Q&A: Jack Keller on how his iconic drive-in has thrived for 50 years

Longtime Forest Hills resident Jack Keller opened the first Keller’s Drive-In on Samuell across from Tenison Park Golf Course more than 65 years ago. “It was the last wet spot going into East Texas, right across from hole number two,” he remembers. “We had a lot of fun down there.” That location closed in 2000, but by that time Keller had opened three other locations, including the iconic Keller’s Drive-In on Northwest Highway near Abrams. This year is the location’s 50th anniversary, and Keller says the burger business is “better than ever.”

Jack Keller: Photo by Scott Mitchell
Jack Keller: Photo by Scott Mitchell

What’s the crowd usually like at Keller’s on Northwest Highway?
This is a funny picture. [Keller pulls several photos out of an envelope and indicates one of a man wearing a T-shirt that reads “Cancun,” relaxing in the lounge chair in the bed of his truck.] My wife says he’s our Ronald McDonald. I guess he just puts that shirt on and pops up there in the back of his truck and pretends he’s in Cancun. He’s got his beer and his cigarette.

[Continues flipping through the photos] This is the biker side. We get a lot of bikers. They just congregate on that one side. They all know each other. There are a lot of people who were in Korea or Vietnam — service people. Some of those bikes are very, very expensive. They cost more than a new Cadillac.

Sponsored Message
“Tailgating is today’s going trend. Texans will drink beers so long as they’re comfortable.”
[Showing another photo] These are some of the cars that are there every Saturday. They’ve got all kinds — classics, rods. They spend a lot of time and money on them. On Saturday night, if the weather is good, they’ll have about 150-200 cars in the back. Then there’s the biker side, and the regular customers occupy the rest of it. It’s three separate groups, and they stay three to four hours. Tailgating is today’s going trend. Texans will drink beers so long as they’re comfortable. You’ve got women and children, too. Some of them bring their dogs. A lot of people come up there just to see the cars and the bikers and the activity. It’s kind of fun, like sitting in the entrance to Las Vegas or something.

Speaking of Vegas, don’t you have a reputation as a high roller?
[Laughs] Well, you know, when I was younger, we had a lot of fun. We’d go all over the country and the world and everything else, bet on anything that moved. We spent a lot of time in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, France. And I played a lot of cards. We had a lot of fun. We’d play gin rummy. I was good enough, but you get to a certain age and you’re not as sharp as you were when you were younger. You gotta know when to quit.

How is business these days?
Business is better than it’s ever been, and we continue to grow.

Have you been surprised at the longevity of the drive-in? Especially as you’ve seen other drive-ins close?
Oh yeah, Dallas is and always has been a tough city to have a restaurant. Joe Campisi [founder of the iconic Dallas restaurant Campisi’s Egyptian Lounge] told me one time, ‘The eye of the master makes the horse grow fat.’ So, the eye of the master, the owner, makes the business succeed. You’re not going to catch everything, but you’ll catch some things. Sometimes we go down to get a hamburger, and sometimes I can’t enjoy the hamburger because I see so many things [his employees] are doing wrong. So we get it to go.

You have carhops who have been around for decades. How do you do that?
I don’t know what it is, really. I’ve got a girl who’s been there 40-some-odd years, and I’ve got another gal who’s been there 20-some-odd years. They’ve got their own customers that come to see them, and they make good money.

What do you think of the trend of restaurants selling $12 gourmet hamburgers?
What is a ‘gourmet hamburger’? We haven’t raised our prices, but we have more volume. We see a lot of older people. It’s a shame that people would charge that much. Food costs are higher, but it doesn’t make any sense when people think that if meat costs $1 then they should get $5 per hamburger or whatever. It doesn’t matter if you make $20 per hamburger; if you don’t sell any, what have you done? You owe your customers, as an operator, to explore every other option before you change your price — whether it be electricity or maintenance. Because then on Sunday morning someone will come in and order 40 cheeseburgers and 40 fries. Well, they can’t go to a $12 joint and do that. It all works out.

Read about Shirley Ehney, a carhop who has worked at Keller’s Drive-In for 49 of its 50 years, here.

So you remember when the first Dallas drive-ins opened?
Have you ever heard of a place here in Dallas called Kirby’s? [He means Kirby’s Pig Stand, the nation’s first drive-in that opened in 1921.] Billy John Kirby’s daddy is the one who owned them, and Reuben Jackson bought him out. They had men carhops, and they wore aprons all the way down to their knees. They used to pay them 10 cents an hour. There was one place in Fort Worth that wouldn’t hire any waitresses unless they weighed 240 pounds and up, and they put them in baby doll dresses. Another one had a girl on a horse who would sell cigarettes. That was a time when you couldn’t sell beer if your skirt was four inches above the knee. Some places had them on skates. Some places still do.

Why did drive-ins start using female carhops?
That was before my time, but it was because of World War II. They didn’t have drive-ins before Kirby’s Pig Stand, and they started with men, but when the war came along there was a shortage of everything. Girls had taken it over by the time I opened Keller’s.

You raised four children in Dallas. Did any of them join you in the burger business?
Two boys and two girls. They grew up in it. Jack Jr. is active in it. He goes all over the world studying Pilates, but whenever he’s in town, he helps with the business, and as needed. And my daughter Jackie is very active in it. She checks for service, does payroll, whatever needs to be done. She’s very well versed in the business.

You also have a Keller’s sit-down restaurant on Garland Road near Northwest Highway. What do you think of the changes happening around there?
We’re gaining a lot of places around there. Garland Road is kind of like Knox-Henderson now. We’re getting more eating places, more people in the neighborhoods. There was a time when you had to have the nerve of a high diver to open a restaurant on Garland Road. The reason you don’t see so many drive-ins anymore is that it takes quite a bit of land to put them together. [The Northwest Highway Keller’s sits on three acres.] Of course, when you have a sit-down restaurant, you have to have a place for them to sit down and a place for them to park, too.

*Interview edited for clarity

Keller's Drive-in: Photo by Scott Mitchell
Keller’s Drive-in: Photo by Scott Mitchell

WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.
Written By
More from Brittany Nunn

This weekend: National Theater Live, concerts, Dash Down Greenville

On March 12 and 18, learn about Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo who...
Read More