Dairy Keen – 4 Generations Serving Best of State Burgers and Shakes
HOW THE MAWHINNEY FAMILY GOT THERE!
The rush to the valleys, canyons and rivers of the mineral-rich Rocky Mountains in the late 1800s brought stampeding, optimistic adventurers dreaming of gold and silver wealth.
Wilbur Mawhinney, was the son of one of these mining families. During the 1930s and 1940s, he was employed as a meter reader for Utah Power and Light. His steady employment was an incredible accomplishment during a time when sugar, flour and gasoline were earmarked for troops in World War II, which made for short supplies and hardships on the home front.
Wilbur and his wife Ruth decided to gamble everything they had, including their car to purchase the Jensen Hotel and it’s 1874 restaurant for $35,000. Located in the pastoral village of Heber City, a distant 17 miles southeast of Park City. The newly named Hiway Hotel and Restaurant had only one bathroom. When they opened their doors, rooms were $5 a night. Times were hard and the Mawhinney family watched sympathetically as patrons ordered cups of hot water and ketchup to make tomato soup as their dinner.
Wilbur and Ruth also opened the first bar in Heber. “But that didn’t go over so well. They were picketed for selling beer,” says Jan Mawhinney Oplin, Wilbur and Ruth’s granddaughter.
Jan’s father Max was 12 years old when his family bought the fi rst television set in Heber; crowds appeared to watch the Wednesday and Friday night fights. “The antennae had to be constantly adjusted with a pipe wrench to create a clear picture,” Jan laughs, “ so my father said he was the town’s first tv antennae.”
Mawhinney’s operations eventually included the Hiway Hotel and Restaurant, the Continental Trailways bus station, the Bar M Motel and some additional properties.
When the Dairy Queen owners wanted to sell, they asked the Mawhinneys to buy their franchise. Instead, the family bought the business without the franchise. They renamed the restaurant Dairy Keen (slight sign alteration, QU became K) and “when we opened it on the first day of fishing season in 1968, we brought in $300, more than six times what the hotel did!” Jan stated.
In the 1980s Jan’s father, Max, was involved in the grassroots effort to save the Heber Valley Railroad. Heber was a prosperous sheep shipping port in the early part of the 20th century making the railroad extremely important. The train, that once ran from Heber to Provo and Salt Lake City on the Denver Rio Grande Western line delivering passengers and freight along the way, had become less prosperous as the century continued. As the eff ort to preserve the train continued, ownership cycled through many phases until arriving at its current tourist attraction status as the Heber Valley Railroad. Presently the scenic route follows the Provo River and Deer Creek Reservoir 16 miles up Provo Canyon to Vivian Park. (Concerned folks continue to donate funds and volunteer to refurbish the grand old cars and engines.)
Meanwhile the Bar M Motel morphed into the Swiss Alps Inn, and the enterprising Mawhinney family continued to expand and remodel the Keen. Due to Max’s love of trains, the Dairy Keen added “Home of the Train” to its name as bits and pieces of his hobby were acquired and displayed throughout the store. Max and his wife Caleen hired train artist Steve Strebel of Salt Lake City to run a hobby train through the restaurant. Strebel accepted the challenge and recreated the backdrop of Heber Valley for the G Gauge cars collected for the Keen. Strebel painted buildings from the old town of Heber on canvas, then glued them to the walls. His grandfather had a sheep operation in the early days and used the Heber Creeper (established in 1899) to transport his animals to market. Scenes of this enterprise plus other early businesses like the MacNaughton Farm (Red Ledges), Pikes Peak Garage, local dairy farms, the doctor’s office, the Mawhinney Cafe (opened 1946), and the Heber Feed and Stock provide a stunning backdrop for the suspended train cars and tracks. Another artist, David Oliver, constructed the wooden shelves with tunnels and tracks that are currently resting above diner’s heads.
Max’s love and appreciation for cooking began when he worked at Russel’s Cafe in Salt Lake. There he formulated recipes that have earned the Dairy Keen 33 Best of State Medals in 15 years. Crowd favorites include 12 variations of burgers, 8 chicken dishes, prize-winning soups, salads, fruit slushes, sodas and over 80 flavors of shakes. Jan has put her own spin on a gluten-free menu to reach even more customers.
An enthusiastic crew (110 employees in the summer), two drive-up windows, and an expanded patio add to the ambience of the Dairy Keen, operated by the Mawhinneys through four generations. “Our Family Serving Your Family Since 1946” is the motto of this well-loved landmark.
By Ani Robertson