By Blake Spurney
HESSTON—Longtime locals can’t help but get nostalgic when looking back at a former institution, Howard’s Drive In, which used to sit at the intersection of Old U.S. Highway 81 and Ridge Road in Hesston.
“Oh, that makes me lonesome,” Nancy Krehbiel said. “I love Howie burgers. We still go by the intersection and still hope it’s there.”
Jim Troyer said he and his co-workers at Hesston Body relied on Howard’s Drive-In whenever they ran into a problem in designing a vehicle. They would put down the tools and go have a cup of coffee.
“I guarantee the solution was waiting on us when we got back to the shop,” he said. “It worked every time. That was a great place to hang out. Howie used to put up with a lot. All the characters ended up at Howie’s.”
Howard Wohlgemuth bought the business from Bob Razook in 1966 and changed the name. He was working at the Hesston Post Office at the time. His wife, Carolyn, said he kept much of the same menu but added about a dozen hamburgers, like the Howie burger, which was a burger topped with a homemade Howie sauce consisting of mayonnaise, relish and ketchup. The menu also included hot dogs, sandwiches, salads and homemade soups. Thursday nights featured Mexican food with chalupas and chiles relleno. Other specialties included homemade onion rings, curly and Long Branch fries.
Carolyn recalls that her oldest of four children, Duane, grew up in the back of the restaurant in an area cordoned off by a child-safety gate. She said all four of their children started working as soon as they could see over the counter, if not sooner.
“The community helped raised them because we had the restaurant,” she said.
Carolyn said most of the employees were either students at Hesston College or at the high school.
“I remember my first job was wiping up tables and vacuuming the floor,” Darin Wohlgemuth said. He would find quarters under the legs of the tables. He said it took him a while to learn that his father had been planting the quarters under the tables to ensure that he would move them.
Duane said his father would work at the post office in the morning, and Bob Prouty would open the restaurant in the mornings for a group of regulars, who would come in and get coffee, rolls and toast. They would make their own change.
Duane recalls working the lunch rush with his father when more than 100 employees of Excel Industries would walk over to the simple A-frame building. When Howard purchased the restaurant, there was no indoor seating. Customers would order at the window and wait for their food. A dining area was added in 1971.
“Everything was just home-cooked and right there,” John McGee said. “They weren’t precooked, either. If you wanted a hamburger, you had to wait until it was cooked, or it was served raw.”
Carolyn said Howard sold the restaurant back to Razook in 1979 because their children were involved in all sorts of school activities, and she and her late husband didn’t want to miss out. Razook renamed the restaurant The Hitching Post.
Howard repurchased the restaurant in 1985. Duane said he thought his father missed being around the customers. He said his father was outgoing and that all four children picked up from their father how to interact with the public. Howard also was the voice of the Swathers for home basketball and football games.
Duane said a lot of regulars became good friends with his family. When residents moved to town, Howard would go acquaint himself with the newcomers to make them feel comfortable. Darin said his father would recognize voices when customers called, and he would know what they wanted.
Delvin Wohlgemuth said he made connections working at the restaurant that have lasted a lifetime. He said his father was an outgoing person who would welcome any newcomer to town.
“It’s a family business just like a farm,” he said. “They had employees, but when they needed help—let’s go.”
Howard’s Drive In has a special place in Hesston lore, since it was the only restaurant still operating after the March 13, 1990, tornado wiped out much of town. Duane said the city manager called and told the family to open the restaurant. He and his mother went to Hesston Food Market with a flashlight to purchase breakfast items for the utility and tree crews.
Carolyn said the restaurant added a hot-food bar after the tornado. The Wohlgemuths continued to operate the restaurant until 1998. The location eventually became R.J.’s Deli, which was destroyed by fire.
Delvin, Duane and Darin still get a hankering for a pizza burger once in a while, and they recreated it at home by steaming the burger to get the cheese just right.