Almost 70 years after it first started churning out frozen custard in an art-deco-styled roadside stand at the corner of Route 50 and Annandale Road in Falls Church, Frozen Dairy Bar is set for a triumphant return this spring. The historic frozen custard purveyor will be reborn as part of Usman and Lilly Bhatti’s new restaurant opening in the former FDB Eatery space on Arlington Boulevard in two weeks.
The iconic Falls Church business struggled in recent years and after reinventing itself a few times, failed to find its footing and closed its doors — seemingly for good — last September. But now Usman, who grew up just down the street from the original shop, has plans to bring the old-time Frozen Dairy Bar feeling back.
“My dad used to take me [to Frozen Dairy Bar] when I was a kid,” Usman, who owns and operates the food truck DC Steakholders tells the News-Press.
And over the years, through Frozen Dairy Bar’s various transitions, the father of four kept the family tradition alive, regularly taking his own children for cups and cones of the custard at the shop, now located in a shopping center just a few yards from its original location.
Then one day, on a trip for some custard with his twins, Usman found a “Temporary Closed” note on the door. A few months later, another sign went up, signalling the closure was more permanent.
“We had just come back from lunch [a few doors down] at Miu Kee and saw the ‘For Lease’ banner,” says Usman. “We had been considering getting into the brick-and-mortar business,” adds Lilly. So, after talking to the leasing manager and setting up a meeting with the owner, she started doing her homework.
“I looked at every single review online,” Lilly says, hoping to learn from customer feedback what went wrong with the previous operations.
First opened in 1950 by Guy and Walter Sponseller, Frozen Dairy Bar became a sensation in Falls Church — and the Northern Virginia area — with its custard, an ice cream-like treat made with eggs, served from a then-state-of-the-art Elektro-Freeze machine.
In the 50s, frozen custard was still a relative novelty in the food world. While it was introduced commercially on Coney Island in 1919 and, later, to a larger audience at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the treat wasn’t widely available outside of the midwest.
For 44 years, Falls Church’s neon-lit shop with “wings” served cone after cone to lines of customers until it shuttered in 1994. The business then briefly relocated to a Lee Highway stripmall for two years, during which time its original building was torn down and a shopping center was built around its former site.
After construction of the center was completed, Frozen Dairy Bar, then owned by Kevin Eakin, returned to Arlington Blvd. in 1999. The store moved once more in 2007, to a larger space in the same shopping center, and rebranded as Frozen Dairy Bar and Boardwalk Pizza. The business made one more transition at the end of 2014 when it shuttered for renovations and rebranding until reopening in March 2015 as FDB Eatery.
With a shift away from the casual, counter-service it offered for more than 60 years, the latest concept was a full-service operation with a menu featuring items like duck empanadas and crab mac-and-cheese. The walk-up custard counter was now relegated to a small, segregated section of the restaurant, though custard was still available in its sit-down portion.
FDB Eatery lasted until September of 2018 when it went dark and soon after, Usman and Lilly decided it was up to them to bring the custard back.
Several other parties were interested in the space, including a barbecue chain and a local taco restaurant says Usman, but Eakin, whose grandparents owned the land where the original custard stand once stood, wanted someone to continue the Frozen Dairy Bar legacy.
“I’m excited that Frozen Dairy Bar will remain a Falls Church staple,” Eakin told the News-Press in an email.
After pouring over reviews, Lilly says it sounded like most people were intimidated by the change from Frozen Dairy Bar to FDB Eatery and, combined with low staff and spotty service, the new business didn’t make people feel welcome.
“The concept wasn’t working,” says Usman.
The Bhattis hope to bring back the casual feeling and atmosphere that made Frozen Dairy Bar successful in the first place. That means no more full service and glazed pork chops. Instead, counter service will return and the menu will have a simple focus featuring the same cheesesteaks Usman has been selling out of his food truck for the last five years, along with burgers, fries and onion rings.
The walls have also been repainted and the lighting is changing, moves they hope will create a brighter interior and make the space more welcoming. Vintage signs and photos and drawings of the original custard shop plus a collage by local artist Paul McGehee will adorn the walls. “We’re bringing 1950 back,” says Usman, who wants to keep as much of the shop’s history around as possible.
The biggest challenge of the new venture won’t be the food portion of the restaurant, however. Instead, Usman admits, it’s the frozen stuff that’s been trickier than anticipated.
In advance of the foray into the new business, Usman spent time on two ice cream trucks to get a better idea of what to expect. But it did nothing to prepare him for the challenge of frozen custard.
“Ice cream is so easy,” he says, “but custard is a whole new ballgame.”
For research, Usman and Lilly visited more than 10 shops around the area and have been experimenting with recipes in order to find what makes for the best custard.
After an early misstep with a Sysco mix (“Threw it away, it wasn’t good,” says Usman) and a from-scratch vanilla recipe they had to spit out, they’re still working on the final product — and will continue to, up until the doors open.
They have been making progress. A recent batch of chocolate was “on point,” though since vanilla is the base for all the flavors they plan on eventually offering, they need to make sure it’s perfected by opening day.
“While we’re not going to have the exact original recipe, we’re going to get it as close to 1950 as possible,” Usman says.
In addition to the recipe work, the maintenance on the custard machine is proving to be quite the task. Every night, the machine must be broken down and its nearly 100 parts cleaned with a special detergent at a specific water temperature.
“I did not think custard was that hard!” Usman says about the journey into perfecting the frozen treat.
Initially, the restaurant will offer three flavors — vanilla, chocolate and strawberry — with a rotating “flavor of the week,” plus plenty of toppings. There will also be a suggestion box where input from customers will be used for future flavors.
Custard won’t be limited to the shop either. Lilly says they’re considering selling to-go pints, and plans are in the works for a Frozen Dairy Bar truck, complete with white wall tires and a big cone on top, that Usman hopes to have mobile by next spring.
Understandably, trying to keep news of an iconic custard brand’s imminent return under wraps — especially as the weather turns for the better — has been a challenge.
Since the husband-and-wife team signed a lease and started work on the space earlier this month, there has been a constant stream of curious passers-by stopping outside, knocking on the window or simply walking through the front door inquiring about the restaurant’s future.
They even told their children to keep the news quiet at school, but that was easier said than done.
“They told their teachers, they told everyone,” Lilly says with a smile. “There’s been a lot of anticipation and interest. We have a lot to live up to.”
But now that the news is out, the wait is just about over. The opening of DC Steakholders featuring Frozen Dairy Bar custard is set for Wednesday, April 3 at 6641 Arlington Blvd.
They want to take it slow at the beginning, so milkshakes won’t be available for the first week or so but once they get used to the new operation, they say, the old custard favorites will be back.