PLAINFIELD, NJ -- For more than 40 years, the Dairy Queen on South Avenue in Plainfield has put smiles on the faces of customers.
For Joseph Albanese (AKA "Mr. A"), who took over the family-run business in 1975, the most important thing is "to have customers leave in a happier frame of mind than when they came in."
"I socialize. I joke with them," he said in an interview with TAP this week. "I like to see people enjoy themselves. Joy comes from giving not from taking."
A large part of the business's success is owed to Mr. A's "sparkling personality." He sings opera, tells jokes and engages his customers young and old. He had been working in Kearny at Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of ATT in the 1970s when his oldest daughter, Maria, said she wanted a car. He told her that she needed to get a job and that if she bought her own car, he would pay for the insurance.
Maria landed a job at the Dairy Queen in Cranford and proved so good at it that the owner called Mr. A two days later and asked about his other daughter, Donna. "Is she as good as this one?"
Eventually, the corporation asked him if he wanted to take over the business in Plainfield or Scotch Plains.
"They thought he had perfect personality, and that as a family we could make it work," said Donna Albanese-DeMair, who oversees the operation.
The family took Plainfield because Mr A thought it had better potential.
"When they offered to sell store, they wouldn't show my accountant the books. He advised against buying it for that reason, but I told him 'I know I can make something of it'."
Since then, it has been one of the corporation's top performing stores. Things weren't always easy, however.
"We had 11 break-ins in first year and a half," Mr. A explained. "But the people protected us. They liked us. Everyone comes from near and far because we treat people the way they want to be treated. I give back to the community, and the people appreciated it. For the last eight years, we've had a Give Back Day. We make money despite giving 50 percent off because so many people come here."
"We each have different skills," Donna explained. "I'm creative. Dad is the marketing expert, and my son, Richard, handles the technology."
While she has been very successful in running the business, Donna says that initially her parents were concerned that she wouldn't be using her degree from The College of New Jersey.
"I studied speech pathology and audiology. While I was in grad school, I was teaching and making ice cream cakes," said Donna, the former president of the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce. "My mom set the tone of being timely and being prepared. My training was in communication. When we hire people, we want them to smile, be polite, speak up, and help people."
Part of the job application process is to understand and learn integrity.
"I'll ask, 'Do you know what integrity means?' and explain that integrity is doing the right thing when nobody is watching," Donna said. "It speaks to your core. We are like family here. We want to mentor and teach them skills. These skills they will take them wherever they go. We want to give them confidence and teach them to be leaders. That's what we try to foster."
Mr. A says explains that attitude, moderation and consideration are the three keys of life and tells his employees, "The customer comes first. If I lose a customer, you lose your job. Leave your troubles at home when you come here. God comes first, then family, school... you come last."
Donna estimated that her family has hired more than 1,000 employees over the past 40 years and that they average three years here at the store. Meanwhile, the industry average for quick service tenure is only three months.
"The longer you are here, you move up. College students come back. One former employee, Charles Evans III, worked here when he was a medical school student. Now he's pediatrician in Phillipsburg, NJ," Donna recalled. " One day a guy came in a suit and made him feel bad about working here. I told him that he was doing honorable work and that in five years he would be a doctor. We gave him furniture and even attended his wedding. He was raised by a single mother here in Plainfield, and he still checks in with us."
All staff must learn how to be of help to customers. Job roles include Blizzard people, cake decorators, and register people. Only "stars" get to work the register. They have to be able to have full conversation and ask if there is something else they can do to help. It can be a challenge in an age when many teens would rather text than talk.
Success also is attributed to the innovative birthday cakes decorated with pictures or toys. Cake customers visit the Plainfield Dairy Queen from Fanwood, Scotch Plains, Westfield, South Plainfield, and elsewhere. Five years ago, the store expanded for parties and partners with the party store next door. Recently, a 60th birthday surprise party was held for a woman from Long Island whose family came from as far away as Florida, California and Las Vegas.
Another success factor is that the family is also very community-minded. A long-time sponsor of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Baseball League, Dairy Queen was named "Sponsor of the Year" in 2012. Twice a year, the Dairy Queen owners have an event at which restored and repaired bicycles are given away at the Plainfield Salvation Army, which designates the people in need.
"Jays Cycle in Westfield donates many of them. We have given away 1,000 bikes in 6 years," Donna said.
Donna is also well known as an advocate for organ donation. She gave one of her kidneys to her mom when she needed one. She also takes time to educate people about donations and writes letters of encouragement to potential donors."
"I know that we've saved lives. I've received much more in return than I have ever given."
This attitude comes from her parents. Mr. A believe attitude is vitally important.
"If someone goes bad, don't get angry. Treat it as a wake-up call," he explained. "It's only after you get a taste of the bitter, that you can appreciate the sweet."