The Dairy Godmother Will Go On

Founder Liz Davis reflects on 17 years in the frozen custard business and the next chapter for her beloved Del Ray shop.

Liz Davis in 2006. Photo by Lisa Helfert, WETA Neighborhoods

Del Ray residents let out a communal gasp when Liz Davis announced in January that she would not be reopening her beloved frozen custard shop after her annual winter hiatus. Davis, 58, moved with her family to Arlington from Wisconsin in 1965 when her father, Glenn Davis, became a U.S. congressman from that state’s 9th district. After leaving Virginia for culinary school and a string of restaurant jobs, she returned and opened The Dairy Godmother on Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray in 2000. Here’s an update on the store and its future.

What made you decide to turn in your apron after 17 years?
I was thinking about it for a while. The Dairy Godmother is completely fulfilled. I discovered that I like the striving part. I want someone else to love it now.

So the shop isn’t closing? it’s just changing hands?
I had to find [a buyer] who wasn’t only heart and someone who wasn’t only business. To me small business is a form of self-expression. I think we’ve gotten there now. We are ironing out the details.

Do you live in Del Ray?
I’ve lived about five blocks from The Dairy Godmother, in a 1,000-square-foot house, since 1998. It used to be a brothel in the ’60s. (A next-door neighbor who had probably lived there since the time of Jesus told me that.)

The neighborhood has changed a lot.
It has. I’d come here in high school to babysit and there were actual beatniks. The houses were modest and falling down, so people who were artistic could afford to live here. It was tougher, more real. I liked that.

You graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 1985. Then what?
I started baking the night shift at a hotel in Nantucket. I was interested in pastry because it was more exacting. Plus, I liked being at a job before 6 a.m. Going in at 3 p.m. as a line cook and getting out at midnight and drinking with the staff wasn’t for me. There was a lot of sexual harassment in the restaurant business, and it was considered normal. If you were a woman and didn’t like it, they said you weren’t cut out for the job. They would try to break you, to prove that women didn’t belong there. Things are a lot better now.

What brought you back to this area?
I wanted a more normal life. I thought if I was going to work six days a week, it should be near where my parents live so I could see them. I got married, had [two] kids. It was a bad marriage, so I got out of it and said, “What am I going to do now?” I’m from Wisconsin, where we have a lot of frozen custard. They didn’t have it here.

So you took a leap of faith and went out on your own.
When you have kids, failure is not an option. I knew I could do everything myself if I had to. I didn’t need line cooks, waiters or dishwashers. I made every cookie, every dog treat, every sorbet. I washed the linens myself. When I got more successful, I hired more people.

What does the future hold for you now?
A couple of other businesses, probably in Wisconsin. I still really like making the ice pops because they are so creative. And I want to do a Dairy Godmother cookbook. When I die I’ll probably be in purgatory scooping at The Dairy Godmother and every person I knew in life will come through the line.

If that’s purgatory, what’s heaven?
Right now, it’s just getting to sit down someplace. [She starts to tear up.]

Leaving must be bittersweet.
A restaurant is a harsh mistress because you put so much into it. It’s not as hard to leave as people think, but it’s like selling the house where your kids were born or where you got your first puppy. It’s like a home, a very, very demanding home. But I’m glad I did it.

Editor’s Note: The Washington Post reports that restaurant veteran Russell Gravatt, who helped found the original Austin Grill chain in the D.C. area, has assumed ownership of The Dairy Godmother. 

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Categories: Food & Drink