Sweet dream: A plan to revive Smyrna’s landmark ice cream shop has now become a reality

The Johnson family from left, Marisa, Bob and Matthew at their Dairy Sweet property in Smyrna. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

SMYRNA — Historically valuable buildings have a tendency to crumble over time.

As they crumble, they’re harder to use. If they don’t get used, the expense of maintaining them is hard to justify.

This would have been true for Smyrna’s iconic Dairy Sweet at the intersection of Route 13 and East North Street — an ice cream shop/restaurant that’s been a town landmark since the 1950s.

But Bob Johnson, who bought the property in August 2016, thinks he’s hit on a compromise.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from residents since we bought it,” he said. “Half of Smyrna seemed to be telling me: ‘Tear it down! It’s falling apart.’ But the other half was saying, ‘Oh no!’ The history of Smyrna is disappearing one building at a time.”

He bought the building without being entirely sure how he’d use the real estate. However, a few fortuitous meetings and a brush with a state-run economic development program convinced Mr. Johnson not only to bring back the Dairy Sweet business, but to tear down the old, ailing building and revitalize the corner while maintaining vestiges of its character.

“We want to stay true to the history of Smyrna,” he said. “This was the ice cream shop a lot of residents’ parents brought them to when they were kids and there are a lot of fond memories they have of it.

Bob Johnson at the Dairy Sweet property in Smyrna. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“We’re going to try to bring that over to the new dairy sweet environment.”

The project, which resulted in the demolition of the building late last year, will cost an estimated $1.5 million, said Mr. Johnson. He said he’s obtained all requisite site plan approvals and is on the cusp of closing his construction loan.

Within a few weeks he thinks the contractor will be able to begin construction.

The finished product will be a two-story, 6,800 square-foot building which will house the new Dairy Sweet — and Mr. Johnson’s computer repair and retail business, Bob Johnson’s Computer Stuff Inc.

The ice cream shop will occupy a portion, around 900 square-feet, and include an outdoor eatery. Although the old, barn-style building will be gone, Mr. Johnson and the new business owners are going to pains to rescue and reuse everything that made the Dairy Sweet what is was.

“We’ve, of course, recovered the old Dairy Sweet sign that was mounted on top of the building that we’re planning on reincorporating in the new building,” Mr. Johnson said. “But we’ve even recovered a lot of the equipment like condiment trays.

“There were even some high resolution photos taken of the old menu with pictures of hamburgers and fries that the business owners are going to recreate and put out on the windows in the new place. People who’ve been to the Dairy Sweet will recognize them right away.”

The interior of the restaurant will also be decorated with old historical pictures of the location, Mr. Johnson said.

New management

Purchasing the property mainly for the Route 13 frontage, Mr. Johnson wasn’t expecting to get an almost fully functional ice cream shop with the purchase.

“I just through they were going to move out and I would have the empty space,” he said. “But when we closed on the sale, I went it and everything was in working order and the place was spotless, I could have started selling ice cream right then and there.”

Mr. Johnson said the longtime owners of the Dairy Sweet, Walter and Betty Jo Ireland, closed the business down a week or so before the building purchase was completed. Not being in the food service business, he said he lucked out when then-Mayor Joanne Masten introduced him to Paul Masone, owner of Uncle Mike’s Ice Cream and Water Ice in Middletown.

The Johnson family from left, Matthew, Bob and Marisa look at where the old Dairy Sweet was in Smyrna. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

In partnership with Rick Griffith, who owns Charlie’s Ice Cream and Frozen Ice south of Smyrna, the duo reopened the restaurant as Charlie’s and Uncle Mike’s at The Dairy Sweet in December 2016. The new management was quickly embraced by the community, Mr. Johnson said.

“They hired something like 15 people to work it over the summer and they were cranking ice cream out of there faster than I’ve ever seen, it was going really well,” he said.

However, all parties knew the existing building was temporary. Mr. Johnson said the new management is looking forward to the improved amenities the new building will offer.

“Over time the building had been patched together so many times you didn’t know what you were looking at anymore with some of it,” he said. “You couldn’t run the toaster and the ice cream machine at the same time. A lot of it was outdated — it was just that kind of building.”

Nevertheless, Charlie’s and Uncle Mike’s at The Dairy Sweet operated for a year. They closed their doors in December so the building could be demolished and the new one could be built. They will resume operations when the project is completed.

Mr. Johnson said he’s been told that project will take about six to eight months from the start of construction.

For updates, follow @DairySweetLLC on Facebook.

DDD state grant helps

Mr. Johnson said that had it not been for the considerable state grant for which he was approved he likely would not have pursued the construction project. With his current budget he says he’s likely to see a state reimbursement of about $150,000 to $160,000 once the project is completed.

“I didn’t buy the building with any intention of tearing it down and building new,” he said.

Mr. Johnson said the idea was spurred when Rick Ferrell, business and economic development consultant for Smyrna, brought the Downtown Development Districts program to his attention.

According to the state Housing Authority, the program was created to leverage state resources in a limited number of designated areas in Delaware’s cities and towns to spur private capital investment, increase job growth and help build more stable communities.

Investors who make Qualified Real Property Investments (QRPI) to commercial, industrial, residential and mixed-use buildings or facilities can apply for the rebate.

Mr. Johnson said he was surprised by how simple it was.

“I give the DDD rebate a lot of credit for convincing me to do this and it wasn’t hard to navigate the program either,” he said. “Of course, there was a certain amount of paperwork, but all I really had to do was describe what I wanted to accomplish.”

Depending on certain expenditure thresholds, developers are eligible for tiered funding. Mr. Johnson said the state approved him for a 20 percent rebate on “vertical construction” for his project back in late 2016.

Mr. Ferrell swears by the program and believes it’s having a profound impact.

“For large and small projects, there are individual allocations of dollars,” he told this paper last year. “A large one is anything more than $250,000 and a small one is anything below. They have funding rounds for the large projects, but for the smaller ones an application can just be submitted.

“Up to this point, there haven’t been more applicants than there is funding available, so, if you write a good application you’re likely to be funded. It’s been terrific throughout the state.”

According to the Housing Authority, Dover, Seaford, Wilmington, Georgetown, Harrington, Laurel, Milford and Smyrna all have eligible districts for the program.

For application guidelines, visit destatehousing.com/Developers/dv_ddd.php

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