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Texas drive-in marks 50 years

June 17, 2018
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Donna Barton, manager and co-owner, has been the heart and soul of KN Root Beer Drive In for 25 of its 50 years. (Shaie Williams /The Amarillo Globe News via AP)

AMARILLO, Texas (AP) — KN Root Beer Drive-In on Olsen Boulevard is a survivor — and that’s a compliment. Surrounded on all sides by fast-food chains, the throwback hamburger joint — where car hops come out to greet you and part-owner Donna Barton makes 25 gallons of root beer each morning — turned 50 in May.

The handwritten and homemade signs just add to the down home character: “Try a Root Beer Slush Today!” ″Cheese Dogs, Buy 1, Get 1 Free!”

“There’s the funky machine right there where I make the root beer,” said Donna Barton, who unlocks the place about 1 1/2 hours before it springs to life. “This old building needs some work. But at this stage of the game, what’s the point? As long as we’re up to code and serve good food and root beer, that’s the main thing.”

Six mornings a week, Barton comes in early to KN Root Beer Drive-In. She whips up the first batch of 12 gallons of root beer with the special concentrate she gets twice a year shipped from Indiana. Depending on the heat of the day, she will mix up as much as 25 to 50 gallons.

Barton is the manager and co-owner of KN. She’s been doing this for about 25 years. Doing the math, she’s mixed enough root beer to float a cruise liner. It’s about 273,000 gallons, all in two sizes of mugs or to-go cups.

“That’s why they come here,” she said.

And, against the odds, they still come. KN celebrated 50 years in May at the original place on Olsen Boulevard. It opened around Memorial Day in 1968 with owners Kenneth and Joan Hill. A half-century later, Barton calls the place “a survivor.” She said it with pride, and she should.

They are surrounded in every direction by fast-food chains with their national advertising budgets and their quick drive-thru or sit-down booths. The McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Sonic and Wienerschnitzels of the world have long swallowed up the mom-and-pop burger joints. But a few stubbornly and proudly remain.

“It feels good knowing what we’ve done all these years,” Barton said. “Customers love us. You have to be proud of that. We’ve withstood some tough times, but they remember us and come back.”

At KN, there’s no drive-thru, no button to push to order, no eating inside. The menu is in plain sight on the wall as cars pull up under the awning. A couple of carhops come to the window for the order, the Amarillo Globe-News reported. They’ll have the food on a window tray if eaten there, or in a sack if it’s a to-go. It was common at one time — not so much anymore.

David and Cindy Scott were sitting under the awning eating lunch on a Wednesday in a black Hummer truck. They were here the first day it opened in 1968. David was a senior at Tascosa, and he picked up Cindy, who was a sophomore, at cosmetology school on Georgia for the grand opening. Then he was driving a ’57 Chevy.

“I’m a vintage model,” he said. “I’m not much into change. In 50 years, you can still come here and get the same good burger and root beer from hometown owners.”

Beyond the traditional root beer, the signature order is the KN Special — a double-meat, double-cheese burger. Joan Hill years ago thought they needed a specific order to draw customers in. This was it, and it has remained.

A few months ago, Barton noticed a customer wearing an American Airlines uniform.

“He said, ‘I travel the world over, and there’s nothing like a KN Special,’” Barton said.

KN got its name almost by accident. A man named Knutson from Missouri planned to build a few drive-ins in Texas in the 1960s. He hoped to go into a partnership with a man named Wilson, and call it KW. Wilson pulled out at the last minute, and the “W″ was chopped and twisted into an “N″ for Knutson.

The Hills have died. Daughter Sue is the official owner. She has health issues, and so Barton is part-owner, manager and will one day inherit KN. She too came to it almost by accident.

In the early 1990s, she was primarily a hair stylist. She and Sue were on the same bowling team. On the Wednesday before a Thanksgiving, Barton stopped at KN to eat. A stressed Sue was breaking in a new cook, and asked Donna if she knew how to run a cash register.

In no time, Donna was ringing up orders. Sue soon lost her front person, and asked Donna if she were interested. Donna started working at KN until 2 p.m., and then cut hair. As her hair business started to slow, she spent more time at KN. Soon, it was full time and she’s been the heart and soul of the place for a quarter century.

KN is indeed a 50-year survivor. Floods from Duniven Lake in the 1970s and early 1980s lapped at the door but got no closer. An ice storm in 1996 collapsed the awning, but fortunately it was closed. In the din of corporate fast food, KN Root Beer Drive-In still makes its own little noise with its signature orange and white colors.

“The good Lord willing and the lake don’t rise, I hope we can be here several more years,” said Barton, 69. “And if I have to, I’ll let someone else run it.”

If that’s the case, a loyal clientele, sweet on the root beer and the nostalgia, will keep pulling in off Olsen.

“We’ll be coming back,” David Scott said between bites, “for the next 50 years.”

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Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, http://www.amarillo.com

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