Thursday, January 10, 2013

Beckley Edition: King Tut Drive-In

So I traveled to King Tut because I've heard such great things. I even wrote an article for a magazine I was freelancing for. Unfortunately, the magazine is no longer in production, so I'm posting the article here. Hope you enjoy!

King Tut Drive-In dishing up curb service dining for generations


Legendary King Tut Drive-In, located in Beckley, opened in the 1940s and is one of the few drive-ins left in the state. Originally owned by the Tuckwiler Family, who named the drive-in, John McKay purchased the restaurant in 1955, and it has been in the family ever since.

Current owner Dave McKay remembers when his father, John, now 93, came back from an annual food show in Chicago with the idea to sell pizza, which was unheard of in the area at that time.
"He developed our own sauce recipe, and we still have that recipe today," said Dave, who took partial ownership of the business in 2004, along with his brother Jeff McKay and step-brother Loren Rice. "At first, nobody wanted it; we tried to give it away!"

Today, though, that unique recipe is a signature of King Tut's, and folks return for that same authentic taste they grew up with.

"I've got customers who still know Dad, and they've been here for a long time. They eat the same thing. They'll notice a change in a recipe. For example, our base tomato sauce company was bought out, and a new company took over. The label was the same on the sauce, but the formula was different, and we didn't know. For the first few pizzas, we got calls like 'what the heck did you do?', and the company had to go back to the original formula. People notice that," Dave said.
The pizza, in addition to dozens of other recipes, originated right in the McKay family.

"My grandma, in the 1930s, was a food service executive in a restaurant," Dave said. "She has books of recipes."

Dave said his father, who is now retired in Florida, interned for that store/restaurant and received his food experience from his mother, who was very strict with how they created dishes. John brought that business sense to King Tut.

King Tut continues to deliver many homemade dishes, including breads, pies, many soups, chili and more. "We can do that - chain restaurants can't. We love being able to provide homecooked options on the menu - people love it."

The restaurant sells everything fromsandwiches and wraps to pizzas and full dinners - like meatloaf, pot roast andfish. With a huge variety, Dave says the trick is to have a lot of the same ingredients for multiple items so that they can keep a varied menu with fresh ingredients in order to keep the people coming.

Most of the customers who frequent King Tut Drive-In are return customers. About 80 percent have been to the restaurant multiple times over the years, then there are the customers who call in on a regular basis for lunches, and some new customers who are passing through town or hear about King Tut's through word of mouth, Dave said.

But many customers prefer the traditional curbside service, where they can order a pizza or dinner plate and have it delivered via a tray attached to the side of the car. For many, it may be the nostalgia; for others, it’s a new experience.

While King Tut is the last of three drive-in restaurants standing in Beckley, it has had to compete with newer fast-food restaurants and sit-down restaurants in the area.

"For us, in the '60s cruising around, we drove from one restaurant to another. That was our social life. I spent most of my time at the other two drive-ins because I didn't want to see dad," Dave laughed. "But the biggest change to the industry is just the change that came into town. We just added five new restaurants down the road. We used to be the one place to go out and socialize; the curb would be full of cars until 1 a.m. But now, people go home early and don't spend so much time out. Half of our business is take-out, and we used to have almost no take-out."

"We still do the same volume. We just do it in big peak hours for lunch and dinner. Socialization habits have changed - there are more things for them to do besides sit out here and date. The word is changing around us, and we keep trying to feed them good food."

Top-sellers include their BBQ, which has won multiple awards, as well as their hotdogs in English buns, baked stuffed potatoes and coconut cream pies. All of which are served by the curb girls - many of whom have been at King Tut for more than 15 years, which helps with the consistency, Dave said.

"They know how the business has been run and the right way to do it. And they work with the employees, which are about 23 total, to make sure things are done the right way. They'll threaten, 'John McKay didn't make it that way!' if not," Dave said.

"We keep it going is because of the demand from community," Dave said. "I got 23 people who depend on it for a living, and I have a community who demands the food. We have a lot of people who rave about the place. Those are the people who keep the place in business. I'd be easy to bulldoze over and start again - we are dealing with an ancient facility after all, but we have pretty happy customers, so we're going to keep feeding them."

King Tut Dive-In is located at 301 N. Eisenhower Drive. It is open from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and closed on Wednesdays. King Tut Drive-In can be reached at (304) 252-6353.

PS - I did get a chance to try their pizza - unique, but tasty! It's a bit of a thicker crust, with little crispy pepperonis, but it's kind of a regional classic. Can't go wrong.

Grade: A
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