LI’s Fast Food Invasion: Quick, Popular Eats Take Island by Storm

Dairy Queen Long Island
Dairy Queen
Dairy Queen Long Island
Dairy Queen Grill & Chill opened in June to thousands of fast food fans.

Blizzards were the craze on a sweltering Monday last month as Dairy Queen finally opened its doors on Long Island to thousands of fast-food fanatics pouring into Massapequa—many forced to seek parking at neighboring businesses just for the opportunity to enjoy the cool, wintery mix of sweet treats and ice cream.

After years of torment by the fast-food chain via unrequited commercials, salivating patrons didn’t take long to snatch them up, along with some burgers—lines cramming its interior, zigzagging around its perimeter and dozens of cars packing its drive-thru—even if it was only 10 a.m.

At the rear of one line stood 49-year-old Massapequan Jim McCaffrey, whose young daughter “couldn’t wait for the grand opening,” he grinned.

Neither could Louisiana-native Tammy Lestingi, who never had a problem grabbing a chicken fried steak at the many DQ’s sprinkled across southern states.

“It’s the style of hamburger that I like,” she said out of her car window just after 10 a.m.

“We don’t have to drive three hours to get to one,” smiled 16-year-old Kayla Provenzano, gladly standing in the rain for the brain-freezing treat.

It’s a scene all too familiar in recent years across Long Island, as other casual eateries offering similar menu options, many resembling those in the south and Midwest, take up residence here.

Sonic Drive-In arrived in North Babylon two years ago with much fanfare. Shake Shack, with locations stretching from Florida to Massachusetts, invaded Old Country Road in Westbury to the delight of burger fans across LI. Red Robin, which sells itself as a casual sit-down restaurant, opened its grill in May 2011 and has seen a steady stream of customers ever since. And Chic-fil-A, the famed southern chicken restaurant, was rumored to have been scouting locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties, though a spokeswoman for the company told the Press that talk of a location in the area is “very much premature.”

It would seem that the fast food industry is finally catching on to the Long Island market, reaping the benefits of aggressive marketing campaigns launched years before ever opening up shop in the area.

“A lot of people come in and say, ‘We’ve seen your commercial, we were waiting for you to get here,’” said Kathie Seaman, general manager of Red Robin in Carle Place.

Fast-food spots such as DQ and Sonic are breathing new life into a region that has been dominated by the likes of McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Taco Bell—legacy quick-service businesses that have had a firm grip on the area for dozens of years.

Shake Shack Long Island
Tray of Shack Shack burgers. (Photo credit: William Brinson)

The northward expansion to LI may also have to do with the overall health of the industry, which is showing no sign of decline, despite concerns from health officials regarding an overabundance of cholesterol and calories.

Placed, a Seattle-based marketing research company, dubbed by its 33-year-old CEO David Shim as “Nielsen for the physical world,” discovered that six of the 10 most prosperous quick-service businesses in the nation were fast-food restaurants, outpacing other quick-stop spots, such as CVS and Walgreens.

“I think quick-service restaurants are a big part of our culture,” said Shim, adding that McDonald’s was the dominant quick-service business in every region of the country. “To say that America is a ‘fast food nation’ is an understatement,” Placed declared in its Dining Out in America: The Quick Service Restaurant Landscape study.

The type of food that these companies are offering has also played a major role in attracting repeat customers, but with competition heating up, many in the industry are inventing new menu options to keep customers interested.

Taco Bell hit gold in 2012 when it unveiled its Doritos Locos Tacos. The company sold more than 350 million of the Doritos chips-flavored meals, which quickly became the company’s most-successful product launch, ever. Other fast-food makers are fighting back: Burger King created a summer barbecue menu featuring a rib sandwich; McDonald’s introduced a whole new line of Quarter Pounders; Wendy’s announced a pretzel bacon cheeseburger; and Sonic will unveil a pretzel-bun hot dog.

Sonic's pretzel bun hot dog. (Photo: Sonic)
Sonic’s pretzel bun hot dog. (Photo: Sonic)

Sonic may have had one of the most successful fast-food openings in the region when it triumphantly entered the market in May 2011. Famous for its retro-dining service, whereby car-hops skate out to parked cars to deliver its juicy hamburgers and colorful arctic beverages, the North Babylon location served thousands on its grand opening. Customers jammed Deer Park Avenue for more than a month and cars stretched along the shoulder for a half-mile. Its inauguration attracted so many locals that one Press reporter had to wait six hours to conduct “research” for a story—a glorious feast of burgers and tater tots.

“The community has responded great to us,” said Spencer Hart, Sonic’s North Babylon franchisee. “We’ve had a great relationship with them.”

“It starts with the food,” he added, “which is great, we have one of the most diverse menus out there.”

The mobs packing Massapequa’s DQ—a second-coming for the chain on LI after leaving years ago—are rivaling those masses.

“It was a big community response,” Dairy Queen Grill & Chill owner Laura Maier said of its opening day.

Maier grew up with DQ in New Jersey and “always loved ice cream,” she said, moving to LI 12 years ago and noticing the fast-food giant was missing.

“A few years ago I started looking into it,” she said, “and a year-and-a-half later, here we are.”

The process of bringing Shake Shack’s towering burgers and frosty shakes to Westbury was also lengthy, but it paid off on opening day says Mike Iaia, area director for Shake Shack.

“It was just the right time for a Shake Shack on Long Island,” he said, adding that “it was one of our bigger openings we’ve ever had.”

While the food typically garners rave reviews, it’s the experience that also has people coming back for more, notes Iaia, adding that the Westbury location boasts three TVs and a unique beer brewed by Brooklyn Brewery.

“We want to treat people with genuine hospitality,” he said.

Though Long Islanders are enjoying a diverse fast-food experience, the onslaught of new chains already has people asking for more—and some restaurants area already planning for the future.

“We will have other Dairy Queens,” DQ’s Maier said, with conviction.

If they build it…

With Carly Rome