Friday, Jul. 20, 2012
Tasty food for a small price
By Bethany Bashioum
Hand-pressed tenderloins, burgers and Suzy-Q’s curly fries are still the pride and joy of one of Peculiar’s oldest landmarks.
“It’s Americana,” said Matt Cobern, 45, who recently took over management of the Peculiar Drive In, 159 S. Peculiar Dr., from his mother, Vi Cobern, in April. “There are nights where we’ve had people in here who don’t know each other, but they’ll scoot over and just so that they can sit down and eat."
The 34-seat restaurant is the longest continuously-operated business in the town, and the secret to its success isn’t that big of a secret at all.
Everything on the menu comes out fresh, handmade, and cooked to order. There’s nothing frozen about it.
Crowds draw from all over – from the metropolitan area to the people next door.
“I didn’t have to build a business,” Coburn said. “I got to build on the mystique and the reputation that was already here. As far as the atmosphere and the flavor of the food, nothing is going to change.”
And for comfort, he’s made some small additions – adding free Wi-Fi service and making the restaurant smoke-free for the comfort of the younger and older crowds.
“It’s the word I love to hear when they say ‘it’s still old-school.’ It’s when you go get an order made fresh and the guys behind the counter say ‘hi’ to you and you’re not No. 27,” Cobern said. “We have a personal touch here that we can throw into the mix.”
The menu entrees and side order options are plentiful, and like any good place of it’s kind, there’s always ice cream ready to help beat the summertime heat.
Cobern bought the business from his mother, and operates it with his wife, Kellie, 41.
He plans to keep the relic atmosphere just as it has been since it was built in the mid-50s.
The Goody family, who first opened the drive in started their business by slinging burgers off the grill as it is still done today.
The white building, accented with red trimming, is original.
Sometime in the 60s, Herb Witiker took over the business and named it after himself until 1976. Witiker was the mastermind to the shop’s juicy tenderloin concoction using buttermilk flour and cracker meal for coating on a true back-strapped tenderloin.
“It’s the best cut of meat you can get out of a pig, and you have to use that or you won’t get the flavor you want,” Cobern said.
Business boomed for Witiker. Success was partial to a great location along what was formerly Highway 71 -- the main drag from Kansas City to the Lake of the Ozarks for those coming from as north of Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
In 1976, the Coen family took over the business but didn’t have as much success as Witiker had experienced as they resorted to serving frozen tenderloins and burgers.
During the few years the Coen family owned the drive in, Cobern, at age 10, held a part time job cleaning the restaurant after hours.
“I would ride my bicycle to town and I would clean,” he said.
Cobern’s mother knew the owners well from their association at Armour Meat in Martin City. Vi Cobern also helped at the restaurant, too.
When the business was in trouble during the late 70s, Vi went to talk to Witiker, who still owned the building. She told him that if he would show her how to make the tenderloins like he used to, she would buy the restaurant.
At that point, the restaurant became Peculiar Drive In, even though some swear that it was called Vi’s.
“It was always Peculiar Drive In since the day mom took it over,” Cobern said. “But because everyone knew my mom, they’ve called it Vi’s.”
The restaurant thrived for nearly 25 years, with help from Cobern’s aunt Karen DeRuider. Ready to retire, Vi owner-financed the business to another couple in 2003.
After another six years, in late 2009, the business ended up back in Vi’s hands. Frustrated, Vi asked her son in early 2012 if he wanted the family business. Otherwise, she was going to sell it. Never once had the restaurant closed its doors.
Neither did Cobern ever have the thought the restaurant would become his.
“I was like, well, you can’t leave town without Peculiar Drive-In,” Cobern said, “So I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’”
Tenderloins are still hot, about 50-60 served each day. Cobern has also had his at discovering new burger varieties, such as the Prilosec Burger – a chili cheeseburger with jalapeños, grilled onions, and pepper jack cheese, or the Goober Burger – a burger with your toppings of choice and peanut butter with a little bit of mayonnaise spread on the bun to add a tangy taste.
The Coberns offer a variety of burger sizes from a quarter-pound single to one-pound double.
“Even when new restaurants come to town, after the newness wears off, we’re the old favorite that everyone always comes back to,” Cobern said. “It’s kind of cool that we get to be apart of something that’s got history to it.”
Peculiar Drive In
Address:159 S. Peculiar Dr., Peculiar