Inside Ray’s Drive-In late on a winter afternoon, the sun lazily creeps through the pick-up counter window, bearing silent witness to conversations that have taken place at this location for more than seven decades.
There is a voice behind the counter asking a patron about his usual meal. There is good-natured banter in front of the counter about receiving proper change. There are smiles and good smells, but most of all there is familiarity.
Since 1947 Kokomo has become very familiar with Ray’s Drive-In. Always tasty and always affordable, Ray’s has occupied the same sliver of property between Courtland Avenue and Davis Road on the city’s north side since the Truman administration.
Steve Waddell, who purchased Ray’s in 1987 and continues his stewardship today, will begin his thirty-fourth year at the helm of Kokomo’s slice of Americana on February 1. Waddell, much like the restaurant he has overseen for more than a generation, is efficient and to the point. When asked about the genesis of his ownership, he skips the extras in favor of the essentials.
“I was in the beer distribution business,” he says. “(My company) was having some hard times and didn’t look like they were going to be there long term. I knew the guys who owned Ray’s at the time. They sold it, then had to take it back, but had other businesses and didn’t want to be there. I talked to them and borrowed money off my cousin to get started off. A month later, I had a turnkey deal and was in business whether I wanted to be or not.”
Originally opened by Clyde Ray about 40 years before Waddell’s acquisition, Ray’s Drive-In began as solely that – a drive-in. Ray constructed two log cabins along Davis Road, and the southernmost cabin became the business. In 1965 the cabin burned. Ray rebuilt in its footprint before selling to Waddell’s predecessors, who then erected the dining room addition that houses customers today.
At present Ray’s still functions as a carhop concept, but it is inside the dining room where clues to the charming, stone-and-wood building’s recipe for success are found. Along two walls plaque after plaque hang, each commemorating another year’s victory in a local best-of competition. The subject matter? Tenderloins.
“That’s definitely our most popular item,” says Waddell of the King Tenderloin, a serving-tray-sized hunk of breaded pork that makes a normal hamburger look like a silver dollar. “Indiana likes pork. The King Tenderloin is made in-house. We buy pork loin locally from White’s Meat Market, and cube it, beat it and bread it ourselves. It’s the size and the taste that people love. They eat up tenderloins like they’re going out of style.”
As popular as the King Tenderloin might be, any restaurant can make a novelty item. According to Waddell, the reasons behind Ray’s longevity in the Kokomo community are, as expected, a little more on the logical side.
“Like any restaurant, the key to making it this long is good food, priced reasonably,” he says. “Take care of the customers, good service – that’s what people like.”
Waddell is at Ray’s by 5:30 a.m. every morning opening up, running the front line, making deliveries and doing everything else an owner and operator must do. He says that kind of presence is crucial to being successful in his line of work.
“You have to be there,” he says. “If you’re in the restaurant business, you can’t buy it and have someone else run it. You have got to be there basically all the time. I probably do more work now than when I first bought it.”
The longevity surrounding Ray’s doesn’t stop with its 70-plus years in Kokomo, or even with Waddell’s long tenure. In addition to the faces that have become Ray’s regulars over the years, Waddell has seen precious few employees leave. A handful of workers have between 20 and 25 years under their belts at Ray’s, and one waitress actually predates Waddell’s ownership – she works both the breakfast and lunch shifts daily.
Of course, not everything has been roses for Ray’s. Kokomo’s dining options have grown by leaps and bounds since 1987, and Waddell counts Golden Corral and Cracker Barrel specifically as competitors. He says advertising hasn’t changed much in his time, but costs passed along to customers due to inflation have. Early this winter ground beef prices shot up $.50 per pound, necessitating a Ray’s menu change – something Waddell tries to do only once every two years.
At 65, Waddell has not lived in a time in which Ray’s was absent from the Kokomo landscape.
“I’m in good health and I don’t have any issues that I know of,” he says. “Selling, as far as the restaurant business goes, is not easy. I hope I don’t pass away inside Ray’s, but I’m probably going to be there until the end.”
Ray’s Drive-In is located at 1900 North Courtland Avenue in Kokomo. For more info call 765-452-3625.