyers relinquish some profits, creative control, and expandability. Franchisees don’t get rich; franchisers do. The older and safer the franchise you select, the more profit you can expect to relinquish to the franchiser.

Dairy Queen opened its first store in 1940 in Illinois and was franchising within a year. They were pioneers in the modern era of franchising, which began in earnest in the late 1940s and early 1950s in sync with the flood of returning World War II veterans starting families and new careers.

In 1997, their franchises totaled over forty-five hundred. The company offered some comforting features for neophyte businesspeople. Unlike many franchise operations, this parent company did not own or operate any franchises in competition with its franchisees. They provided assistance with finding sites for businesses and helped with lease negotiations when a location was found. Dairy Queen offered financing help and sometimes co-guaranteed loans or leases. As you might imagine, banks weren’t going to make risky loans to inexperienced businesspersons without some intoxicating persuasion.

This franchiser also advertised the product nationally, provided two weeks of training at their headquarters in Minnesota, and offered a hotline for ongoing support.

Another invaluable feature was a central data processing system which performed an analysis of daily sales, helping owners to decide which items to eliminate or add to their menus.

Finally, central purchasing discounts allowed owners to take advantage of the organization’s size and consequent clout when replenishing inventory.

If the benefits list left any residual qualms about Dairy Queen, they were brushed aside by the relentless and rhapsodic proselytizing of Frank’s Minnesota friend Eric.

Before concluding that this was a wonderful opportunity, ponder the costs, assuming you were personally and financially appealing enough to be selected as a franchisee out of the thousands of applicants each year.

To be chosen you had to be well capitalized, have an excellent credit rating, and own assets that could be used as loan collateral, such as a home and a car. If you were an independent businessperson with bank financing, failure would be softened by a safety net allowing you to declare bankruptcy and keep personal assets intact.

As a franchisee, however, you wouldn’t get financing from Dairy Queen or their support as a loan or lease co-signer unless you were confident enough to put personal assets such as your house and car at risk.

If selected as a franchisee you needed an initial cash outlay of $75,000 to $120,000 depending on the size of the store and the amount of financing you could secure on your own.

Dairy Queen collected an up-front cash franchise fee of $30,000 which paid for company ads soliciting franchisees in publications such as the Wall Street Journal; the expenses of meeting with and screening potential franchisees (of which you were one); the initial training of new owners; and on-going hand-holding such as an 800 telephone number offering advice on urgent, unanticipated problems.

The total cost of the business was about $400,000, so you could expect a significant monthly loan payment. Making that payment a little more problematic would be the 6% monthly royalty (imposed forever) which Dairy Queen would collect from your gross sales. This was ostensibly a break-even fee for the franchiser used to operate the parent organization and advertise the products nationally. The franchiser anticipated its rewards would grow as your income grew, i.e. 6% of an ever-increasing number.

In addition to the foregoing deflating “number crunching,” there would be some equally tough restrictions on your business strategies.

Dairy Queen did not allow passive ownership, which meant you could not hire a manager while you luxuriated in the Caribbean. You would personally be dishing out ice cream and spooning relish on hot dogs, so if your id demanded pretentiousness to satisfy an inflated ego, membership in this club was folly.

The firm did not sell area development rights, which meant you could not get rich by building a Dairy Queen monopoly if you happened to guess where the next edge city would sprout.

In case you secretly planned on learning the ropes as a franchisee and then starting your own competing, independent operation, guess again. The franchise contract required you to sign a lengthy non-compete agreement which short-circuited any such scheme.

If you tired of the business, you could not sell to just anyone; the company had to approve your buyer.

Finally, the firm’s contract contained a “full time and attention” clause which meant you could not hold another job as a safety-net in the event your franchise failed. Dairy Queen baptized by immersion.

If the devil in this Monopoly game’s details hadn’t disavowed you of the notion that you were pondering a wonderful opportunity then it was time to “pass GO, collect $100, and proceed directly to the mall’s lease.”

Seventeenth century indentured servants embarking on the long voyage from England to the New World would have mutinied and headed back to their lives of despair and poverty if the captain of the ship had presented them with a fifty-page 1990s mall lease.

During the Civil War, the Union tried to suffocate the Confederacy with its “Anaconda” strategy.

The huge Anaconda snake slowly squeezes the life out of its prey and the Union emulated the reptile by coiling around the waterways which nourished the Confederacy with men and supplies.

In a striking parallel, a mall lease coils around a tenant and squeezes the profit out of a business until it’s within an inch of expiring. How tightly the coils constrict is in direct proportion to the length of the tenant waiting list at each mall. Only the fittest survive, and they become intertwined with mall management in a delicate, dangerous symbiotic relationship. Jenny and Frank joined this twisting, squirming dance.

Tenants at Frank and Jenny’s mall received three primary benefits. First, the mall they chose for their franchise drew eleven million visitors per year, all of whom were pedestrians in close enough proximity to the Dairy Queen to buy something on impulse. No outside, free-standing ice-cream operation could remotely approximate that number. Second, the mall was indoors, which meant ice cream sales would not fall off as drastically during winter months as would be the case in an outdoor free-standing location. Third, a regional mall would vastly enlarge the market area for a store by attracting customers from the far reaches of the metropolitan area. For those benefits, Frank and Jenny chose to wrestle with the mall Anaconda—the lease.

An Anaconda doesn’t squeeze its prey to death instantly. It’s patient. Once an animal is trapped in its coils, the snake tightens only when the victim exhales—similar to a fisherman keeping a line taut. Ultimately the prey can’t get that next breath and the struggle stops. That’s when the snake dines. A mall lease works like that.

Management wants its ambiance and profit potential to attract enough retailers for its targeted demographic niche that it can maintain a perpetual waiting list of highly motivated tenants. It wants a steady diet of five or six percent of its small tenants failing so that new products and ideas can be regularly introduced, profit realized from forfeited security deposits, and space kept available in the event a hot new tenant wants space quickly.

Like nature in the rain forest, mall management wants to create a situation where only the strongest survive while prey and predator maintain a healthy balance. A 100% leased mall with all happy tenants means management isn’t extracting enough profit for its owners. That’s a rain forest without sufficient predators. A small but steady turnover with a large waiting list willing to sign long-term leases at steadily increasing rents is the ideal paradigm.

How does the lease strangle the weak? Each breath of profit is squeezed by another lease term. Ostensibly, every lease term is negotiable and has a winner and a loser. In the case of a popular regional mall, however, aside from anchors and top-tier retailers, there is generally little negotiation. The tenant either accepts the lease or looks elsewhere for a business location.

The adventure begins with the most expensive rental space in any industry known to man—upscale retail space. In the 1990s, the food court floor in Frank and Jenny’s mall extracted rents in excess of $60 per square foot (psf) per month. A 700-square-foot Dairy Queen store, therefore, would pay a base rent of $42,000 per month. The first floor of their mall dated to its original construction as a shopping center in 1959 and the rents on that floor were roughly $30 psf equaling $21,000 per month. Jenny and Frank chose that less prestigious first floor for their business.

The longer an income stream is guaranteed by credit worthy tenants, the more value a bank places on a structure. Management, therefore, wants long leases; at least ten years, and preferably fifteen or twenty years in duration.

Frank and Jenny negotiated a ten-year lease which corresponded with the term of their franchise agreement. I’ll leave it to your imagination to speculate on the expense of getting out of a lease early. The couple got a shorter term lease in return for foregoing any renewal options, i.e. the right of a tenant to renew an expired lease or leave without penalty.

Malls don’t like renewal options because their negotiating ability is restricted until the option is exercised or voided. An option benefits a tenant who does well and wishes to stay when the lease expires.

Why would a mall wish to expel a successful tenant? They may need the space for a larger store, their evolving strategic plan may call for a different tenant mix, or the business may have become politically incorrect, such as the tobacco store Jenny and Frank’s mall expelled after an acrimonious face-off.

In addition to the base rent, malls charge a common area maintenance charge (CAM), a fee earmarked to cover repairs and maintenance to areas shared by all tenants such as elevators, escalators, fountains, and dining areas. Special events, Christmas decorations, and television commercial productions are other examples of CAM charge items which benefit all mall merchants.

For Frank and Jenny, CAM charges added roughly $5 psf a month to the rent, the exact figure being determined by a merchant’s square footage (pro rata share) in proportion to that of the entire mall.

Tenants must remain vigilant because there is always a gray area between repairs and capital improvements. Capital improvements, such as construction of a new parking garage, should not be a CAM expense.

If the economy suffers from inflation, the mall owners don’t care to carry that burden, so periodic rental increases are built into a lease and indexed to the cost of living, passing inflationary burdens through to the tenants.

Mall leases are called full service or triple net leases, meaning taxes and insurance, maintenance, and utilities are paid by management and incorporated into rents. Management doesn’t want the attendant angst of depending on two-hundred tenants to pay their insurance and taxes in a timely fashion. A rise in either expense is passed through to tenants immediately as base rent increases, and the lease will refer to these items as “pass-throughs.”

An additional tenant burden is the requisite merchants’ association, which requires a membership fee.

Non-monetary items make the lease burden more onerous. If you want some assurances from the mall that they won’t rent nearby space to a competitor selling a product similar to your own, you will be disappointed. No tenant gets any such guarantees against competition.

A 1998 lawsuit arose when a Baltimore mall’s Boardwalk Fries store alleged that management had verbally assured the franchisee that a lease with McDonald’s would not be signed. Allegedly this assurance enticed Boardwalk Fries to renew their lease, whereupon the mall soon announced a lease deal with McDonald’s. Shoppers could buy an entire “happy meal” complete with toy for their child at McDonald’s for less than the cost of a small order of Boardwalk’s fries. Upon opening, McDonald’s consistently drew large crowds while Boardwalk’s business diminished to the point where they could no longer meet the rent.

Unfortunately for Boardwalk Fries, real estate law generally respects only what’s in writing regardless of verbal assurances. Tenants or their attorneys are expected to understand that legal reality. A promise that’s not in writing is a promise that hasn’t been made.

While the mall is free to introduce new competition for you, conversely, you are precluded from operating a competing store within a certain vicinity of the mall. They will also strictly limit the type of merchandise you can sell—you can’t change product lines in mid-lease. The tenant and merchandise mix is a crucial decision for managers and owners hold them accountable for a mix resulting in poor synergy.

If you become comfortable with your location inside the mall, it’s a fragile comfort. The mall reserves the right to move you to a new location on fairly short notice although they will pay the expenses for such a move.

The mall dictates when you will close your shop for holidays or bad weather and what your normal hours of operation will be. You’ll receive a hefty fine if caught opening late or closing early. Checking and writing tickets for such transgressions is a key duty of mall security.

Signage is strictly regulated, window displays must meet management requirements for good taste and attractiveness, customers cannot be solicited on the promenades, and the mall can demand that you remodel the store if it begins to look rough around the edges. Don’t have $50,000 for that, you say? Tough. And oh yes, good-bye.

If you’ve battled the Anaconda to a standoff till now, and you’re ready to catch a deep breath and enjoy some profits—brace yourself—here comes percentage rent.

The idea of percentage rent is that if the mall and/or your business becomes wildly popular and profits skyrocket accordingly, the mall wants to be able to collect more than just the negotiated base rent with expense and inflation increases. It wants to share in your largess.

If your gross sales exceed a certain amount, you begin paying a percentage of that to the mall over and above your normal rent and CAM charges. Management reserves the right to audit your books to ascertain that you are not trying to hide sales in any imaginative way in order to minimize percentage rent. They may also send test shoppers around to make certain you are ringing up all of your sales. If you never achieve percentage rent your lease won’t be renewed.

Another catch-all clause will mandate “maximum sales effort” from tenants. This means you can’t impulsively close your store and take a three-week vacation essentially leaving the mall with one less store. Similarly, you can’t decide to go fishing on a gorgeous spring day and close your shop at noon.

Finally, lest your bank deposits swell to unwieldy proportions, the lease will also require you to spend one or two percent of annual gross sales on advertising.

If the snake hasn’t squeezed you to death by now, you can finally begin acting like a self-employed person, paying yourself a salary along with hiring and compensating your own employees. You will quickly discover that the onerous mall expenses make it virtually impossible to compete with independent stores on employee salaries (unless you pay yourself a pittance). Your proximity to paying minimum wage will ensure that your “help wanted” sign becomes a permanent fixture.

Mall tenants are unanimous that this is their biggest headache and one which leads to significant acrimony when they recruit (a.k.a. steal) good employees from one other. Pizza store X shoulders the work of finding, interviewing, training, and determining that someone is a good and honest worker, only to have Pizza store Y hire that person away for twenty-five cents an hour more just in time for the Christmas rush. Oh Tannenbaum!

The high rents aren’t the only factor fueling the employee dilemma. Jenny and Frank’s mall was in an upscale neighborhood, and its youth had scant motivation to work low wage jobs.

Their suburban mall was served by mass transit from the city. Poor city-dwellers inundated the mall for jobs because the locale provided a safe, classy work environment. As urban drug wars became pervasive across the country, low-wage employment opportunities in the cities diminished because retail chains “redlined” or avoided high crime areas. Poor workers had to budget for long commutes to the counties on public transit making it problematic for them to accept a minimum wage. Tax-free welfare for not working was almost as lucrative.

Many tenants at Frank and Jenny’s mall lamented that a large percentage of their job applicants weren’t literate enough to fill out the applications. Those who succeeded at that task were given psychological profile tests by most retailers to predict honesty because employee theft was more problematic than customer shoplifting.

In my experience, Dairy Queen had the nicest, friendliest employees in the mall. Jenny’s personality was mirrored in all of them. Virtually all were clean-cut, endearingly shy but still outgoing and friendly. They stood out from other tenants’ employees to such a degree that Jenny could probably have franchised her formula for hiring.

A watershed moment occurred near the end of the couple’s first year in business. Frank found Jenny with her head on the office desk after closing one evening, sobbing inconsolably. She had completed quarterly bookkeeping chores and realized that cumulatively they were heavily in the “red.” For all of her indomitable spirit with people numbers terrified her, but this fear transcended bankruptcy.

The couple had agreed to try again to start a family once the business became solid enough to open a second store, hire a manager, and free-up Jenny’s schedule. She saw that dream slipping away in the numbers before her. Asking her to trust that those numbers were normal for a start-up operation was akin to convincing someone to take their hands off the bar and thrust them skyward during their maiden roller-coaster ride just as the car careens down the first precipice.

Although Jenny was the people-person of the two, when situations screamed for physical contact or overcoming romantic inertia, Frank was usually the initiator. In response to her plaintive “We’re failing Frank!” he hugged her, reassured her of the near universality of first-year red ink and gently prodded her hands off that roller-coaster bar. They kissed like hormone-saturated teenagers and renewed their vow to succeed.

Each time happy little children left the store with ice cream, it rejuvenated ebbing fervor for their master plan. One day, those children might be their own. The fear of losing that dream, more than any business naiveté, was the true cause of Jenny’s tearful capitulation to the bullying spreadsheet.

Frank’s systems analyst coolness with numbers and long-term strategies was complementing her warmth and skill with people and their faith in each other was enabling them to hurdle obstacles which clearly would have been too daunting if faced alone. Their recognition and utilization of that reality bolstered their perseverance and was a far more prescient business tool than the tear-stained spreadsheet. The partnership was working.

After four years, Jenny and Frank’s symbiotic relationship with the mall Anaconda seemed solid, and by all appearances, their operation was a success.

By repositioning their marriage from the status of obscure member of the chorus of life to its original show-stopping solo role, they had purged the repressive societal “boss” from their lives and claimed that mantle for themselves.

On stage the wildly gyrating spotlight had been brought under control, found its intended target in Frank and Jenny, and their couplehood had emerged from the shadows to once again occupy center stage. True love will flourish whether the shared venture is an ice cream parlor, a pig farm, or the halls of Congress as long as that venture facilitates the provision of time and shared experiences.

Conversely, not even an extravagantly-funded royal venture can salvage an imposter masquerading as love, as the sad denouement to the British royal fairy-tale of Prince Charles and Princess Diana eloquently attested prior to her tragic death.

Jenny and Frank’s willingness to do battle with the mall Anaconda summoned the query, “Beyond appearances, how were they really doing?” The most illuminating answer was not provided by the business numbers they e-mailed to their franchiser at 10:30 p.m. every Friday at the completion of closing chores but by the accouterments of an ensuing private ritual celebrating weekly success in their writhing wrangle with the reptile.

Aromatic vanilla votive candles, warm strawberry scented coconut oil, champagne, a favorite music CD, and a large beach towel created a back-office ambiance in stark contrast to the outside promenade’s clamor of late-night cleaning crews and remodeling contractors. Ice cream, hot dogs and smoothies were suddenly a continent away as Frank and Jenny re-visited their personal lost city of Atlantis. Life was beautiful again.

Nevertheless, this is not a “happily ever after” tale. It’s the narrative of a courageous, ongoing litmus test. Authentic courage is not found in instinct-driven, parade-generating heroic acts but in everyday, unheralded decisions by ordinary people who somehow summon the strength to let go of the familiar in order to facilitate growth.

Dishing ice cream seven days a week while working hours ranging from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in a seven-hundred square-foot space with limited ability to leverage your operation into an empire is not a scenario to prompt the faint-hearted to abandon two secure jobs. But this wild—however intelligently calculated—plunge into the unknown would assuredly and unequivocally reveal whether their souls were merged in true love or were harboring an insidious imposter.

enny and Frank took a risky action solely in the best interest of their couplehood and in obvious defiance of an American society becoming increasingly homogeneous, individually indulgent, divorce-prone, government-dependent, and lemming-like.

 Whatever the ultimate outcome, that’s pretty damn romantic.

Dairy Queen Saves a Marriage