Once upon a time there was a gas station called the Sinclair Filling Station located on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Bradley Avenue. The Sinclair was just a regular ol’ filling station, until one day, over 40 years ago, it was damaged by a fire and closed for good. While repurposing old gas stations as restaurants is certainly a practice being embraced these days (we’re looking at you, Garage Bar), one can only imagine the foresight Robert Humphrey must have had when he and a friend decided to purchase the Sinclair and turn it into an ice cream stand. Robert’s Dairy Kastle opened its windows and began turning out cool soft serve, dozens of different flavors of milkshakes and chili dogs in 1976, and just like that, a Louisville summer tradition was born. The line of sweet-toothed customers has been winding through the parking lot ever since.
Even after Robert sold the Dairy Kastle, he continued to visit until his passing earlier this year, at the age of 90. The second owner of Dairy Kastle was George Hayden. He became acquainted with Katherine Smith at his neighborhood restaurant, where she worked as a bartender. Katherine never imagined she would go from selling liquor to selling soft serve, but the stories George shared with her about Dairy Kastle and the accessibility she foresaw in the business piqued her interest. Her initial proposal to take over Dairy Kastle did not pass with George, however two years later, he decided to hand over the reins.
Dairy Kastle has been under the wing of Katherine and her husband, Damian Vitale, since 2012, and by all accounts, Louisville’s tradition of flocking to the vintage ice cream stand is stronger than ever. The majority of the menu has remained the same since day one, soft serve dominating the options, along with sundaes galore and more milkshake flavors than you can count. Classic Americana eats like chili dogs and BBQ pork sandwiches add a bit of savory flavor to the predominantly sweet menu.
It was important to Katherine to maintain the spirit of the menu while also introducing new items here and there, ensuring there is something for everyone. The most noticeable update is the addition of vegan ingredients, including hot dogs, bean chili and, perhaps most importantly, vegan soft serve. A vegetarian herself, Katherine knew that this modernization was a risk, however it has paid off, with sales of vegan menu items increasing year after year as word spreads.
Regardless of whether or not you choose to order your soft serve regular or vegan, you will more than likely be waiting in a line that can stretch far around the building on most hot, summer nights. Indeed, anyone who has visited Dairy Kastle knows that waiting in line is all part of the experience. Katherine says it never ceases to amaze her how guests will wait to order their ice cream and then continue to stick around in the parking lot, eating and chatting for another hour. It is why customer service is tantamount to the food itself, as Katherine says no one has to come order ice cream. It is exactly what my friend and I did on a recent Friday afternoon, ordering the classic chili dog smothered with cheese ($1.60), along with a BBQ sandwich ($3) and the taco-in-a-bag ($1.75). We scored a spot in the shade and enjoyed our haul, which inevitably reminded me of summers spent watching my brother play baseball at the local park. Once finished, we hopped back in line for my go-to Dairy Kastle order, the Brown Derby ($2) and a chocolate milkshake ($2.50).
While the price point allows Dairy Kastle to remain accessible to many in our community, it is always a treat and, as Katherine has learned, ice cream is the ultimate unifier. No matter where you come from, the vast majority of humans love ice cream. Katherine enjoys nothing more than looking out the window and seeing lines of individuals from every walk of life, all enthusiastically waiting to indulge in the most classic of summertime traditions: eating ice cream. And luckily with Dairy Kastle’s annual opening the first Tuesday in March every year, summer comes early and sticks around until the second Monday in October. Would we like to see Dairy Kastle open year-round? Sure, but then it wouldn’t be quite as special, and we wouldn’t want it to lose any of the storybook charm Robert Humphrey, George Hayden and now Katherine and her husband have continued to instill in this tiny institution year after year.
Dairy Kastle is located at 575 Eastern Pkwy., Louisville, KY, 40217. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays, 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dairy Kastle opens for the season the first Tuesday in March every year and closes up shop the second Monday in October. In keeping with tradition, Dairy Kastle is a cash-only operation. To learn more, call (502) 634-8990.