Since 1985 Nisar Momin and his family have served Dairy Queen soft freeze cones, slaw dogs and other treats to Decatur-area residents. It was Momin’s first business when he arrived in the United States from India in 1984. He loves his connection to Decatur: “We stay connected with the community. Decatur is great, and the people who live in and around here are very good to us.”
The Dairy Queen building where they work has stood since 1954 near the intersection of E. Trinity Place and E. College Avenue. It is one of more than 5,600 American Dairy Queen stores worldwide, a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. It also is one of the few remaining barn-shaped Dairy Queen franchises in Metro Atlanta.
In fact it is one of the few remnants of the fast-food, drive-up vernacular architecture that arose in postwar America as a way of capturing the attention of a young, car-crazed American society. You didn’t need to see a cowboy hat, redheaded clown, Kentucky colonel, or pizza pie spinner to know what was sold there. All you needed was a familiar silhouette of the buildings visible through the fog to know that it was an Arby’s, McDonald’s, KFC or Pizza Hut.
Today few fast-food chain franchises retain their original design. Many companies have disappeared or been devoured by corporations like Yum! Brands, which operates Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, WingStreet, Long John Silver’s and A&W restaurants. Yum! stuffs its brands into banal, cobranded boxes: step into a Taco Bell–Pizza Hut–KFC location and you can load up. One notable exception: Whataburger’s orange-stripped tents, which remain ubiquitous throughout the Southwest. The company uses its visual heritage to its advantage throughout its promotions and customer experience.
But soon the familiar red roof of the Decatur Dairy Queen will be gone. Some time in March, the building will be razed and replaced with a mixed-use development.
For fans of American vernacular architecture, it is disappointing that this DQ barn will join other iconic drive-by architecture in the graveyard of history, including Taco Bell’s mission bell stores, Arby’s saddle-swooped roofs, McDonald’s golden-arched walk-ups and Pizza Hut’s red mansard–topped restaurants.
But for the Momins, the loss of their building is traumatic. Nothing will be saved except for the fixtures and equipment they can move. They have received offers for the historic exterior signage that bears the iconic Dairy Queen “Red Lips” logo, but they aren’t ready to part with anything — yet.
Worse still, this location — the Momins have interests in several other DQs — will be out of business until the development is completed. That was not the way it was supposed to be.
The original property owners, Lyle Nichols and English Robinson, had long promised the Momins first right of refusal on any offers to buy the land. When they received an offer for $633,000 in April 2006 from Worthing Partners and Cypress Realty LLC of Austin, Texas, the Momins agreed to match it.
Then things got complicated. Worthing Partners and Cypress Realty had already consolidated ownership of three adjoining properties. When the developers learned of the impending sale to the Momins, they asked the City of Decatur to intercede.
Recalls Nisar Momin: “On May 5, 2006, I went to get the earnest money to Lyle and English. While at bank to get my cashier check, I received a call from Lyn Menne [then director of Downtown Development Authority]. She asked me not to buy the property and said the developer would contact me to propose a deal.”
The next day, says Momin, a representative of Worthing Partners came to his store and made a proposal. “He said that that if I let them buy this property, they would sell to me at the same price a property suitable for my business in the new development. I asked for this in writing and he gave it. We signed the agreement. I still have the paperwork.”
The deal was reported in October 2006 in the Decatur Focus. It would never happen.
The developers soon broke ground, razing all the adjoining buildings. Things looked good. Then the economy began to crater, and the project was put on indefinite hold. At some point, Worthing Partners lost or sold their interest to Cypress Realty. As project delays continued, Momin operated on a month-to-month lease. Then Cypress offered the family an eight-year lease with a renewal option, which Momin signed.
“I was scared they’d kick me out with a month’s notice if I refused to sign the lease. So I did,” he said.
That lease included a clause for a 12-month advance notice to vacate the premises. The Momin’s received that notice February 28, 2013. They closed their business indefinitely February 22, 2014. It is now clear they will never be able to buy the land they expected to own in 2006. They also remain uncertain whether they will get a new lease they can afford.
Lyn Menne, Decatur’s assistant city manager, who oversees the Community & Economic Development Department, remains optimistic a deal with the Momins will get done.
“We continue to work diligently on Mr. Momin’s behalf to keep him in this project and get him the best deal possible,” she wrote in an e-mail. “With the addition of 200 apartments above his new store and improved streetscape and intersection improvements adjacent to this site, this block will become much safer and more walkable and we expect increased foot traffic will add to Mr. Momin’s business.”
Momin confirmed this, but still he worries. “I am losing sleep. It looks like there will be Dairy Queen in the new development, but their lease terms are not so attractive. That is another story. This is a major source of our income and we fear we could lose everything. My customers will miss us for at least 18 months, and if things do not go as planned, it might take longer. I am 68 years old and I have about 38 months left on my home mortgage and so do my partners. I asked the developer for reimbursement for down time, but they are refusing to do so.”
Fisher Paty, managing partner at Oakhurst Realty Partners, the leasing agent for Cypress, declined to comment on lease negotiations.
After serving up delight to generations of area residents, the Momins aren’t having fun now. Hopefully, that will change. Nisar Momin has a message for DQ friends and supporters: “I want to thank everybody, all our customers, especially Decatur residents, who have supported me and my family for these wonderful years. In fact, I don’t have the words to thank them. Just THANK YOU, DECATUR!”
No, thank you, Mr. Momin. Hope to see you soon.
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