By Pete Dulin
Two tables in the dining room at Paul’s Drive-In tell a story. Bob Helton sits at one table and sips on a drink, surveying the restaurant that he and his wife Kathy have owned for 33 years. Adam Brown occupies a nearby seat, checking messages on his mobile phone. Brown and business partner Scott Shepherd bought this classic burger-and-shakes drive-in in late September. While the business has changed owners, the classic food and hometown feel of Paul’s Drive-in (10424 Blue Ridge Blvd, Kansas City) remains the same.
Paul Rhodes founded the namesake business in the early 60’s. While he was in high school, Helton worked for Rhodes in the early days of the drive-in. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Helton returned to the area and started a small restaurant in Shawnee, Kansas. “Paul helped me along,” Helton says. “Eventually, I got out of that business, but I always kept in contact with Paul.”
Rhodes later sold the business to the Heltons in 1988 which they have owned until this year. Helton says, “We pride ourselves on selling fast food and quality food. Lots of people have come and gone over the years, but those employees and guests still come in to visit.”
The Heltons were ready to retire. Brown and Shepherd discovered a listing for the restaurant, reviewed the numbers, and decided it was a good business opportunity.
Beyond striking a fair deal for everyone, the Heltons wanted to sell the business to someone who would honor the traditions at Paul’s. The new owners understood. “We’re buying a legacy here, the nostalgia and history,” Brown says. “This isn’t a quick flip and sell deal.”
For example, the new owners have retained the current staff. Lisa, daughter of the Heltons, has worked at Paul’s for more than 20 years.
Fans left hundreds of comments on the Facebook page of Paul’s Drive-In once news of the ownership change became public.
“People wrote, ‘Don’t change a thing,’” Brown says. “The burden is on us to keep the food the same and bring in the modern era with technology. It’s a fine balancing act to make careful choices and keep that nostalgic feel. There are no plans to change the food. We will add some tasty new treats over time.”
Modernization will include installing digital signboards and a point-of-sale system instead of the staff using pen and paper for handwritten orders. Those changes will make it “a better experience for customers and more efficient for the staff,” according to Brown. The business will eventually offer online ordering and delivery through third-parties. The signage near the roadside will be updated with new LED lights for more energy-efficiency to save on utility costs and increase visibility. Future plans also include building a 24-seat patio for outdoor dining sometime in the next couple of years.
Indoors, Brown and Shepherd plan to slightly renovate the dining room, adding a fresh coat of paint and updating the flooring. They’ll display photographs on the walls that reflect historic images of local high schools, the community, and yesteryear memorabilia of the 60’s.
In time, the new owners plan to develop community relationship programs with Ruskin High School and area nonprofits through a Community Cashback Program, where a portion of proceeds are paid back to organizations for fundraising.
Lunch time rolls around. Brown brings out an order of the Double Big Boy burger with bacon and cheese and onion rings. The smashburger method of cooking results in flat, juicy patties cooked crisp. Burgers are made with fresh ground beef that’s never frozen. Paul’s is known for its onion rings. Each golden ring is hand-breaded and made from scratch. The drive-in serves ice cream shakes, cones, and banana splits in dozens of flavors. Guests can order more than a dozen toppings, such as butterscotch, pineapple, raspberry, and banana. It’s a small touch that retains an old-school soda shop feel.
“We’re the only place around to come and get ice cream, comfort food sandwiches, and fried sides like this,” Brown says. “We customize our orders for guests. People have been eating here since the 60’s. They tell us it still tastes the same and that’s what we like.”
Brown offers a hint about another change to expand the offerings at Paul’s Drive-In over the next year or so. “We might open for breakfast. It’s a big change,” Brown says. “We’ll serve fresh coffee, pancakes, and breakfast food. A nice offering for the community that they don’t have now.”
Even with lunch on the table, the thought of a homestyle breakfast sounds mouthwatering at Paul’s Drive-In.