Since 1970, Dot’s Dairio has been a favorite destination for both young and old where you could find all kinds of cold tasty treats to enjoy on a hot summer’s day. Both locals and visitors from out of town knew it was a place you could not miss.
Now, this landmark business in the Pleasant Gardens community is featured in the latest issue of Our State magazine as one of the nine “Hole in the Wall Joints” in North Carolina that you can’t miss. For almost 50 years, generations of loyal customers haven’t missed getting an ice cream cone, a milkshake, a sundae or a banana split at Dot’s Dairio.
Kaylee Ferguson is one of those because she’s been coming there since she was little. She prefers the banana splits served up at Dot’s. Her friend Megan Mathis was enjoying a soft-serve ice cream cone on a recent hot summer’s day.
Nancy Spencer, owner of Spencer’s Hardware, is another one of those loyal customers. “I’ve been coming here since 1979,” she said while waiting for her order. “We always stop here when I am on this road.”
And at the nearby picnic table, Cindy Dymond; her children 4-year-old Josiah and 4-year-old Allison; and the children’s grandmother Ann DeVinney sit around and enjoy their cones from Dot’s. The three generations have all come there for their favorite dairy desserts.
Even Roy Williams, the head coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels and Basketball Hall of Famer, is a long-time fan. He said so in a letter to the city of Marion in 2009.
“From my cousins playing at North Cove to Dot’s Dario down towards Pleasant Gardens, that area always brings back fond memories,” reads the letter from the Marion native.
Marion is fortunate to have two long-time ice cream institutions: Jack Frost Dairy Bar on Sugar Hill Road and Dot’s Dairio. Both have devoted followings.
Jack Frost was already featured in Our State magazine. Now, it is Dot’s Dairio’s turn.
The August issue has feature articles profiling various places in the Tar Heel state where you can grab a burger, barbecue sandwich, hot dog or taco. The article about Dot’s Dairio was written by former McDowell News staff writer Ragan Robinson.
Located at the intersection of U.S. 70 West and Lake Tahoma Road (or N.C. 80), Dot’s Dairio is instantly recognizable with its familiar big ice cream cone and sign. Charlie McMahan started the business in 1970 with just a single-wide trailer and two windows for orders. He named the ice cream business after his wife Dottie and then put her name on the iconic sign.
“He always told her he would put her name in lights,” said Janice Painter, who’s worked there for 36 years and is now the manager.
Painter points out the spelling of “Dario” on the yellow sign is the way it is because there was not enough room for an extra “I.” She prefers the spelling as “Dot’s Dairio” and uses that.
At one time, the sign and cone had a star and lights around it. A photo of the fiberglass sign and cone, with the star and lights, was included in the hardcover book “Our Vanishing Americana” with photos by Mike Lassiter and text by Lee Grant.
The McMahans who founded the business are now deceased and the current owners are David Ditt and Jennings Smith, who took it over in 1987. Painter said there were four owners before Ditt and Smith.
Painter herself has been there for 36 years and she’s worked for three of the previous owners. Her daughter, her granddaughters and a daughter-in-law have followed her as employees making for three generations.
In addition, she has had a lot of young helpers over the years. She calls her teenage employees Dots Girls and they have been faithful workers serving cones, shakes and sundaes. “We’ve had employees work as long as six years,” said Painter.
She added 12 employees are working there now.
Dot’s Dairio serves up both hand-dipped and soft-serve ice cream. A large sign out front says there are 24 different flavors and more of soft-serve ice cream. But Painter says there actually about 40 flavors available.
As for the hand-dipped, some of the more popular flavors are cookie dough, butter pecan, cookies and cream and cotton candy.
“It’s hard to pick out just one or two and if you talk to someone else they’ll tell you something different,” said Painter.
As for the milkshakes, peanut butter is a very popular one, she added.
For decades, it has been a place where folks could sit at a picnic table under the shade of the trees and enjoy a cold treat. At one time, Dot’s Dairio served burgers and hot dogs along with ice cream but that didn’t work out with the opening of fast-food restaurants nearby, which could serve them cheaper. So the grill and deep fryer were taken out and Dot’s focused on what it does best.
And even though some of the large trees are gone because of disease or age, people still enjoy eating their ice cream at the picnic tables.
“It’s old timey,” said Painter.
Dot’s Dairio opens for the season around the first or second week of April and continues through the end of October. During that time, the place is open every day starting at noon and closing around dark.
Since the August issue came out, lots of people have come to tell Painter and her Dots Girls about their place being featured in Our State. This recognition only confirms what so many people have known already: Dot’s Dairio is one of those special places in North Carolina that you just can’t miss.
Dot’s is a survivor too. When it first opened 47 years ago in Pleasant Gardens, the ice cream business had as its neighbor the Lake Tahoma Steak House, which later became the Little Siena Italian restaurant. The Garden City Drive-In and Duncan’s Shoe House were also close by and Gibb’s Motel was located across U.S. 70.
Since then, all these businesses have passed from the scene. But Dot’s Dairio is still going strong.
“It’s a little hole in the wall and we intend to keep it and keep it going,” said Painter.