Photos by Brett Nachtigall/Fall River County Herald-Star
LEFT: Taco John’s owner Jacki Lockwood poses with her employee Chris Larson who has worked off-and-on for the franchise since 2004 and eventually moved up to his current General Manager position. RIGHT: Father and son Tony and Kyle Brixius pose in front of the Dairy Queen restaurant they remodeled and moved into back in 2013.
By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – Two of Hot Springs’ most recognizable fast food franchises near the town’s southeast entrance are celebrating anniversaries. The Brixius family has now owned and operated the local Dairy Queen for 25 years while the Lockwood family has been making tacos at Taco John’s for 22 years.
Nicole Lockwood and her mom Jacki Lockwood originally had announced last week that this year was their 20th anniversary, but after looking into their records further, it’s actually been 22 years, with the discovery of a ‘First Dollar’ plaque they received from the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce after taking over in 2002.
“She just had to have it,” said Jacki last week, recalling when her daughter Nicole told her that she had just purchased the business.
Jacki laughed as she described how she wasn’t exactly thrilled when she learned the news of her daughter’s purchase. But in looking back at it now, her heart is full of all the great memories and experiences along the way, despite a lot of ups and downs as well.
The mother/daughter team of Jacki and Nicole got their first taste of the taco business to learn the ropes while working a “Taco Tuesday,” which was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Over time, things began to settle down as they fine-tuned their new business venture together.
After three years of working side-by-side, Nicole’s other entrepreneurial business interests led her to moving to Mitchell.
Some of the things which have brought Jacki the greatest sense of pride as the owner of Taco John’s is the friendships she’s made and seeing her employees utilize their position as a stepping stone to greater things.
Chris Larson is one such example. He began working for Jacki in 2004 and worked off-and-on for a while, but came back in 2011 and has worked there ever since. He is now the General Manager.
The customers are another great source of pride for the Lockwoods.
“The love for Taco John’s that people have is amazing,” Jacki said. “We often hear that when people come to town, it’s the first place that they go.”
Jacki said that she has had the business up for sale in the past, but it’s not currently listed for sale.
“It’s been good,” Jacki said, while describing that at some point, she would like to retire and move on to something else.
The Taco John’s franchise has been in Hot Springs since about 1983 or 1984, with the first owner Duff Kruse. Kurt Venekamp and Tim Goodwin purchased the Hot Springs, Custer and Keystone Taco John’s in the fall of 1985 and operated them until 1996. A couple different owners had the Hot Springs store after that, until the Lockwoods made the purchase in 2002.
Covid presented many challenges for the business, Jacki said, but throughout that time, the store never shut down but did modify its hours and means of operation.
Taco John’s employs a total of 20 people, which includes some janitorial staff and others with special duties. There are 14 employees assigned to preparing and serving food, which is a number that grows to 18 to 20 in the summertime.
One of the many franchise evolutions which Jacki saw during her tenure as owner was the addition of breakfast to their menu. She admits now that she was opposed to the idea at first and didn’t think it would be successful, in part due to the expanded hours and need for more employees. The concept however turned out to be far more successful than she ever expected.
The Hot Springs Dairy Queen, located next door to Taco John’s, this week marked the Brixius family’s 25th year of ownership, after the family moved to Hot Springs in January of 1999 from Comfrey, Minn., where they owned a bar that was destroyed by a tornado.
Tony Brixius, who owns the Dairy Queen with Roxanne Brixius and their son Kyle Brixius, said the tornado hit their small town on March 29, 1998, when he was driving back from his mother’s funeral. Much of the town was impacted by the F4 tornado, which killed two people and injured more than 20 others.
Rather than rebuilding the bar and staying in Minnesota, Tony said the family looked into the possibility of operating a franchise restaurant, when his realtor found the Dairy Queen in Hot Springs for sale.
As lifelong Minnesota residents and fans of the state’s professional sports teams the Vikings and Twins, Tony has bittersweet memories of ‘moving day’ to South Dakota, as it was also the exact same Sunday as the Minnesota Vikings’ devastating loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game.
The Dairy Queen franchise first opened in Hot Springs in the mid-1990s and was located in the former A&W near the 6th Street dip bridge. The location served the Brixius family well for about 14 years, but there was a great need to expand. So in 2013, the family purchased the former Hardee’s building and remodeled it into the modern Dairy Queen it is today.
Kyle was just 15 years old when his family moved to Hot Springs to take over the Dairy Queen. He began working in the kitchen as a dish washer on Day 1 and has been a part of the business ever since.
Similar to the aforementioned hardships that Taco John’s experienced during Covid, the Brixius family also had to modify how they did business and served customers solely through the drive-thru for several months – a practice which got extended due to a shortage of available staff.
When fully staffed, Dairy Queen employs 25 to 30 people during most of the year and up to 40 in the summer months. Tony said they currently have 8 to 10 employees who work a full 40 hours per week.
Five or six years ago, Tony said they began utilizing G-1 Diplomatic Visa workers to aid in the employee shortage, and it has been a highly successful endeavor. While this option was not available during Covid, Dairy Queen has employed as many as six workers at a time, and as few as two.
Tony said the workers have come from such countries as China, Thailand, Romania, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. He said the employees have to pay their way over to the U.S., but once they are here, employers must pay them the same wages as other employees and also provide housing and perform “cultural exchange,” which includes sharing tourism-related experiences in the Black Hills.
Since taking over the Dairy Queen in Hot Springs, Tony said their family has had a lot of success and are currently the No. 7 Dairy Queen in all of South Dakota, based on overall sales.
While Dairy Queen itself is based out of Edina, Minn, the Sioux Falls-based company Nordica Enterprises owns the franchise rights to all Dairy Queens in South Dakota. There are currently a total of 42 Dairy Queen restaurants in the state.
While they have thoroughly enjoyed their 25 years owning and operating the Hot Springs Dairy Queen, the Brixius family is also looking forward to a new adventure. Tony, who is now 65 years old, said they do have their Dairy Queen on the market to sell. And while there is not currently a buyer in the picture, he does feel the business will be sold at some point later this year.