The importance of service — and soft-serve

Rafael Castañeda, a McHenry County College graduate, last year bought the Dairy Queen where he once worked. He tapped MCC to help develop a plan to purchase the restaurant. (Photo: MCC)

Rafael Castañeda has a passion for ice cream. But his passion for giving back to his community might be even stronger.

In mid-2020, Castañeda became the official new owner of the Dairy Queen in Woodstock, Illinois. But before taking over the community favorite shop, Castañeda got his start earning his associate degree at McHenry County College (MCC).

“MCC was the best choice for me at the time,” he said. “I was still close to home, could easily get to campus and was able to continue working while going to school.”

As a first-generation college student, he relied on his high school guidance counselors and the advisors at MCC to help him set up a plan for his future.

“Being the first in my family to attend college, I had to chart my own course,” he said. “It definitely felt intimidating at times. But attending MCC really helped me get out of my comfort zone.”

Using available resources

While at MCC, Castañeda threw himself into many opportunities on campus, including student government, Latinos Unidos and the Study Abroad club.  

“From the get-go I tried to get involved,” he said. “I was involved in high school, and found that really helped me to make some great relationships and feel connected to the community.”

During his time in Latinos Unidos, Castañeda helped initiate the Latino Empowerment Conference, an annual event designed to inform, empower, and encourage Latino high school students to attend college.

“We wanted to create something that would help first-generation college students like myself, students who might not have guidance available to them at home, or those who were unsure of where to start,” he said of the event. “We wanted these students to know it was possible to attend college and that they had a place they could go for help.”

The conference held its first event in 2011 and still takes place annually at the college.

“It’s amazing to see it’s still making an impact in the community and that they’re bringing in so many impactful workshops and speakers,” he said.

Also while at MCC, Castañeda traveled to Costa Rica as part of the Study Abroad program.

“You can learn so much by going to another country and experiencing different cultures,” he said. “And with a little advanced planning, you can make sure your credits transfer back toward your degree — there are even scholarships available to help pay for it.”

Help with a new opportunity

After graduating from MCC in 2012, Castañeda went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at Roosevelt University in Chicago, then continued on to DePaul to earn his MBA.

It was while he was finishing school at DePaul that he heard the owners of the Dairy Queen were looking to retire and put the business up for sale.

“I had worked at the Dairy Queen part-time while I was in high school and had kept in touch with the owners, Dave and Barb Hahn. When I heard they were selling the business, I reached out to them to let them know I was interested. They were kind enough to wait for me to finish school so we could get the process going.”

That process was again uncharted territory for Castañeda — but he was determined to keep moving forward.  

“There was a lot of paperwork,” he laughed. “But I basically just made a huge checklist and worked through it slowly, day by day. It was very difficult, but we did it.”

Castañeda also reached out to the Illinois Small Business Development Center out of MCC’s McHenry-based Shah Center to help him prepare his business plan, evaluate his competition and complete lending requests.

“I kept telling myself that people had done things like this in the past, so I knew it was possible,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you can read and learn all about, but actually going through all the steps of a business acquisition is a whole different ballgame. I again learned how important it is to seek help and realize you can’t do it all on your own. I had to figure out who to talk to about finances, what attorneys to use, and what food service certifications I needed. Over time, you eventually build your own trusted network of people that will look out for you and help you get to the finish line.”

In the community

Now over a year into owning the Dairy Queen, Castañeda finds the experience to be both exciting and rewarding.  

“The community is amazing. We have a lot of regulars — to the point where we get worried about certain customers if they haven’t stopped by in a few weeks,” he joked. “It’s so rewarding to create those special relationships. We always want to exceed customers’ expectations and ensure they have the best experience possible. It’s great to feel the support and trust they continue to give us even after the ownership change.”

Castañeda also prioritizes giving back to the community he grew up in. He and several Dairy Queen team members recently visited local animal shelter Helping Paws to donate about 20 “pup cups” to the shelter dogs.

“We make quite a few pup cups for customers throughout the summer, so we thought it would be a nice treat to bring over to the shelter dogs and play with them one Saturday morning,” he said.

The group also donated a cake to Turning Point, a nonprofit organization in Woodstock that provides support and shelter for individuals and families impacted by domestic violence.

“By far some of the best moments of owning the Dairy Queen so far have been all of the different activities we’ve done with the community, trying to build a staff, and create a family atmosphere,” Castañeda said. “I also try to work with the students on our team by supporting their clubs and sports teams and working around their schedules for other activities because I know how important it is to be involved.”  

When it comes time for his high school students to graduate, Castañeda encourages them to invest in their futures and be thoughtful about their next steps.

“I tell my high school employees that MCC is a great place to start, especially if they’re not sure what they want to do,” he said. “I made great relationships there that still make an impact in my life today.”

In fact, Castañeda and his team recently returned to MCC to supply treats for new student Opening Day, an event made extra sweet by both the ice cream and the return to in-person classes for many students for the first time in over a year.

“We’re also in the process of implementing a scholarship program for high school seniors to help support their higher education dreams,” he added.

As for what’s next for the Dairy Queen, Castañeda has plans to make updates to the building, including new lighting, paint and more. But his ultimate goal with the business is simple.

“We just want to focus on making people happy,” he said. “After all, it is ice cream.”  

About the Author

Katie Van Dyne
is a content marketing writer at McHenry County College in Illinois.