Arkansas travel writer and food historian Kat Robinson has a new special airing on PBS next week focusing on 13 of the state’s 94 dairy bars. “Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats & Cool Treats” will air at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 19 on Arkansas PBS. A free advanced screening will be held tonight around sunset at the Kenda Drive-In Theatre in Marshall (Searcy County).
The Kenda Drive-In seemed like a natural place to debut the dairy special because it ties in with one of the featurettes in the program, Robinson said. Daisy Queen dairy bar is located about a mile west of Kenda Drive-In, and both have been in operation since 1966.
Robinson is also releasing a book of the same name in September that covers all 94 of the state’s dairy bars, which she visited over a three week span earlier this year. Robinson said the idea for the book came to her this past January. She had dropped off some books in Hot Springs, and on the way back, an ice cream craving led her to wonder whether Mel’s Dairy Bar in Malvern was still in operation. It wasn’t just operating, it was packed, she said.
“It occurred to me: this is the best business model for the pandemic right here.”
Dairy bars, popular spots for drive up or window service in the mid-century, are thriving right now, Robinson said. She found in her research that there were 95 dairy bars in the state in December of 2019, and that only one has closed since the pandemic began. Dairy bars can be the favorite hub of rural communities and are often named after the town’s high school mascot, Robinson said.
“They come with a side order of nostalgia,” Robinson said. “Most have been around since the mid-century. There’s a handful I’m covering that are part of the revival. … These little restaurants are very specialized to where they are,” she said.
In southern Arkansas, Polish sausage is popular, Robinson said. In western Arkansas part of the local flavor is the burrito deluxe — a bean and beef burrito covered with lettuce, tomato, sour cream and salsa. It’s a popular item at Bonnie’s Dairy Freeze in Fort Smith, a drive in dairy bar that’s been around since the ’40s. Robinson said chicken gizzards are a popular item at older dairy bars.
Robinson’s written several books about Arkansas foodways and said this one was particularly challenging. When she was researching “101 Things To Eat in Arkansas Before you Die” or “Another Slice of Arkansas Pie,” she could visit several restaurants in a day. “There’s no one place that has a super concentration of dairy bars, so there’s a lot of driving,” she said. The film crew consisted of Robinson and cinematographer Jeff Dailey. They set out on the road after getting vaccinated in February and shot for three weeks. She came back and started editing the film and writing the book all at once. Robinson was formerly a news producer for KTHV, but said cutting a movie together was a completely different experience.
“It’s been an adventure and a half putting it together,” she said.
The filming took place before the delta surge but Robinson said she got to see how COVID impacted different businesses.
The show opens with Feltner’s Whatta-Burger. Robinson said all kitchen employees were masked except when the interview was conducted outside the kitchen.
“They’ve even talked about masks in the kitchen from now on,” she said.
The employees at Suzy Q Malt Shop in Rogers created a pod system and none were infected by COVID, Robinson said. Same for the five woman staff at Troy’s Drive-In in Dewitt. It was usually staffed by 10, Robinson said. “It was really difficult for them but they made it work.”
Robinson said the film isn’t just about the food served at dairy bars. “It’s about the connection,” she said, “the stories of people, the human experience and being able to learn more about their lives and why they’re still here after all these years.”
Robinson’s previous PBS special “Make Room for Pie” was nominated for a regional Emmy in 2018. Robinson wrote two books in quarantine last year “43 Tables: An Internet Community Cooks During Quarantine” and “A Bite of Arkansas.” She also worked with Arkansas PBS to create a no-contact cooking program called “Home Cooking With Kat & Friends.” The one hour special aired in June of 2020. You can find Robinson’s books here.
The screening tonight is located at Kenda Drive-In at 107 Westwood Dr. in Marshall. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and the film will be shown around dusk. Robinson will be signing her previously published books at the event. You can find more information and a trailer for the movie here. Featured dairy bars in the film:
- Feltner’s Whatta-Burger in Russellville.
- Bailey’s Dairy Treat in Hot Springs.
- Dairyette in Mount Ida.
- Susie Q Malt Shop in Rogers.
- Burge’s Hickory Smoked Turkeys & Hams in Lewisville and Little Rock.
- Ray’s in Monticello.
- Salem Dairy Bar in Benton.
- Kream Kastle in Blytheville.
- The Bulldog Restaurant in Bald Knob.
- Hamburger Station in Paragould.
- Troy’s Drive-In in De Witt.
- The Original ScoopDog in North Little Rock.
- Daisy Queen in Marshall.
Robinson is compiling a culinary tour guide referencing the 94 dairy bars in Arkansas. Additional information about “Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats & Cool Treats,” including a photo gallery of Robinson’s travels and historic dairy bars, is available at myarpbs.org/dairybars.
During the broadcast, viewers will have the opportunity to make a donation to Arkansas PBS and receive such items as a DVD of the program, Robinson’s newest book “Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats & Cool Treats” or an Arkansas food map T-shirt.
“Dairy Bars: Neat Eats & Cool Treats” will also air Sunday, Aug. 22, at 10:30 a.m. and 10 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 22, at 2 p.m. on ARPBS-4 WORLD; and Sunday, Aug. 22, at 4 p.m. on ARPBS-2 CREATE.