For decades, tourists and locals alike have driven miles for the promise of a refreshing soft ice cream and friendly smile at 3 & 93 Dairy Bar.
The iconic Elko eatery has been a fixture on highways 3 and 93 since 1964 and has only grown in popularity under the ownership of Gordon Holmes.
The Grasmere local completed professional cooking and business administration courses, and worked for a small municipality in northern Alberta before the opportunity to buy the dairy bar arose.
Holmes was just 25 when he took on the seasonal business.
“That was quite something… I’d always wanted to have a business since I was a little kid,” he recalled.
“I used to just love to go to the candy store I was like ‘I want to have a store some day when I grow up’ because all kids love candy right.”
Since 1994, Holmes has steadily grown the business, hiring more staff to keep up with the busy summer trade and adding an ice business in 2013 to cater to events and campers.
The dairy bar is best known for its soft ice cream and has received numerous awards over the years.
Holmes has tried to keep the menu the same, occasionally adding items inspired by his travels and introducing gluten, dairy and sugar free options, as well as vegan and vegetarian.
New this year are chili dogs and chili cheese fries.
“It’s always been ice cream and hamburgers, french fries, hot dogs, onion rings, but I’ve added a few things to it, of course, over the years… different burger toppings, specialty burgers, fried pickles was a good one,” said Holmes.
“I got the idea for fried pickles while I was down travelling in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. When I was travelling in Colombia, I got the idea for the crispies and chocolate dipped soft ice cream cones.”
The dairy bar typically operates from May until September, receiving a fresh lick of paint before every opening weekend.
It caters to passing tourists and locals, and enjoys a roaring trade in the summertime.
“We get a lot of tourism but we get a lot of local support too,” said Holmes, adding some regulars travel from as far as Pincher Creek and Crowsnest Pass.
“I’ve met a lot of people over the years, watched a lot of children grow up in front of the window. They come here as little kids with their parents and then 25 years, now they’re coming with their own children, so it makes you feel a little bit old but it’s nice.”
Celebrities have also stopped by for a soft serve, along with travelling pets.
Holmes recalls serving country singer Dean Brody and Rob and Scott Niedermayer, well known hockey players from Cranbrook, as well as a miniature pig.
Anyone who has worked in hospitality knows there is the occasional odd customer and at 3 & 93 Dairy Bar, nothing has topped the backwards walking lady of 1995.
“There was this lady, and I still to this day do not know why, she walked backwards,” laughed Holmes.
“She got out of her car and then she backed up to the window like this,” he said, demonstrating in the sunny front room of his Elko home, “then she turned around and she placed her order, then she walked backwards to her car again and then she walked backwards to a picnic table.
“My dad and mom happened to be here too, and we were like ‘is there something wrong with that lady? She’s walking backwards. Is it a joke or something?’… the backwards walking lady, that was very interesting to see and I haven’t seen it since.
“You meet all types of people from all over the world. We used to have this elderly couple come every year from southern California and they’d come up in their motorhome every summer and want to come here for, I believe it was maple walnut ice cream. They said they couldn’t get that and ‘ooh it’s the best’.”
This year marks 25 years since Holmes bought 3 & 93 Dairy Bar and he’s planning an anniversary event for opening weekend, which will coincide with Mother’s Day on May 12.
The celebration will be bittersweet as this season could be his last with the business listed for sale.
Holmes said he has been thinking about selling for some time and has decided it’s time to move back to Grasmere to help his aging parents.
“They’ve helped me a lot over the years, up here bagging ice for me and my dad still is my fix-it man,” he said.
“If something needs fixing or repairing he’s out there doing it, so I want to move down to Grasmere and help them out on the family farm.”
Holmes will miss the Elko community and his customers and staff, as well as his prime location with its close proximity to Fernie, the U.S. border and Cranbrook.
“I’ll miss a lot of things about it, all the people I’ve met over the years, a lot of the fun times that we’ve had too, getting to be creative, getting to set your own hours,” he said.
“You’re independent, you can do whatever you want because you’re not tied to the rules of some big franchise corporation in Ontario or New York, or wherever their headquarters are, telling you ‘you can only do this, you can only do that’.
“It’s kind of nice to have that independence… it gives you more freedom.”
The dairy bar is being sold with the attached residence – a three-bed, one-bath home – and carries a price tag of $1.26 million.
For more information about the sale and opening weekend, visit Facebook.com/393dairybar.