It’s something no small town wants to hear: The local ice cream shop is going out of business. East Windsor heard that news this month, when the owners of Dari Delite, which has delighted residents of the town for 66 years, announced that the store would close for good at the end of the season.
Julie Preston Cortese, 70, and her cousin Frank Dziedziak, 75, have run the store together since 2011. They are the latest in a long succession of family members to operate the homey ice cream shack since 1956. The two live in the house next door to it on Route 5, on the South Windsor town line.
The cousins want to retire, and no family members want to take on the store. Cortese has arthritis and can’t help much in the shop anymore; scooping the hard-serve is too difficult. The soft-serve machine is on the fritz and would cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace.
Most of all, Dari Delite is no longer the community hub it used to be.
“People used to pile kids into their car and come here. There were two drive-in movie theaters near here. People would stop on the way to the movies. We sponsored baseball teams. If they won, they all got banana boats,” said Cortese, referring to the shop’s banana splits in a rowboat-shaped bowl.
“It used to get so crowded sometimes people would park in our driveway or across the street. On Sundays you had to wait for a parking space,” Cortese said. “We were the only game in town.”
The drive-ins closed decades ago. People still come and bring their kids, enjoying their treats in their cars, or at the surrounding outdoor tables. But the numbers are not what they used to be.
“Business has been off. Kids are always busy now with sports. It used to be a hangout,” Dziedziak said.
There is more competition, too: The Dairy Queen Grill & Chill in South Windsor, which opened in 2013, is a five-minute drive down the street. But the cousins said it’s really just time to close.
The shop will remain open until Aug. 28, and possibly until Labor Day weekend if they can keep enough staff members.
Sorrow and support
When Cortese and Dziedziak announced on Facebook that they would close, the community rose up both in sorrow at the loss of their beloved “DD” and in support of the cousins’ desire to retire.
“We moved to East Windsor in 1960. A lot of little kids and not much money. My dad grew a huge garden in the summer and all of us kids helped with it. At the end of the day, he would put us in the back of his truck (you could do that then) and bring us for a treat at the Dari Delite. My favorite memories are sitting on the truck bumper with my brothers and sister, in the shade of the trees around the Dari Delite, enjoying our reward,” one fan commented.
“I couldn’t tell you the number of orange whips, sundaes and other treats I’ve had at Dari Delite! As a townie who lived just up the road, you will forever be etched in our hearts,” another wrote.
Jonathan Titus, a lifelong East Windsor resident, would visit Dari Delite on breaks from working in the nearby tobacco fields. “I’d drive over there on a tractor and go get a nice ice cream on a really hot day. I thought that was pretty funny and fun,” Titus said.
On a recent day, supporters came for what might be their last visit. Michelle Nicol bought a sundae with vanilla ice cream and a peanut-butter topping.
“My daughter is devastated,” Nicol said. “My mom doesn’t know yet and I have to tell her. She’s going to be upset. She used to come here for lunch. Ice cream was her lunch.”
Scott Raich said, “It’s sad. It’s like a tradition, a place you could always stop at because it was always there.”
Cortese and Dziedziak’s aunt and uncle, Julia and Frank Shonosky, opened Dari Delite at 301 S. Main St. in 1956 with Cortese’s mother, Margaret Preston. Back then, Dari Delite was a nationwide chain and the East Windsor shop was a franchise.
“My uncle worked at Pratt & Whitney, so it was mostly my mother and aunt who ran the shop,” Cortese said. “I remember when I was little, I’d come in and stand in front of the walk-in freezer when it was hot outside.”
That same freezer — which was bought used and is now 70 years old — is as sturdy, reliable and cold as ever.
When the Dari Delite chain ceased operation a few years later, East Windsor’s Dari Delite went independent, like other Dari Delites in the country. There are still a few left around the nation.
Julia Shonosky had a heart attack in 1986. Margaret Preston took over the shop until 1998, when Cortese’s godchild took it over. In 2011, Cortese, who at the time lived on Long Island, New York, moved back home and took over the shop with Dziedziak.
For decades, the shop sold only soft-serve, but then added hard-serve. In addition to the banana boats, cones and cups of ice cream and frozen yogurt, the shop serves brownie sundaes — Cortese bakes the brownies in the kitchen of her house next door — strawberry shortcake, orange whips, milkshakes, ice cream floats, ice cream sandwiches, parfaits, flurries and sundaes in a variety of flavors. The shop also is beloved for its “crunch coat” on top of ice cream.
Dari Delite also sells hot dogs, kielbasa and chili.
“We used to have hamburgers and French fries, the whole grill, in the ‘70s, but it clogged up all the drains and the smell of grease would come all the way into the house,” Dziedziak said. “We stopped doing that.”
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Unlike many food businesses shutting their doors these days, the pandemic had no effect on the cousins’ decision to close.
“Actually for us it wasn’t that bad,” Cortese said. “People were happy to get out of the house and come here.”
Cortese said she has been approached by several people interested in buying the property, but she does not intend to sell it. She will use the building for other purposes.
“Please don’t ask our staff about this. It’s a final decision,” she posted on Facebook.
She said she will enjoy some real time off during the warm months. “I haven’t had a summer off in such a long time,” she said.
Dziedziak will have more time to pursue his passion: photography. “Maybe I’ll be like Grandma Moses. I’ll become what I am in my old age,” he said.
Susan Dunne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.