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Tinley Park ice cream parlor marks 70 years of serving cold treats for generations of kids, and a few dogs too

Feb 14, 2024

John Hoffmeister said the secret to running Tinley Park’s oldest ice cream parlor is enjoying it — both the food and the work.

“You have to like people to do this business. You have to go the extra mile,” Hoffmeister explained. “Ice cream is something that breaks down all barriers. Can you imagine if they gave out ice cream sundaes at the United Nations?”

His ice cream parlor, the Dairy Palace at 16760 Oak Park Ave. in Tinley Park, is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. It’s also known as Whitey’s, and there’s a sweet reason for that.

“My children named it because if you look at the top of my head …” the 91-year-old owner said with a laugh, taking off his cap and pointing to his white hair.

Before Hoffmeister bought the business it was Hot Dog & Suds. He’d been in the restaurant business before — running five Whitey’s Hot Dogs outlets from Tinley Park to Plainfield — as well as working 40 years in construction. “I sold all my restaurants and didn’t have anything else to do,” he said. “When opportunity knocks, if you don’t open the door, somebody else will.”

John Hoffmeister, owner of The Dairy Palace in Tinley Park, stands with employees Hannah Brower, center, and Emily Castro behind the counter, where they keep cool with the help of air conditioning, though they enjoy the cool treats too, coming back even when they're not working. (Melinda Moore/Daily Southtown)

Hoffmeister had a rough start in life, growing up in the Angel Guardian Orphanage in Chicago, now known as Misericordia, and foster homes after losing both parents by the time he was 5.

At 17, he joined the Navy and became a medic, working with Marines from 1951 to 1953 during the Korean War because the Navy provided medics to the Marines at that time. “And then I met an angel in New York City,” he said with a smile.

That angel was his wife, Anne, and they’ve been married for 68 years. She’s got her own relationship with the ice cream parlor.

“I don’t work here. I just eat ice cream,” she said, noting the small sundae with nuts and whipped cream is her favorite treat. She said the secret to the business is that it’s family-oriented and features “very good ice cream.”

The ice cream parlor serves multiple flavors and features treats such as sundaes and both soft serve and hard scoop ice cream. One of its claims to fame is its soft serve fruit ice creams, which Hoffmeister makes by hand.

“We’re the only ones that have soft serve strawberry and soft serve banana,” he said. “In season we have peach, plus 15 to 18 other hard scoop flavors and a whole gauntlet of ice cream toppings.”

He is proud of the ice cream he sells. The hard ice cream comes from Hershey, Penn., and much of the soft serve is from Green Bay, Wisconsin. “People who love ice cream, this is their destination,” he said. “They’re going to get quality. We don’t skimp. It’s premium.”

Hoffmeister doesn’t have a favorite, but admits to having an “extra thick chocolate malt” at night.

He said he tries to keep prices as low as possible for families. “I’m not here to make money. I’ve made my money,” he shared, calling the business “recession-proof.” As he explained, a dad might not have much money “but can still buy his kids small ice cream cones and they’ll think he’s a hero.”

The Dairy Palace has restored a 1972 Good Humor ice cream truck that is available to rent for parties and special events. Owner John Hoffmeister, right, says he is proud to have three generations working together in the operation, including son Kevin Hoffmeister, left, who runs the truck with his son, Andrew Hoffmeister. (Melinda Moore/Daily Southtown)

Two family members help run the Dairy Palace — son Kevin Hoffmeister and grandson Andrew Hoffmeister, who mainly help with a 1972 Good Humor ice cream truck that was refurbished over the winter and just hit the road this year, traveling to events such as birthdays, graduations, weddings and bar mitzvahs. It features throwback treats such as Creamsicles, Bomb Pops and chocolate and strawberry éclairs

“We keep it like the original with the ice cream shop that’s been here for 70 years. It’s an absolute blast when you pull up,” said Andrew Hoffmeister, who created an Instagram page for the ice cream parlor this year.

He said at a recent event with more than 100 children, many were excited because they hadn’t seen an ice cream truck before.

The Dairy Palace inspires loyalty in its customers, such as Donna Churms and her husband, Tim, who have been patronizing Dairy Palace since 1995. Lately they’ve settled on a vanilla cone or hot fudge sundae for her and a chocolate twist for him.

“We’ve been coming here a long time and never had a bad ice cream. Service here is good — it’s always with a smile,” Tim Churms said. “They’re always willing to talk to you. The portions are really good.”

Fellow customers the Oczachowskis visited on a recent afternoon with their dog, Toby, who enjoys a pup cup but doesn’t eat the dog biscuit that is under the ice cream. They’ve been coming since their daughter Olivia, who’s now 15, was less than a year old.

“This is the only time he doesn’t bark when he sees other dogs — because he knows he’s going to get a treat,” Matt Oczachowskis said. Olivia said she enjoys the banana soft serve.

Ed and Bonnie Naidhart feed baby Lucy some ice cream. They’ve brought their family, which includes daughters Ashley, Alice and Amanda, to the business "every summer for years," Bonnie said. "We pretty much order the same things." (Melinda Moore/Daily Southtown)

Another dog, Otto, also loves to come for ice cream, according to owner Kevin and Angie Patrick. He does eat the dog biscuit.

“My husband grew up in Tinley. We’ve been coming here many years,” Angie Patrick said

“It’s at least 45 years. I grew up at this place,” Kevin Patrick agreed. “I remember swinging from the red bar by the garbage can. There wasn’t a garbage can there back then.”

First-time customer Charles Ridge decided to stop by after hearing it was National Ice Cream Day. “You gotta support the small businesses,” he said.

One regular visitor to the ice cream parlor, however, never ordered ice cream. “We had a ghost for 25 years — seriously,” John Hoffmeister said, explaining it was the wife of the original owner, and she had died 30 years earlier.

“We’ve all seen her. Sitting out one night a July night at 10 p.m., and there was no breeze. We were just going to pull out. … We used to say good night to the ghost. She lived upstairs when it was an apartment. We were in the car and the security light went off and on three times. It was her saying goodbye to us,” he said, adding that she never appeared after the death of the original owner, “the love of her life.”

Employees seem to love the business just as much as the customers do.

Hannah Brower, a college student who is in her fifth summer working at the ice cream parlor, said she has a “pretty good crew of customers” because she’s worked there so many years and she enjoys handing little kids their ice cream cones.

She said it’s really Hoffmeister who makes the job worthwhile.

“He’s like family to us,” she shared, adding that sometimes when he’s working, he will talk to a customer for 45 minutes.

High school student Emily Castro, who is in her second summer of working there, comes to the ice cream parlor three times a week, even when she’s not working, thanks to employee discounted half-price ice cream treats. “I always get the strawberry cone with chocolate sprinkles or chocolate soft serve,” she said.

She said it’s fun looking out the window and seeing little kids — and dogs — eat ice cream. She said something is new this year: pup cup holders, which she described as wooden blocks with a bowl cutout in the middle. “It keeps the cup in place and you don’t get dog slobber on your hands” trying to hold a cup for them, she shared.

It’s the people who bring her the most joy while on the job.

“Not only the customers but also the people who work here. Since I’ve started I’ve grown to become friends with my co-workers,” she shared. “Even with large age gaps, we’ve connected. We’re a big, happy family. I also like when I’m going to come to work because I’m excited to see the schedule because I’m working with my friends.”

Over the years, all of John Hoffmeister’s 10 grandchildren worked at the business, and the 91-year-old hopes that will continue over the coming generations.

“This will be in my family. This will be my legacy,” he said. “I hope they won’t sell it.”

Melinda Moore is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.