The song says we all scream for ice cream, but for Dairy Queen, Tucson screams a little louder.

With more than $1 million in yearly sales, the Dairy Queen at South Midvale Park Road, just off West Valencia Road, is not only the biggest seller in Arizona, it is one of the top three treat centers in the country.

Opened in 2012, the location was an immediate hit, said owners Alvaro and Martina León. While they had hoped the shop would be successful, response was so great it took them by surprise.

“I was in the back making Dilly Bars day and night. I would make batches and batches, and I thought I was finished, then I would go to the freezer, and they were gone,” Martina León said. “It was great, but we were not ready.”

At the time, the Leóns had been running a Dairy Queen at East Tanque Verde Road and North Kolb Road for six years, so they thought they were old hands, Alvaro León said.

“But Valencia was doing stuff we had never seen before. It was just crazy. I couldn’t understand the numbers,” he said. “I couldn’t run it like a regular treat shop because no one had seen that kind of volume.”

Although some Dairy Queens in the United States serve food, a treat shop is a Dairy Queen that sells only ice cream.

The secret to the Valencia store’s success, along with being at a high-traffic location across from a busy Walmart, is customer service, the Leóns said.

“People have options right now; you have Cold Stone, you have Frost, you have all these frozen yogurts. At the end of the day, we all serve a great little product to people,” Alvaro León said. “You have to ask yourself, what can I do different?”

The Leóns’ concept is to follow the WOW principles, they said, which stand for “wonderful, outstanding service with a smile” to wow customers. Although the acronym is far from perfect, a customer’s experience should be nothing but.

“It’s all about you leaving and saying, ‘I cannot believe I got this at Dairy Queen.’ That’s my goal every single time,” Alvaro León said.

For Pat Hannigan, whose family has served as territory operator for Dairy Queen since 1948, the store’s success lies in the strength of Alvaro León’s personality.

“He’s high energy, but he’s not abrasive,” he said. “He’s a throwback to business people of old. He tells you he’s going to do something, and he does it.”

Building experience

A native of Mexico City, Alvaro León came to Southern Arizona when he was 13.

Coming from one of the largest cities in the world to what by comparison was a “ranchito” took some getting used to, he said, but he loved the feeling of community.

He attended Salpointe Catholic High School, and there was some culture shock.

“A lot of my friends were Mark Garcia, Paul Melendez, Ray Flores, Victor Corella — and they wouldn’t speak Spanish,” he said. “They would speak Spanish to their grandparents, but they wouldn’t speak Spanish to me.”

It was through his friend Ray Flores, who was the son of the owners of El Charro Café, that León got into the restaurant business. In the 12 years working with the Flores family he did everything from washing dishes to helping run the business, he said.

After that, he worked with José Canchola as director of operations for the Canchola family’s McDonald’s locations in Tucson.

Carlotta Flores at El Charro and Canchola at McDonald’s were his mentors, León said, and taught him everything he knows about the full-service and quick-service restaurant business.

But while he loved the food industry, León had a business degree and wanted to give the corporate world a try.

He had been working for seven years at a software company, overseeing multiple divisions in Latin American sales, when a friend asked him for advice on his family’s Dairy Queen.

It didn’t take long for the food service bug to bite.

“I said, wow, this is a simple thing. It’s got three employees, how hard can it be?”

Now all he needed was to convince his wife, Martina.

She signed off on the idea of buying it, but he had something else in mind, she said.

“ ‘So you’re going to leave your job,’ I asked him, ‘and work at Dairy Queen?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘You are.’ ”

Starting off

Martina León grew up in Nogales, Sonora, before coming to Tucson to become a teacher.

She was working for Tucson Metropolitan Ministry at a children’s daycare center when her husband came to her with the Dairy Queen proposal.

She was nervous, she said, but it’s tough to say no when your husband is so good at sales.

“It was hard to leave; I was with kids for so many years,” she said. “But now I have older kids.”

With her husband traveling for work two weeks out of the month, it was up to her to run the day-to-day business. She used to work her shift at the Dairy Queen, then go home and do paperwork, all while raising two sons.

The first year was a nightmare, Alvaro León said, because the store had “some small deficiencies.”

“There was no air-conditioning. An ice cream shop with no AC. Small things like that,” he said.

Eventually things became smoother, and Martina León learned to love her role, she said. Not only working with her new kids but also interacting with customers.

“The customers have been Dairy Queen fans for many years. They come, they tell you their stories, that’s been great,” she said.

After the Valencia location opened and she had to step back from running the Tanque Verde shop, she had to make another adjustment.

“I wanted to be at the store, wanted to know what was going on every minute. When I was running my shift in the morning, I knew everything — all the deliveries, everything we had,” she said.

She is now limiting herself to handling the paperwork, including payroll and invoices, but still drops by the stores.

“I try to come and just walk around, say hi to the kids, but I don’t try to get into the manager’s business too much,” she said.

Future growth

The success of the Valencia location changed their lives, the Leóns said.

A few months after the store opened, Alvaro León left his job at the software company to help directly manage the business.

“They said, ‘You’re going to go make ice cream cones?’ I said, ‘yes I am.’ ”

It took them about a year and a half to understand and streamline the Valencia location, changing the kitchen area using Alvaro’s experience in a full-service restaurant.

Their newest location, which opened in September at 7825 E. Golf Links Road, was born out of what they learned from the Valencia store.

“This is not a Dairy Queen prototype; we created this,” Alvaro León said. “The colors may be DQ, the menu’s Dairy Queen, but the actual layout, processes, operational workflow, this was all created by us to make sure that it’s an amazing service experience.”

With their new location, the Leóns are the only Dairy Queen owner operators in Southern Arizona with three stores, and they’re not ready to stop just yet.

“We are in growth mode; I am actually already looking for another site,” Alvaro León said. “We’re thinking at least one or two more stores.”

Contact reporter Luis F. Carrasco at lcarrasco@tucson.com or 807-8029. On Twitter: @lfcarrasco