The B&G Milkyway remains nearly identical to what it looked like almost 70 years ago.
The red and white cabana still has the 1950s design and neon lights wrapped around the roof. Picnic tables fill the concrete pad located outside the ice cream shop.
Even the Milkyway sign, known for its cheeky sayings, is the same. Owner Bruce Bettmeng knocked a piece off the panel after May’s derecho dated 1956.
B&G Milkyway is the oldest surviving restaurant in Sioux Falls, having opened in the 1950s. Milkyway tops the list of other legendary Sioux Falls restaurants still in operation, such as The Keg and Minervas.
Milkyway is part of the history and culture of the Sioux Falls community. Residents recall licking a huge soft ice cream cone off a picnic table outside one of Sioux Falls’ many sites as children, hastily finishing the cone before it not melt in the summer heat – whether they are 75, 45 or 15 years old.
It has been the site of romantic proposals, wedding photos and birthday parties.
The only things that have changed in its nearly 70 years include a sign at the top of the building as “the original” B&G Milkyway shack, cartoon hot dog and burger cutouts on the side of the building , an expanded menu and modern machinery for preparing the food.
Bettmeng, who has owned the restaurant since 1992, says he deliberately keeps the same building.
“Having this staple is important,” Bettmeng said. “This is what it looks like.”
B&G Milkyway hasn’t changed, and customers appreciate it that way
It’s not uncommon for Bettmeng or his co-owner and wife, Pam Bettmeng, to stop and chat with customers who remember stopping at the Milkyway in the 1950s and 60s.
Robin Flom, who spent most of her childhood in Sioux Falls, visited Milkyway weekly during the summers as a high school and college student in the 1960s.
The 71-year-old Augustana College graduate would pile into a friend’s small car with eight other people – four in the front and four in the back, usually sitting on top of each other – and would spend summer evenings eating ice cream with his gang. She remembers seeing her then-boyfriend racing along 12th Street while seated at a picnic table.
“It’s my favorite place,” Flom said. “I just loved walking up to the window and ordering and having a great evening.”
After:‘A good element of laughter’: Meet the people behind B&G Milkyway’s iconic and viral panels
For Tiffany Urban, 42, her memories are similar, despite working at the store in high school and college in the 90s.
Milkyway’s magic of consistency is compounded when she thinks of how she knew the Bettmengs when they first bought the Milkyway, were young and had no children yet. Now his 15-year-old daughter, Taylin, works the counter at the 41st Street Milkyway shack.
“After they hired me,” Taylin recalls, “one of the first things they said to me was, ‘You’re Tiffany’s daughter!’ Pam saw me and called me ‘Tiffany Jr.'”
Tiffany still knows how to prepare certain menu items by heart, and they’re still prepared almost the same way 30 years later, Taylin confirmed.
Knowing that little has changed in the past three decades helps strengthen their mother-daughter bond, as they can relate to similar experiences while working there.
“That’s what makes it special to people – it’s just familiar and comforting,” Tiffany said. “It reminds them of summer and reminds them of their childhood because it hasn’t changed in all these years.”
The secret ingredient: strawberry ice cream
B&G Milkyway is a staple memory from Flom’s youth, she said. Even though the retiree now lives in Montrose, Colorado, the Milky Way is one of her top destinations whenever she travels home.
“We have to go to B&G Milkyway,” Flom said. “I love it. It’s my favorite ice cream.”
Specifically, Flom’s favorite ice cream is Strawberry Cone from the Milkyway.
Strawberry ice cream is still made the same way it was when the ice cream shop opened, Bettmeng said. The treat is made with real strawberries, no artificial flavors, and blended inside a stainless steel milk container.
After:‘Mataya, will you be my girlfriend?’: How a Sioux Falls couple found romance under a B&G Milkyway billboard
When the shop first opened, Flom said strawberry was a unique flavor. Back then, ice cream was usually just chocolate or vanilla, she said.
Even in 2022, strawberry ice cream is one of the ice cream parlor’s bestsellers. And Bettmeng attributes that to the restaurant’s longevity.
“There’s a simplicity to it,” Bettmeng said. “It works and we leave it alone. People have come to expect that over the years.”
Flom accepted. She may appreciate that the Milky Way looks like she remembered all those years ago, but it’s the strawberry ice cream that brings her back.
“That’s what attracted me then, and that’s why I still go there,” Flom said. “I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t the same.”
Secret Fork: B&G Milkyway wins Restaurant Challenge 2018, and they deserve it
The story of Milkyway and the rest of its future
The Bettmengs heard about B&G Milkyway going on sale while queuing for ice cream in 1992. Bettmeng had worked at a big company at the time and he wanted out, thinking that running the ice cream stand would be something he would appreciate.
“It was a date,” Bettmeng said. “It had been around forever when we bought it. As long as I didn’t mess things up, I thought it would be fine.”
Ray Starks opened Ray’s Drive Inn, a hamburger restaurant with carhops on 12th and Lake Avenue — where Bob’s Cafe once stood — in the early 1950s. In 1951, he moved the Drive Inn to 1400 W. 12th St. Before long, Starks had built a walk-up establishment out west, which he called Milkyway, serving soft serve ice cream and footlongs.
Looking back: Local ice cream shop from the early 1950s
Starks ran the Milky Way until the mid-1960s, when he sold it to Bertha and Guy Higgens, who added their initials to the name. Higgens, who was 70, died a few years after buying the shop, and Bertha then sold the business to Gerry Bruget. Bruget bought B&G the same year the third McDonald’s in Sioux Falls opened just west of the store.
In 1979, Bruget bought a failing hamburger stand at 5508 W. 41st St. and turned it into the second B&G Milkyway. Here it continued in the same tradition as the original location, but added a passage window.
The Bettmengs were the owners who expanded the two shacks into the tiny ice cream empire it is today. The couple franchised the business in 2001, with franchisees having added six more locations in Sioux Falls, Tea and Harrisburg since.
Being the company’s third owner in 70 years says more about the community than the restaurant, Bettmeng said. B&G Milkyway has lasted so long because the community appreciates that local touch.
“There are so many big companies trying to squeeze out the little guys, I think it’s important to have these little mom and pop shops,” Bettmeng said. “Whether it’s ice cream, trinkets or clothing, it’s important to have convenience stores.”
Bettmeng is looking to expand again with franchises outside of Sioux Falls. He is also gradually handing over the business to his children, who are currently 26 and 22 years old.