| WESTERN NEBRASKA FOODIES |
Visitors to Western Nebraska (WyoBraska) often find bits and pieces of history while passing through the North Platte Valley on their way to Jackson Hole, Sturgis, Rapid City, Deadwood, or some other destination. The immigrant trails, WyoBraska’s western heritage, agriculture, and rural culture hold special interest to most visitors but there’s always more to WyoBraska than meets the eye and fast food hasn’t been left out of that history.
Driving west on 27th Street from Highway 26 there are remnants of the 1960s adorning the top of a small building that look like they came straight out of The Jetson’s Cartoon. Brightly colored flying saucers decorate the building and parking area and are reminiscent of Walt Disney’s 1960s futuristic EPCOT Building touting its futuristic venues. The little saucers don’t possess the glamour, or marketing, associated with Disney’s futurist theme but, for those wanting to experience a by-gone era, it’s the destination for a unique culinary experience in WyoBraska.
What most people don’t know is that before the Cola wars of the late ’70s and early ’80s as Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo were hammering taste test results down the throats of Americans on all three major networks, proving that Americans were all too eager to succumb to mass programming and brainwashing of a brands popularity via mass media, and before the arrival of Ronald McDonald and The King, there was a unique power struggle for fast food popularity in the North Platte Valley and it began with the arrival of the restaurant with the small flying-saucers in Scottsbluff.
| PRELUDE TO WAR
In 1963, Scottsbluff resident O. Charles “Chuck” Hodge was looking into making a business investment in the North Platte River Valley when a friend proposed that he investigate a new and upcoming food chain called Scotty’s Drive-In. Known as Scotty’s in Scottsbluff, the franchise had meager beginnings in the early 1960s with 17 locations opening across the midwest of the United States. In 1966, there were regional chain locations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Nebraska.
Hodge thought that opening a Scotty’s Drive-In franchise in Scottsbluff showed promise as what would soon become larger chains like McDonald’s, and Burger King were only getting their footing in smaller markets at the time. So, Hodge jumped at the opportunity of opening a Scotty’s Drive-In in Scottsbluff that year. Its grand opening was advertised in the newspaper and officially opened for business on June 29, 1963, and has remained open in Scottsbluff ever since. Scotty’s Drive-In met with immediate success as there was only one other fast food burger joint in the area.
Tom & Jerry’s was another fast food restaurant located in Gering. NE. Being the only burger joint in the area prior to the arrival of Scotty’s Drive-In it enjoyed an almost cult-like following which was encouraging for Hodge who hoped for the same. Before long the two restaurants found themselves in healthy competition as local residents began laying claim, and defending, their ideas of the best burgers in the valley.
After six years of successful business, Hodge had saved enough money to retire and offered the restaurant to the highest bidder (keep in mind that the man retired after 6 years selling 19-cent hamburger meals).
In 1969, Hodge sold the venue to Mike Merkel who had worked as Hodges’s bread-man for years. Merkel had witnessed the rise of the restaurant and was aware of how much money Merkel was spending on bread so he figured there must be some profit in it. He did the math and realized that the restaurant was a good investment as on any given day as many as thirty vehicles were parked, and ordering food, per hour. So he purchased the business from Hodge. Soon after Merkel had acquired the restaurant he had the idea to expand the menu and added a new item to the fifteen previously well-established items enjoyed by his customers, and that’s when the burger hit the fan.
| TO THE VICTOR THE SPOILS OF WAR
Much to the chagrin of Hodge and Merkel, Tom & Jerry’s had a sloppy-joe-styled sandwich named the ‘Tastey’ on the menu for years which was their top-selling menu item which was their main competition. The ‘Tastey’ was a popular sandwich that many people of that generation reminisce about in stories of years gone by and to which the owner of Tom & Jerry’s (Richard “Dicky” Ross) was extremely protective of the recipe keeping it tucked away, locked in a safe, inside the restaurant at all times only allowing authorized employees access to it.
One day, out of the blue, a new menu item appeared on Scotty’s menu. Merkel took Tom & Jerry’s ‘Tastey’, which had been trademarked, and rearranged the letters into the word ‘Tastee’ and added the word ‘Tavern’ creating the ‘Tastee Tavern‘ which he put on his menu and which people immediately fell in love with.
We know that ‘Tastee Tavern’ sounds a little like a Cheyenne stripper-dive-bar, but it’s not. The ‘Tavern’ is a South Dakota-style sloppy-joe without the sauce. A ‘Tavern’ is also referred to as a ‘Maid-Rite’ in the Dakotas but, we’re not touching that one. It’s not a popular food item in Western Nebraska but serves as a bar-style entree in the Dakotas to this day.
When Ross learned that Merkel added the ‘Tastee Tavern’ to its menu he did a little inquiring and learned that the ‘Tastee Tavern’ was almost identical to his trademarked ‘Tastey’ and privately accused Merkel of theft of his recipe though no evidence could be produced to substantiate his claim. Unfortunately, the facts didn’t sway his customers from openly accusing Scotty’s Drive-In and Merkel of corporate espionage of his recipe.
After a few more years of the residents of Scottsbluff and Gering, NE defending, and supporting, their favorite burger on both sides of their culinary rivalry- like a bad episode of Hell’s Kitchen, Tom & Jerry’s conceded defeat in the North Platte Valley burger war and soon after closed their doors, abandoning their trademarked sandwich to the slang-shortened version of the ‘Tastee Tavern’, ‘Tastee’ among locals, to single-handedly fulfill its role as a legend in WyoBraska where it still rules, is still ordered, and is still eaten and enjoyed to this day.
When Merkel came up with the ‘Tastee Tavern’ we doubt he could foresee the impact of the sandwiches’ history becoming a throwback to the heady days of burger rivalry between Tom & Jerry’s and Scotty’s Drive-In. So the next time you visit Scotty’s Drive-In and order one give a little nod to the North Platte Valley Burger-War, and the victims it took to the gastronomic grave. They all fought a diligent and honorable battle right up to the end.
Today Scotty’s Drive-In is owned by Allan and Mary Kay Haun who purchased the restaurant from Merkel in 1978. The ‘Tastee Tavern’, known now simply as the ‘Tastee’, is one of the more popular items on the menu and is known as one of the best sandwiches in the North Platte Valley despite the presence of McDonald’s, Which Which, Burger King and Culvers.
Scotty’s Drive-In is a remnant of the past, which still lures customers to its menu. It’s an institution that shouldn’t be passed up while visiting Western Nebraska. It’s locally well-known, small, and almost religiously venerated. Its become one of WyoBraska’s most cherished landmarks for fast food. People who’ve moved from the North Platte Valley make Scotty’s Drive-In one of their first stops when returning to the valley. There’s nothing else like it in western Nebraska. In fact, we can’t find another Scotty’s Drive-In inside Nebraska. The history and memories of malts, burgers, and shakes entice locals on a regular basis. When craving something tasty to eat while traveling through WyoBraska consider making a stop at Scotty’s Drive-In. It’s uniquely different, enjoyable food.
618 E 27th St,
Phone: (308) 635-3314
| CREDITS & RESEARCH
Alan & Mary Kay Haun – Owners Scotty’s Drive-In Scottsbluff, NE
We attempted to reach out to Richard Ross of Tom & Jerry’s but never received a response for an interview.
Special thanks to everyone who helped us on Facebook!
Story & Photography by: Hawk Buckman