A Life In Ice Cream

VT_DairyKastle-20160629-64Located on a busy corner along Eastern Parkway and accented by vibrant pops of green and yellow sits Dairy Kastle, an unassuming yet inviting ice cream stand that looks like it came right out of a 1950s beach movie. Ever since Robert Humphrey converted a former gas station to a walk-up ice creamery in the mid-1970s, Dairy Kastle has been synonymous with Louisville summer, delighting generations of families with its signature soft serve, shakes and chili dogs at incredibly reasonable prices. And now, in the exceedingly capable hands of married couple Katherine Smith and Damian Vitale, it’s certain that the timeless charm of Dairy Kastle will live on for decades to come.

Smith was a bartender and manager at Shenanigans on Norris Place in 2010 when she first started the dialogue of potentially purchasing the Dairy Kastle enterprise: “The former owner, George Hayden, was a customer of mine at Shenanigans, and I approached him and said, you know, ‘Hey, would you be interested in selling?’ and he said, ‘Not yet!’ But when he finally was interested, he came to me and asked if I was still interested in buying – and I was.”

Damian Vitale & Katherine Smith

Damian Vitale & Katherine Smith

Smith had been a bartender for 15 years but knew she was a capable manager. Moreover, she liked managing – she liked being able to implement her own ideas and see them executed. Her knack for leadership led her to the ultimate conclusion of wanting to own her own business, but as far as what that business would be, it was years before she finally realized what the right fit for her would be. “I thought this business was the right size for me – I thought it was a size I could manage,” she recounts. “And also, it’s ice cream, and I thought moving from alcohol to ice cream was a good move!”

VT_DairyKastle-20160629-23_webNow, four years later, Smith looks back on the decision to buy Dairy Kastle from Hayden as one of the best decisions she’s ever made and furthermore feels affirmed it was exactly the right thing for her to do at that point in her life. “At 35, I was ready for more responsibility and ready to control and manage my own business and environment,” she relates. “I lucked out. Not only is Dairy Kastle a manageable size for my first foray as a business owner, but it is a great business. Ice cream and chili dogs are fantastic! The customers are almost always in good moods as are the employees. We have fun at our jobs and love doing it.”

Part of that love for her job comes from the longstanding community adoration for Dairy Kastle. Smith didn’t need to work to win over customers’ taste buds – that part was already done for her. Instead, she had to work to maintain the Dairy Kastle status quo while making logical and sometimes creative updates. “We walked in and kept it the way it was – especially for the first year,” she emphasizes. “We said, ‘George, how do you run things?’ He told me, and we did it all the same. The employees, the ones who had been here for years, were a great help in showing us how to do things, and then after that first season, we started to make some changes. Except for the veggie chili dogs – we did that the first year.”

Indeed, one of the most acclaimed changes the team has made has been the introduction of vegan and vegetarian items to the Dairy Kastle menu. For its vegan customers, Dairy Kastle currently boasts pineapple soft serve, strawberry soft serve, chili dogs and brats in addition to a myriad of shake creations. Of course, they also offer the traditional versions of brats and dogs, but Smith and Vitale insist that it’s important to them to offer something for everyone, Smith especially, as she’s vegetarian herself.

VT_DairyKastle-20160629-20Other changes included bringing in parking bumpers and flower pots to prevent cars from cutting through the Dairy Kastle lot to skip the traffic light, which both Smith and Vitale attest to be of great importance as far as safety is concerned.

But perhaps what they’re most proud of is how they were able to bring customer service to the forefront. “Damian calls it ‘the best walk-up experience in Louisville,’” Smith describes. “We want the experience to be good … We realize people stand in line, and they’re great – they’re fantastic customers. People talk, they chat together, and it’s a real experience. And we wanted to make sure the customer service was a top priority. The quality of our product is great, so I’m not really worried about that part of it. It’s about making it an experience.”

And clearly, they’re doing something right as you can drive by Dairy Kastle at 7 p.m. on a Sunday and see a line that wraps around the building. Though it always moves quickly, the team asserts that guests don’t really seem to mind waiting – there’s something of a nostalgic wonder to waiting in line at an ice cream stand on a hot summer night. “It’s a concept that’s sort of old-fashioned and timeless,” Smith muses.

VT_DairyKastle-20160629-67“It’s a great melting pot as well,” she continues. “One thing Damian says a lot and I’ve noticed as well is that you see all different kinds of people here. It’s just one after another, and everybody’s here for ice cream. They’re not here to talk about politics – it’s a very open and inviting place for people to come where they’re not going to feel threatened or anything.”

There’s also a charitable component to the business; when Hayden owned the company, he made frequent donations to Home of the Innocents, and Smith and Vitale have now expanded that scope of giving. “We split the tips that people give,” Smith explains. “We split them between the employees, the Kentucky Humane Society and Home of the Innocents. And with letting people know what we’re doing, we’ve increased donations. It used to just go to Home of the Innocents, and I was worried that if we split it, then no one would get very much – but we’ve been able to give even more.”

Possibly from their involvement with the Humane Society and general love for animals, Smith says that Dairy Kastle has seen a significant growth in its animal clientele as well, remarking that just a few nights prior, a customer brought a pet pig out for ice cream. Usually though, it’s dogs they serve, and Dairy Kastle actually features the Milk-Bone Sundae for its canine customers.

With all the good Smith and Vitale are doing, from providing frozen delights at an astoundingly reasonable price point to making consistent charitable donations, it’s easy to understand that they’re enjoying their new life in ice cream. Vitale, a former physical education teacher at Louisville Collegiate School, would never have guessed this is where he’d end up, but he couldn’t be more thankful that things played out the way they did.

VT_DairyKastle-20160629-56“If you’d asked me seven years ago what I’d be doing, I never could have imagined it, but this has been fantastic,” he maintains. “We have so much fun with our employees – we want them to have fun, making it fun for our customers, and it’s easy when it’s all about ice cream to have fun with people and interact with them.” Smith agrees: “I like making people happy. It makes me smile to see people happy.”

But Smith notes that it’s about more than the day-to-day; it’s about carrying on the tradition of Dairy Kastle, about serving the name and the business to ensure it fosters the same positivity it has since Robert Humphrey opened the doors 40 years ago. “We have picked up a tradition at Dairy Kastle that has generations of customers,” she says. “From UofL students to international folks to families to business people to our wonderful neighborhood friends to all walks of life – our customers come for ice cream and to just hang out with each other. We have fun working to create a pleasant and comfortable walk-up experience. We feel our customers appreciate that, and it makes the job rewarding in many ways.”

There’s no end in sight to Dairy Kastle. The season runs through the second Monday in October, but come the first Tuesday in March, they’ll be back at it, serving up the best soft serve around and giving anyone and everyone a comfortable place to meet, chat and just have a good time – which is exactly what Smith hopes to accomplish. Referring to a little girl walking by with the remnants of a vanilla cone dripping down her face, Smith smiles and says, “That little girl who’s so happy to be here – that’s why we’re here.” VT

Dairy Kastle is located at 575 Eastern Parkway and is open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sunday noon-10 p.m. For more information, call 502.634.8990 or visit dairykastle.com.

Photos by RYAN NOLTEMEYER