The last Druther’s Restaurant in America

Those of us who grew up in the South in the ’70s fondly remember such bygone icons of Americana as the Z/28 Camaro, the original cast of “Saturday Night Live” and Druther’s.

If you’re fifty-something, you may recall the jingle: “I’d druther go to Druther’s Restaurant.”

The restaurant chain began as Burger Queen in Middletown, Ky., in 1963, and Kentucky where its legacy lives on. I’ll get back to that in a few minutes, but first, indulge me while I walk down memory lane.

My first job was as a grill cook at the Burger Queen in Winchester when I was in high school and college. I worked there after school and until the summer of 1980, when the chain had expanded its menu and become Druther’s.

It was the hardest $3.35 an hour I ever earned.

In summertime, the mercury on the “back line” approached 100 degrees. The synthetic brown and amber 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.

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 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 big “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 freaks who owned a Volkswagen microbus that some of us retro hippies liked to party in.

My folks never understood why I wanted to “close” when Pop Kuehn, the franchise owner, would have kept me on the after-school shift. But the “closers” were generally younger and more fun to be around. And after midnight, we would go riding the roads in what “the Boss” (not Pop) called “suicide machines.” We were lucky.

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. Those who didn’t work there still were there.

The cutest girls at George Rogers Clark High School all worked there, it seemed. The one that not only caught my eye, but captured my heart, was Teresa, who was new in town. She was an Irish Catholic girl from Maryland who loved horses.

I had met her at a party on our teacher’s farm, but it was when I saw her on the first day of her job at Druther’s that I was smitten.

It was something in the way her willowy body moved, the warmth of her honey brown hair and emerald eyes, and the radiant smile and sweet voice with which she greeted me that day at work.

She was an angel in a polyester uniform.

We dated that summer, and she kept telling me she was too young to get too serious, but when she left me for an amateur boxer, I was KO’d.

Still, I have fond memories of those days.

Those memories came rushing back last week when I was near Campbellsville on an assignment and decided to drive into town afterward for lunch. I was already feeling nostalgic because I was listening to Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” when I 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. 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 (as of February 2013) is in Campbellsville, Kentucky.”

It was the same as it ever was. They still had the salad bar with the deep fried yellow squash, the chocolate milkshakes, the same dining room décor. It hadn’t changed in more than 30 years.

According to the Wiki article, the Druther’s chain lasted until 1981, then Dairy Queen chain bought the restaurants. All but one.

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.

And if I’m ever in Campbellsville again, you can be sure I’ll be by there again.

6 Responses to “The last Druther’s Restaurant in America”

  • Lovetta:

    My favorite place to eat. And my family. My Grandchildren prefer Druthers over any other restaurant in town; including McDonalds.

  • It was my favorite job ever. Royal burger was my favorite.

  • Jaydean:

    Ate at the Campbellsville place a lot of fond teen memories!!!!

  • Mike:

    Thanks for your remembrances. Pop was a special man. Working in a fast food restaurant brings many young people out of their shells.

  • Stephanie:

    Actually the original burger queen turned druthers closed and was torn down but in the late 80s Druthers was rebuilt in Winchester down on Main Street which is now a Dairy Queen. I worked at this druthers in high school in 1990.
    I remember burger queen in Winchester and had a birthday party there even. It seems I recall getting a plastic hamburger toy with lip gloss in it? I also remember those yellowish gold curtains with the black print on them.
    Randy or anyone whom remembers better than I would (I was very young when it was burger queen, Im thinking I was maybe 5 or 6 at the time) I wondered what they had before they expanded the menu? I heard mention of an imperial burger and a royal burger. I can only remember them having fried chicken and other foods when I ate at burger queen. Does anyone know too what year Burger Queen opened in Winchester?
    Great memories! I live out of Ky now but it was and still is HOME to me. I’d love to read articles on other places up there such as Bicks pizza, dairy cheer (which I can BARELY remember) and it seems there was also a hot dog place or something like that on carol rd back in the day? I’m thinking it was green and white tile on the inside and that dairy cheer was blue and white? Also a friend mentioned burgers and things where lees famous recipe was and I cannot rem it for the life of me.
    I barely remember the old south inn on Boone ave, McGuire’s drug stores lunch and I’m sure I’m
    Forgetting many!!

September 2013
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