For nearly a half-century, K&R Drive Inn at Rice Hill has been a can’t-miss stop on the I-5 corridor for ice cream lovers of all ages.
Story by David Shroyer, Photos by Thomas Boyd
It started back in 1970 as the wild-hare idea of Ruth Emery, who thought she could build a restaurant business at the Rice Hill exit off Interstate 5 selling burgers, fries and, especially, ice cream.
With help from her husband, Ben, and brother-in-law, Cliff, the K&R Drive Inn opened a week before Christmas of that year, operating out of a converted, single-wide trailer at Exit 148.
It was not an instant success. That first day, total sales were less than $30 and didn’t get much better through that first winter. But Emery kept it going.
And just look at it now.
K&R is in its 48th year of operation, and the Emerys have passed away, but not before expanding the business to three times its original size and making it a can’t-miss destination for many travelers on the I-5 corridor. Those $30 days in the beginning have become a half-million in annual sales. And much of that revenue goes back into the community, both in supply purchases and in payroll to the many workers who have served customers over the years.
Current owner Becky Bender, a former K&R manager and employee since 1984, has seen a lot of changes, not the least of which was the addition of a walk-in freezer to store the up to 1,000 gallons of Umpqua Dairy ice cream kept on hand during peak season. And K&R also built and maintains a separate warehouse to store everything from hot fudge toppings to pickles. Not to mention the cups, cones, straws and napkins it goes through by the case.
On a typical day, K&R might sell as much as 400 gallons of ice cream, the equivalent of more than 3,500 individual cones. Its ice cream options come in the form of a single scoop — which still weighs in at 5.5 ounces — a nine-ounce double scoop, a 12-ounce triple scoop and a “Colossal” six- scoop cone that sometimes requires a balancing act to eat.
Then there’s the group-sized “Pig Out Bowl,” which includes as many of the Drive Inn’s 30 ice-cream flavors as will fit into a 32-ounce dish.
K&R sells so much Umpqua Dairy ice cream that the two companies have enjoyed a decades-long, mutually beneficial relationship.
“They really helped put us on the map,” says Steve Feldkamp, Umpqua Dairy’s chief operations officer and a member of its founding family. “They sell a lot of our ice cream.”
When Feldkamp joined the family business in the 1980s and moved back to Roseburg from Santa Cruz, Calif., he discovered Umpqua Dairy and the K&R were well-known to many of his California neighbors.
“They were saying things like, ‘That’s the ice cream you can get at that drive-in off the interstate,’” Feldkamp recalls. “I’ll bet we got more marketing value out of K&R Drive Inn back in the day than we spent in marketing dollars.”
Katie Decker, a manager at K&R and an employee of 15 years, says that K&R’s ice cream reputation and prime location are the main reasons for the Drive Inn’s diverse and loyal following.
“It’s a nice stop for people to get out, stretch their legs and reboot with ice cream before resuming their travels,” Decker says, adding that she serves people of all kinds and from all over — from sports teams on their way to or from an event to first-time visitors to the U.S.
“We have people who make yearly cross-country trips, and we are always one of their stops,” Decker says. “And I have local customers who claim they have no control over their vehicle, that it just simply knows it’s an automatic stop.”
Some don’t have to travel far. K&R’s local following is just as loyal.
And it’s not just the ice cream that brings in customers. K&R serves burgers, hot sandwiches, chili and fries that keep people coming back. All are homemade and made to order.
Some customers are such regulars that K&R workers are already putting their orders together before they get to the counter.
Jim Beattie, a Yoncalla native now living in Sweet Home, says the K&R has always been a destination, even when he was living in Arizona. His trips back to his home state always included Exit 148.
“The burgers are just awesome,” says Beattie, who can remember flipping hundreds of them himself as a young K&R employee more than 30 years ago. He now brings his own kids and grandchildren to the place just off the interstate.
That’s just the way Ruth Emery would have wanted it. Turns out she didn’t just open a restaurant on that December day nearly a half-century ago.
She started a phenomenon.
And if you’re an all-around fan of all-American drive-ins, don’t forget to try Johnny’s in Winston (above) and Pete’s in Roseburg (see All-American Graffiti).