“Back in the day, they used to have a French fry cutter and it was called Susie Q. And, when you would put your potato in there, it would do the curlicue fries,” says manager Sheila Edmondson. “And when I came back to take it over, the machine was gone. But we still have Susie Q fries.”
Edmondson – who also goes by the nicknames Boss Lady and Ms. Pinky – runs the distinctive teal and pink edifice that draws in daily crowds. She once worked for J.B. and Patty Head, before taking on the cafeteria for several years at a local school. J.B.’s mother, Mildred Head, opened the malt shop in 1960 in the fruit stand. The original structure, despite the paint job and awning, is much as it appeared back then.
The chipper Ms. Pinky didn’t stay away too long.
“I stopped in here 13 years ago and asked if I could buy the grill so I could open up a restaurant at Rocky Branch Marina. Instead, they offered me the Susie Q, and I've been here for 13 years.”
Edmondson and I conducted our lively conversation one Thursday morning as customers called in and came to the window, and her never-slacking staff continued to flip burgers, make milkshakes, dollop chili onto footlongs and pull fountain drinks.
Many of those cups bore messages to particular customers.
“We take care of our veterans and our police department, our EMTs, our ambulance [crew], our fire department. We write them a note on their cups that says, “Thank you for your service,” or it just says, “Thank you,” because some of our vets don't like to be reminded that they have bad memories. So, we just give them a little note that says thank you for everything, and they always seem to tag the Susie Q in it and say, “Thanks, you made my day.”
Everyone gets a smile on their cup. That attitude is very on-brand for the Susie Q where the ladies behind the glass are always upbeat and bright, sporting tie dye shirts and often dancing along to the soundtrack of music that smoothly drifts from speakers both within and without the building.
“The Susie Q gives me energy; it's all due to this place. It's kinda like an energized place to work at: can't be slow – it’s fast-paced,” Edmondson shares as she passes a footlong from the grill station across to one of the other ladies, who ladles on chili before passing to a third woman, who shakes cheese and onions onto the dogs. That footlong weiner was first cooked in the deep fryer before being finished on the grill and slid into a mustard-toasted bun.
The mustard is part of the particular flavor that a Susie Q burger, dog or sandwich brings to the table … or dashboard.
“It just gives it that flavor, and it's really good,” says Edmondson. “You take the bottom of your bun and you put mustard on it, and we toast it into the bun and, then, you put your pickles, onions, lettuce and tomato on it. I always tell [customers], if you don't like mustard, at least try it. If you don't like it, bring it back, and I'll buy you another one. Because you can't taste the mustard, it's toasted in there really good.”
The patties are excellent as well.
“Hamburger patties are weighed in the back and pressed with patty papers in between them. And they're stacked, and the grill girl gets to pull them out. So, they're already round, so we just put them on the grill and put our special seasoning on them.”
“Do you use any special seasoning?” I ask amid the growing bustle of lunchtime.
“Yes, we do!” she replies.
“And are you going to share with me what's in that seasoning?” I try.
“No, I cannot – that's a secret recipe!” Edmondson laughs.”
Each day, some 60-80 pounds of hamburger is patted out for burgers. During the height of summer, that amount increases to 120 pounds – making it one of the busiest burger joints in the region.
The flavors of other Susie Q creations – recipes held over from the Head family days – also define the place, like the coleslaw and the potato salad. Edmondson herself flattens and hand-breads the chicken breasts served in the baskets and on some of the sandwiches.
“That’s the Cocka-Doodle Piggie! It’s a big chicken breast with a quarter pound of shaved ham!” she proclaims, as one is assembled on the grill. It’s a massive sandwich, probably more than a pound total. She points out a big burger being assembled. “The Big Daddy is a double cheeseburger with a quarter pound shaved ham and bacon, three pieces of cheese. That's the Big Daddy.”
In addition to the new sandwiches, Edmondson has added portabella mushrooms, sweet corn nuggets, cheese sticks and fried cheesecake. But all the original menu items are still there.
Those shakes, though …
“The shakes are really thick,” Edmondson shares as she offers a large-bore straw to a customer from a bag to use in his dessert. “We can make you a 50-mile shake. I made a shake the other day for some customers that live in Grove, Oklahoma, for lunch. Their shake made it all the way back to Grove. It was still thick. We can tip a shake upside down ... It's like a concrete, but it's homemade ice cream.”
Customers come back for those beloved fries, burgers and shakes. They also come for the nostalgia – and for the special way every diner is treated.
“They have a lucky number. Everybody gets a lucky number, and we call out the lucky number and say – we hit the microphone and say, “Lucky number so-and-so, your order is ready!” And, if they have a call-in, this is a put-out window, so they come up here and get their food, too.”
“And why is that so lucky?” I ask.
“Because they're eating here, and everyone has to get lucky every once in a while!” she replies.
The Susie Q Malt Shop is one of a number of dairy bars across Arkansas still holding onto the old traditions. It’ll be featured in Arkansas PBS’ upcoming program “Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats” – premiering Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. – and a new book, which will be available as an Arkansas PBS thank-you gift.
Edmondson notes the shop would be nothing without her excellent employees, who work together smoothly in the rather tight environs of the small building. But – most of all – she thanks the folks who come back, time after time, to enjoy the repasts offered through the window.
“If it wasn't for the customers, we wouldn't be here. So, we have to treat our customers with the utmost respect.”
Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021
107 Westwood Dr., Marshall, Arkansas
Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021
“Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats” premiere, 7 p.m.
Donate now at myarpbs.org/donatedairybars to support public media across Arkansas, and you can pre-order a DVD copy, companion book, T-shirt or other fun thank-you gift!
612 N. 2nd St., Rogers, Arkansas
Make your own dairy bar pilgrimage for a “Lucky Number” moment Monday through Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.