The last Druther’s in America
Those of us who grew up in Kentucky in the late 1970s remember such bygone icons of that era as the Z/28 Camaro, the original “Saturday Night Live” cast, and Druther’s.
The restaurant chain began as Burger Queen in Winterhaven, Florida, in 1956 and came to Middletown, Kentucky, in 1963 — and it is in Kentucky where its legacy lives on in one small college town.
A YouTube video about the history of Burger Queen/Druther’s posted by my high school classmate Michael Cravens several days ago on the Winchester/Funchester Facebook page brought back fond memories.
Indulge me for a moment while I take a stroll down Memory Lane.
My first job was as a grill cook at the Burger Queen in Winchester when I was in high school, and I worked there in the summer after I had gone off to college at Eastern Kentucky University.
It was the hardest $3.35 an hour I ever earned.
In the summertime, the mercury on the “back line” approached 100 degrees. The synthetic brown and orange clothing we wore didn’t breathe, and when I came home at night, it was crusted with dried batter and stank of sweat and dehydrated onions.
I think my mom still has my old work shirt in a drawer somewhere.
The work was also dangerous. I cut one of my hands on a tomato slicer someone had left in the dishwater and fried both hands on a grill when I tripped over the cord of an oil filtering machine.
But I wouldn’t have traded the experience of working there for anything.
There was so much camaraderie among the workers, and so much to laugh about, like the guy who came through the drive-through at the same time every day and ordered two quarter pounders — one for himself and one for his big dog, who announced their arrival with a loud “Woof!”
I was a shy kid, but with hours to while away, I had no choice but to talk with my coworkers, who drew me out of my shell.
One was a gentle giant named Dan who knew as much about rock music trivia as I did, and we would quiz each other endlessly.
Two others who worked there were brothers Bob and Skip, California hippies who had moved to Winchester and owned a Volkswagen microbus that we cruised up and down Lexington Avenue in.
My parents never understood why I wanted to “close” late at night when Pop Kuhn, the franchise owner, would have kept me on the after-school shift. But the “closers” were younger and fun to be around. And after midnight, we would go riding the roads in muscle cars filled with friends, “Running on Empty” as a Jackson Browne song from that era recalls.
The Winchester Druther’s was a social hub for teenagers around 1979-1980. It was at the far end of the “main drag,” and the parking lot was a popular hangout.
The cutest girls at George Rogers Clark High School, it seemed, worked there. The one that caught my eye and captured my heart was a new girl in town, a Catholic girl from Maryland who loved horses. I had met her at a party on our teacher’s farm, but it wasn’t until I saw her on the first day of her job at Druther’s that I was smitten. It was something in the way she moved so gracefully, the warmth of her honey hair, emerald eyes, radiant smile and mirthful voice that mesmerized me.
We dated a few times that summer, and she kept telling me she was only 17 and too young to get serious. But when she left me for another coworker who was a Golden Gloves boxer, I was KO’d.
I still have fond memories of that summer.
Those memories came rushing back one day eight years ago when I was working for The Kentucky Standard in Bardstown and had an assignment that took me to Campbellsville. I was already feeling nostalgic that day because I was listening to Elton John on the radio when I rolled into town and spotted the Druther’s sign, which still had the old Burger Queen image of Queenie Bee.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I parked the car, walked in and told the girl at the counter, “I didn’t know there was still a Druther’s anywhere in the world.”
“I think this is the last one,” she said.
I didn’t see it on the menu, but I asked her if they still had the Imperial Burger. I told her exactly how it was supposed to be dressed: mayo, dill pickles, fresh onions, lettuce, tomato and cheese. Yeah, they did, said the grill cook, but now they called it a Quarter with Cheese. I asked about the hot fried lemon pies, and they still had those too. And the best onion rings on the planet. The only thing that was missing from my favorite teen meal was a fountain Ale-8.
While I ate, I looked up Druther’s on Wikipedia, and the girl was right. It said the “last operating Druther’s” was in Campbellsville, Kentucky.” (That was in April 2013. According to their Facebook page, it’s still going strong in 2021.)
The food and the atmosphere were the same as they ever were. They still had the salad bar with the deep fried yellow squash and zucchini, the chocolate milkshakes, the same dining room décor. It hadn’t changed in more than 30 years.
According to the video, the Druther’s chain lasted until 1990, when the Dairy Queen chain bought the restaurants and they changed brands. But not the one in Campbellsville.
That day in 2013, I talked to the manager, Greg Clark, whose father-in-law, Charles McCarty, built the Campbellsville store.
Clark worked there in the 1970s, then worked at a factory for nearly 20 years and came back as a manager and co-owner with his wife, brother-in-law and mother-in-law.
The reason the Campbellsville store didn’t become a Dairy Queen was that “there was already a DQ/Brazier here, just down the street,” Clark explained.
The company told McCarty, owner of the franchise, that he could change the name of the store, or, if he wanted, call it Druther’s.
He decided to keep the name, the logo, the menu, the atmosphere, everything.
I’m glad he did.
Someday I hope to take a road trip that winds through Campbellsville and stop at the last Druther’s to have a Royal Burger or a fish sandwich on rye or a fried lemon pie and reminisce about the good old days.
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