GORDONSVILLE – J.R. Shifflett stands in the Tastee-Freez parking lot, a small vanilla-chocolate twist cone in his hand, and thinks back over his 58 years in this neck of the woods.
“I was born and raised in Culpeper and they had a Tastee-Freez up there that I went to a lot when I was a kid and I stopped right here a lot with my parents as a kid, so I’ve been coming here for about 40 or 50 years,” he says.
A brown crew cab pickup pulls past the drive-in window of the ice cream and fast food joint, momentarily blocking his view.
“Heck, I come here all the time. I have two homes, one in Louisa and one in Orange, and I come by here a couple of times a week,” he says, thoughtfully. “It’s hard to believe it’s gonna be closed.”
It is hard to believe, but it’s true. The store with its unique design and advertising hearkening back to the company’s 1950s roots has for more than 60 years tempted drivers to pull off the vehicular carousel of a traffic roundabout at the confluence of U.S. 33, U.S. 15 and Route 231 and pull in for a frosty respite.
On Oct. 31, however, the Tastee-Freez lights will go dark, its grill will grow cold, the doors will be locked, the franchise discontinued and the property will go on the market.
Randy Freund, his wife Valory and 19-year-old daughter Carleigh have owned and operated the landmark business for the past five years. They say it is a ‘strange combination of factors’ that are leading to its demise.
“Our franchise agreement was up at the same time the man who owns the building and the property decided to put it on the market and sell it,” Randy said. “We could extend the franchise agreement for another five years, but without a building to put it in, it wouldn’t make much sense.”
Unfortunately, purchasing the large lot and building at the high-traffic but high-property value location doesn’t fit into the Freund’s business plan. So they made the closing announcement recently on their Facebook page and the social media response has resulted in busy lunch and dinner hours at the location.
“There have been thousands of reposts and comments and a lot of customers who have childhood memories of coming here with their parents or on dates have been coming in,” he said. “Some folks have said they will be coming in here every day until we close and a lot of them have been. We’ve had a lot of good support from the community over the years and even more now.”
Randy Freund’s expertise is purchasing and operations and he’s held supervisory positions in local companies for the past the 30 years, including Comdial, Northrup Grumman, Liberty Fabric and Niitek.
Valory Freund taught special education students for years in schools. When she decided to give up teaching, they bought the Tastee-Freez. She took over operations at the store on May 30, 2014.
“I got laid off that same day,” Randy said. “So I joined her here and we’ve run it together.”
They discovered that running a restaurant is a tough job.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work. Working for a company doesn’t hold a candle to what it takes to run a mom and pop store like this,” he laughed. “But we brought the store back from being a bit run down and we have some great employees and the community is incredibly supportive.”
In return for community support, the Freunds have kept the restaurant menu pretty much the same.
“We still have the same menu that’s been around for decades because that’s what our customers want,” he said. “We’ve tried to introduce salads and chicken and some healthier options, but they want ice cream, they want old fashioned grilled burgers. They want the food they remember.”
Exactly when the Gordonsville Tastee-Freez opened its doors no one seems to know. It’s the kind of place that has just always been there.
Founded in 1950 by two former Dairy Queen executives in Illinois, the company utilized specialized freezer/dispensers created by the founders and sold under the Freez King brand name.
The brand was a hit. Focusing on iced milk and frozen dairy-based desserts such as malts and sundaes, the number of Tastee-Freez locations grew from 315 in 1952 to 1,800 in 1957.
Time, however, whittled away the Tastee empire. Freez King was sold. The franchise changed hands several times. Now there are only 22 free-standing Tastee-Freez stores in the United States. Including Gordonsville, there are eight restaurants in Virginia with stores in Madison, Staunton, Churchville, Crewe, Chase City, Wylliesburg and Kenbridge.
On Nov. 1, there will be seven.
“You tell me Tastee-Freez is closing? I don’t want to hear that,” said Shelby Morris, sitting at a table in the Gordonsville restaurant awaiting her barbecue sandwich. “I’ve been coming here for 54 years. I love the hot dogs and barbecue and the ice cream. I love Tastee-Freez.”
“That’s sad news. We live in Orange and we go to Charlottesville quite often and we often stop here,” said Eugene Byram, who accompanied Morris. “It’s too bad.”
The Freunds agree. On the other hand, they’re looking forward to a little time off and a trip or two.
“I want to take a vacation,” Carleigh says, waiting for her own sandwich and fries to arrive, “I want to travel and go places.”
“Other than doing some traveling, we really don’t have anything in mind,” says Valory. “We’ll take some time and do some things as a family and then see what comes up.”
“I have experience in purchasing and operations and I’ve talked to some people about jobs, but there’s nothing for sure yet,” Randy says. “Something will come up and, in the meantime we’ll do a little traveling. [Tastee-Freez] has been hard work, but we’ve worked with some great employees and fantastic customers. We’re going to miss it.”